Skip to main content

“God Guns & Guts Made America Free”

July 2024
25min read

The National Rifle Association and the Right to Bear Arms

Among the most common mechanical possessions in the households of America, outnumbering even the motor vehicle and possibly outnumbered itself only by the flush toilet and the television set, is a device which, having won the West and championed liberty over the years, some householders would now proscribe as the instrument of our collective undoing. In short, the gun. I mean rifles, shotguns, pistols, and revolvers, at least 150,000,000 of them tucked away in bureau drawers and attic cupboards or racked splendidly above mantel-pieces. There are big ones and little ones; Krags and Enfields, Springfields and Mausers, Mannlicher-Carcanos and M-1 Garands, Remingtons and Winchesters and Brownings and Berettas and Rugers and Lugers and Colts; guns for all seasons and reasons; guns to punch holes in targets and tin cans, coots and Kodiak bears; guns for their own sake, guns never used; guns as last line of defense against burglars and rapists, looters and lunatics; guns to be stolen by burglars and lunatics; guns for irate lovers, quiet patriots, raving assassins, earnest sportsmen, feisty poachers, gentle collectors; guns for the people who passionately believe that the U.S. Constitution gives them a personal right to keep and bear arms.

A number of institutions operate in behalf of the gun owners of America. These include the arms industry, the hook-and-bullet press, hunters’ groups functioning at the state level, and some half dozen national membership organizations whose involvement in the preservation of personal weaponry is often secondary to some other interest, such as the propagation of game species in order that hunters might have something better than tin cans on which to exercise their right to bear arms. In addition, gun owners are staunchly represented on Capitol Hill, in most statehouses, and generally throughout those rural jurisdictions where sheriffs still prevail along with rocking chairs and Bull Durham tobacco. It is a diverse constituency, this gunnery. With overlapping subgroups, it embraces 16,000,000 licensed hunters, most of the nation’s farmers and ranchers, countless edgy urban shopkeepers, and, by some estimates, as many as four of every ten heads-of-household in the land. No one institution could possibly speak for every Tom, Dick, and Harriet of them. And only one tries—the National Rifle Association of America, better known as the NRA to friend and foe alike, of which there are plenty.

The National Rifle Association was chartered in New York State in 1871, just over nine years after regiments of raw Union recruits were marched to the fields of Shiloh to match their marksmanship with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s finest Confederate squirrel shooters. The Northerners were armed for the most part with new, muzzle-loading Springfields. In the Union’s haste to bring the war to a speedy end, there had not been time enough to instruct the rank and file in the rifle’s proper use. As a result, some of the Springfields at Shiloh were recovered by Beauregard’s men in mint condition: dropped in the field and never fired. Similar humiliations occurred at Gettysburg and other Union shrines. After the war, commands not otherwise engaged in Southern reconstruction or Indian removal in the West promptly reverted to antebellum type, with much emphasis on close-order drill and nary a round at the rifle range. Some retired officers, however, remembered the lesson of Shiloh and began to speak of America’s need for straight shooters. These officers were the founders of the National Rifle Association.

Over the past century, pursuing its charter mandate, the NRA has served with distinction as the undisputed alma mater of American marksmen. It has nurtured affiliate rifle clubs in every state, elevated competitive shooting to the level of true sport, encouraged excellence at arms in the military services, and prepared many a peacetime citizen for the difficult role of wartime rifleman. It has swelled from a modest cadre of Union veterans reminiscing in wall tents to an organizational colossus of 1,200,000 dues-paying members, 300 employees, $26,400,000 in securities, a multimillion-dollar headquarters building in Washington, D.C., 37,707 acres of New Mexican real estate, and (in 1976) an expense budget of more than $16,500,000, of which almost a quarter was spent by the NRA’s aggressive lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. The priorities of the NRA are reflected in this budget, and they are quite different from the pressing martial concerns of a century ago. For every dollar spent directly in 1976 on such placid programs as hunter safety education and competitive shooting matches, two were shelled out in the volatile arena where gun-owner “rights” and NRA goals are under constant attack by proponents of gun control.

The gun controllers compose a diverse constituency themselves. They include tough big-city chiefs of police, Eastern liberals and assorted do-gooders with college degrees, most respondents to Harris surveys and Gallup polls, some psychiatrists, widows of slain cops, and the anonymous authors of august reports by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. They also include U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr., the Detroit Democrat who, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime in the Ninety-fourth Congress, held extensive hearings across the country in hopes of gathering support for a law that would have prohibited the manufacture and sale of “substandard” handguns, the so-called Saturday Night Specials.

In opening the first of those hearings in February, 1975, Chairman Conyers reflected on past frustrated efforts to enact effective legislation. The greatest obstacles, he dourly observed, were the “politically devastating lobbying activities of hunters and sportsmen, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association. … Today, there are more than 200 million Americans, 139 million of whom are of voting age. On the issue of gun control, the one million or so members of the National Rifle Association have had a staggeringly disproportionate amount of influence over the course of our federal policy.” And that influence prevailed right down to the bitter end of the Ninety-fourth Congress, at which time John Conyers’ firearms bill of 1976 was quietly buried without a floor vote in the yellow duff of election-year politics.

Meanwhile, internal rumblings were heard within the corporate body of the NRA. Despite its recent tactical victory in the Congress, there were curious rumors that certain NRA executives were “going soft” on the gut issue of gun control. It was said that the NRA brass was preparing to sell out to bird watchers and bleeding hearts. And finally there was talk of a palace revolt, if need be, to oust the offenders from office at the next annual meeting.

A singular image looms large within the national subconscious—a lone man with a rifle snugged in the crook of his arm, or a pistol in his fist. It is the Minuteman at Concord Bridge, Daniel Boone at Cumberland Gap, Jeremiah Johnson in the Shining Mountains, G’fcster at the Little BigHorn, Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, Alvin York in the Argonne Forest, and GI Joe on the beachhead at Anzio. The weapons change, but not the nature of the man—alone, fearless, confident, doing what has to be done in a world in which ambiguity is not allowed. And out of the past he whispers a rifleman’s verity: “God, guns, and guts made America free.”

But there are other voices, darker images: Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, young Charles Whitman perched in his tower at the University of Texas with three rifles, two pistols, one shotgun, seven hundred rounds of ammunition, and fourteen perforated human bodies on the campus lawns below him. For many Americans, the enchanted vision of the solitary gunner is shrinking fast. Yet scratch the subconscious of an NRA member and the chances are you will find yourself not in Dallas or Los Angeles or Memphis but in some place more absolute between the bridge at Concord and the bulkheads at Anzio Beach.

There was a time not long ago when I believed we had pretty much had it with guns. I mean, as a nation. Guns were getting a bad press in the sixties. And so were hunters. A friend who edited a hunting-and-fishing magazine said he was thinking of changing the magazine’s tone by eschewing traditional bag-limit lore, the literature of vicarious slaughter. Hunters are “going out less,” he explained, quoting the title of a piece by novelist Vance Bourjaily which my friend had commissioned but declined to publish for fear of antagonizing his advertisers. He needn’t have worried. For despite all the adverse publicity, the antigun sentiment, the legislative efforts to make owning a gun as difficult as possible—and however less often Bourjaily himself may be going out to hunt—the fact of the matter is that Americans are going out as often as they ever did in postwar times. Each year there are more of them, and more of their guns.

Between 1960 and 1976, the number of licensed hunters in this country increased more than 14 per cent (to 16,300,000). This is only three points off the per cent of increase for the U.S. population as a whole during the same period. Not a bad record for the enduring Nimrod tradition, especially if one considers that, during those sixteen years, America witnessed its greatest loss of huntable land (to “Posted” signs and suburbanization). Moreover, dollar-volume sales of arms and ammunition continue to increase. Inflation accounts for much of this, but not enough to indicate any slackening in the number of units sold; not when rifle and shotgun sales of $269,700,000 in 1975 showed a 27 per cent improvement over sales in 1972, and surely not when handgun sales of $125,500,000 showed a 39 per cent gain in the same three-year period. These figures, of course, reflect only legal over-the-counter transactions. They do not include back-alley sales of Saturday Night Specials and contraband military weapons which no self-respecting urban guerrilla can afford to be without. Thus it would seem that quite a few Americans are not yet as fed up with guns as I had previously believed.

Statistically, it would be impossible to construct an accurate profile of the gun owners of this country. They simply refuse to be placed into neat little squares. It does seem feasible, however, to arrive at some general categorical conclusions about them. One might divide the lawful gun owners of this country into four parts. There are (1) hunters, (2) competitive shooters, (3) collectors, and (4) defenders. By weight of numbers, competitive shooters and collectors do not count for much, nor do they particularly trouble the sensibilities of the antigunners. This leaves the hunters and the defenders.

According to NRA executives, at least half their members are hunters; yet hunting, apparently, is not always the motive for a hunter to join the NRA. A member opinion survey last year, with more than 130,000 responding, showed that “the most important single reason I first joined NRA” was not “Hunting” (at 14.7 per cent, the second highest response) but “Protecting My Gun Rights” (at 47.7 per cent). Therefore, it seems that anyone who joins the NRA mainly to protect gun rights can be classified as a defender, whether he or she hunts or not.

Defenders no doubt constitute the largest sector of the NRA membership and the largest of the entire gun-owning public as well. This is not to say that all defenders are equally concerned first and foremost with protecting their gun rights. Some are. But others are more concerned with protecting themselves, their spouses, their children, their homes, their businesses, their land. They see themselves as decent, law-abiding citizens. But the System has failed them. They feel helpless. On the farm, where a rifle or shotgun can be as valid and valued a tool as any other, varmints prey on crops and livestock. In the city, there is crime in the streets and fear behind every double-locked door. Some people begin to suspect that even the police have failed them. They pick up a copy of NRA’s official publication, American Rifleman , and their suspicions are confirmed. The year is 1967, after the riots that wrenched cracks in twenty cities. Here in the editorial it says that New York City has a police force about the size of two army divisions and spends a million dollars a day on law enforcement, “yet its crime rate rockets.” The editorial asks: “Who Guards America’s Homes?” The editorial answers: Not the police but the armed citizen, the member of the unorganized militia—the defender.

Fears less conventional than a healthy concern for one’s own self-defense also haunt some defenders, and on occasion the NRA has not been reluctant to capitalize on them. An editorial appearing in American Rifleman in 1949 noted that a major objective of communist takeover strategy is to disarm the citizenry. “Communists,” the editorial explained, “have no overweening desire to be shot.” This was written at the height of the cold war, and in the political context of those times it may have seemed a word to the wise. The editors of Rifleman , however, are not always influenced by changes of international temperature; a version of this message was reprinted in the magazine as recently as 1973. Also in 1973, the readers of Rifleman were treated to a rehash of the “Rules for Revolution,” a document which has never been authenticated but which is held in some circles to be a Moscow advisory to Red undergrounds throughout the world. Even the late J. Edgar Hoover, in 1969, called the document “spurious.” Yet, according to the Rifleman , rule 10 calls for “the registration of all firearms on some pretext, with a view to confiscating them and leaving the population helpless.”

More recently, an irrational fear of communism has been upstaged by a new bogy-the People Control Conspiracy, in which a corrupt federal government, abetted by land-use planners and gutless judges, will seek to disarm the populace through gun registration. During the Conyers hearings in 1975, more than fifty measures were introduced in the House and Senate to curb easy access to firearms by persons who might misuse them. Most of these bills were directed specifically at the Saturday Night Special. None advocated total confiscation of all firearms. And none suggested that it would be in the public interest to disarm the police. But that, apparently, was not the interpretation of the executive staff of the NRA.

So the NRA sat right down and wrote its friends a letter. It ran four pages over the signature of General Maxwell E. Rich (ret.), then executive vice president (the top staff post) of the NRA, and enclosed with it were a four-part questionnaire billed as “our National Opinion Survey on Crime Control” and a plea for contributions to the “NRA Legislative Fund.” The letter addressed itself to the “terribly serious consequences of what the liberal press refers to as ‘Gun Control,’ ” then went on to state: “My friend, they are not talking of ‘Control’; they want complete and total ‘Confiscation.’ This will mean the elimination and removal of all police revolvers, all sporting rifles and target pistols owned by law abiding citizens.… Tell me, what would the crime rate be if the criminal knew our police were unarmed … ?” And just in case the subtleties of this announcement might have been missed, two enclosures echoed the major message. Question 2 of the so-called National Opinion Survey asked: “Do you believe your local police need to carry firearms to arrest robbery and murder suspects?” The solicitation card offered a check list: “Yes, I agree. If guns are taken from our local police and private law abiding citizens only the criminals will be armed.”

Controversy did not always dog the affairs of the NRA. In the good old days a century ago, the riflemen simply addressed themselves to targets at the association’s range at Creedmoor, Long Island. There were team competitions and shooting tours of Europe and the British Isles. In one annual match, the prize was a Gatling gun, complete with carriage, valued at three thousand dollars. Ulysses S. Grant served one desultory term as NRA president in 1883-84. He was succeeded by General Philip H. Sheridan. Membership, however, remained small, and, by all accounts, the NRA might actually have gone under but for the fortuitous appearance in the U.S. statute books of Public Law 149. Signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, it authorized the sale, at cost, of surplus military small arms and ammunition to rifle clubs meeting specifications of a newly created National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice. One such specification was that, to partake of the government’s generosity at arms, a club had to be approved and sponsored by the National Rifle Association. Two years later, as if to show that it not only could go to the top but also could stay there, the NRA signed up President Roosevelt, Secretary of War William Howard Taft, and Secretary of State Elihu Root as life members. By the 1930’s, the organization was expanding into new fields-police marksmanship training, and later, youth programs in cooperation with agricultural and veterans’ groups. In 1940, after Dunkirk, with Hitler’s armies poised to strike across the English Channel, a plea was issued to NRA members to “send a gun to defend a British home.” And fifteen hundred members came through.

During and immediately after World War II, the NRA experienced a time of rapid growth, both in national prestige and in the size of its membership. President Harry S Truman in 1945 commended the organization for “assistance … in prosecution of the war.” A year later, nearly threescore senators, congressmen, generals, and admirals turned out for the NRA’s Diamond Jubilee dinner, at which General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower praised the group for being “utterly selfless in its aims. …” Such high compliments no doubt were a great boost to NRA recruiters; in 1946, membership practically doubled to 155,000.

If the American public had any perception of the NRA at this time, it was not a controversial one. By and large, the association’s principal activities seemed to remain where they had always been—down on the shooting range. But as the country followed new directions, so, too, did the NRA. By the late 1950’s it appeared that the main action henceforth would be played out not on the range but in the halls of legislative debate. Suddenly in the Congress there were people saying that the Federal Firearms Acts of 1934 and 1938-which had restricted the manufacture and sale of submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns and had regulated interstate commerce in all firearms and ammunition—were not sufficient to deal effectively with the nation’s soaring rate of firearm crime. Some people, in fact, were beginning to demand much sterner stuff: licensing of all gun owners, registration of sporting arms, bans on pistols and revolvers. In response, the NRA’s small and sometime somnolent legislative division, created in 1934 to make sure the federal lawmakers did not extend their restrictions beyond the realm of gangland weaponry, assumed a vigorous new role.

In today’s ongoing shoo tout over gun-control legislation, the ammunition preferred by both sides is the weighted statistic. One is assailed by a crossfire of numerical data as defenders and controllers blast away at each other’s conclusions. The controllers report that a handgun is sold in America every thirteen seconds and is the instrument of death in more than one of every two murders. The defenders reply that for every handgun used in a homicide, there are 3,999 others with no criminal taint. The controllers insist that 72 per cent of all homicides are committed by previously law-abiding citizens who shoot a friend or relative in the passion of dispute. The defenders counter with studies showing that the “typical murderer” is someone with a record of six prior assault offenses. The controllers say that the U.S. gun murder rate is two hundred times greater than that of Japan, where personal possession of handguns is prohibited, and also far greater than that of any other Western democracy, most of which require gun-owner licensing and/or firearm registration. The defenders fire back that the harsh penalties of Japanese law deter murder, and that in Switzerland, with one of the world’s lowest murder rates, national security dictates that military arms be kept at home within reach of every able-bodied male. So it goes.

And sooner than later, the argument boils down to interpreting the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which holds: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” The interpretation of the controllers is that the Second Amendment speaks to a collective right to bear arms, the right of states to maintain organized militias—in twentieth-century parlance, the National Guard. The defenders’ interpretation is that the Second Amendment speaks to the right of individuals to bear arms. They further argue that the Founding Fathers saw the Second Amendment as a means of protecting the independence of the states from tyranny of a central government and its standing army; and they are quick to point out that the National Guard today is controlled not by the states but by Washington—thus, the need for a true militia. “I ask who are the militia?” the defenders say, quoting George Mason of Virginia in his remarks on ratification of the Constitution in 1788. “They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officials.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled only once in this century on questions of law arising from the Second Amendment. In United States v. Miller , heard in 1939, the court restricted its opinion to the narrow issue of whether, under the National Firearms Act of 1934, a sawed-off shotgun could be considered a proper weapon of the militia. The court opined: “[W]e cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.” In a recent pamphlet on the Second Amendment, the NRA said of the Miller decision: “The High Court was unaware of the fact that some 30,000 shotguns, including a great number of ‘sawed-off’ shotguns, were purchased by the U.S. Government for use in World War I as ‘trench guns’.…”

Despite such a moderate explanation for the high court’s oversight, the NRA’s stance throughout the long years of the gun debate has been defiant. Indeed, on occasion, it has pursued the fruits of retribution in the eye-for-an-eye style of the Old Testament, and woe unto them who would snipe from the other side. When CBS Reports broadcast its blatantly antihunting The Guns of Autumn in 1975, the word in the trade had it that the show’s original sponsors backed off because of NRA pressure.

“You threatened to boycott [the] sponsors, did you not?” It was Conyers, the congressional gun controller, and he was putting the question, for the record, to Harlon B. Carter, then the NRA’s lobbying chief.

“No, sir,” Carter responded.

CONYERS: That was not a problem?

CARTER: We talked to the sponsors, perhaps, or some of our members did, out in the United States, but we do not threaten boycotts: no, sir.”

CONYERS: … I see. And so the fact that the sponsors, in fact, peeled away was incidental or peripheral to your central activity in that regard?

CARTER : The answer to that lies in the reaction of about 20 or 30 million people, Mr. Chairman, of which we happen to be only the cutting edge.…

A similar disclaimer might well have been voiced by an NRA spokesman, when, a year or so earlier, the gunnery took issue with a policy of the national convention of the YWCA advocating the licensing of gun owners and the registration of firearms. In retaliation, the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Michigan had instructed its members to boycott the United Way and other sources of YWCA funding. Obviously delighted with its allies in Michigan, NRA’s American Rifleman inquired editorially, “Say Goodbye to the Y?,” described the alliance’s boycott, then suggested that “Others may follow suit.” Congressman Michael J. Harrington later observed in The Nation: “They may indeed, but they probably wouldn’t have if [ Rifleman ] hadn’t given the ploy national circulation.” (Before the boycott was imposed, the Sportsmen’s Alliance had suggested to United Way and YWCA that “an unbiased third party be named to arbitrate the differences,” someone “beyond reproach in terms of objectivity.” They even suggested a candidate: Congressman John Dingell, consistent foe of strong gun legislation and a member, as well as sometime director, of the NRA.)

The antigunners, of course, have played dirty, too—if not in the realm of financial interdiction, then at least in the martial art of public ridicule. One of their favorite weapons is a sort of pop Freudian psychology which holds the rifle, or any firearm for that matter, to be a surrogate phallus for impotent men. Several years ago, for example, the militantly antihunting Friends of Animals sponsored an advertisement attacking a proposed deer hunt in a national wildlife refuge. Addressed to “Rod Hunter, Sports Columnist,” the ad was headlined: “Hunters-Make it ‘Dear’ … not ‘Deer’ … will you … won’t you … can’t you?” Below were the signatures of Gloria De Haven, Lauren Bacall, Ali McGraw, and Joanne Woodward, among others. The gist of their message: “We’re not turned on by a show of masculinity which takes place in the forests. … We like guys whose virility holds on better proving grounds.”

Such below-the-belt assaults seem to have had some effect. At one recent NRA gathering in the Midwest, shrill bumper stickers proclaimed that “Rifle Shooters Have Longer Barrels,” that they ”… Make Accurate Lovers,” and that the place to do it is”… on a shooting mat.”

Possibly the most painful punch thrown at the NRA in recent times was a draft report on the future of hunting and gun control prepared at the expense of the Remington Arms Company. The blow was certainly not intentional on Remington’s part; it had merely wanted to obtain an impartial analysis of the future of firearms in America, and toward that end had retained the services of the Institute for the Future, a Menlo Park, California, firm. In turn, the institute assigned the project to one Andrew Lipinski, an analyst with a flair for colorful language. And somehow a copy of Lipinski’s first draft found its way to Jack Anderson, the syndicated columnist. Red faces at Remington, and wrath among chiefs of the NRA.

Lipinski minced few words. In his report, he found, among other things, that “many” hunters “detest authority and are not law abiding,” that NRA officials lack imagination in their presentations to Congress and the media, and that NRA “rightwingers are becoming increasingly isolated from the society of today.” Of the right-wingers, he added: “The blindfolds are of their own making. Dismissing unpleasant information about guns in society and denying integrity to those who are concerned about guns, they manage to survive in a bunker decorated with white hats and black hats, in a make-believe world of American ‘sacred rights,’ ancient skills, and coonskins.” Lipinski further noted of the NRA that “mutiny threatens within,” and that if the association should yield to the counsel of the “moderates inside,” then the ultraconservatives might split to a ” ‘give-them-no-quarter’ organization [such as]… the Citizens Committee on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”

The same mutinous pot had been found a-brewing three years earlier by Robert Sherrill, author of The Saturday Night Special . In the book, Sherrill quoted a letter from “an oldtime NRA moderate” who identified chief lobbyist Harlon Carter as “the power behind the NRA.” Carter was depicted as having the support of William Loeb, publisher of the extremely conservative Manchester (New Hampshire) Union Leader and NRA executive committeeman. There was reference to a Carter-Loeb effort to isolate the NRA moderates. Carter’s life dream, said Sherrill’s informant, was to be NRA executive vice president.


Harlon B. Carter is a ruddy, blue-eyed, bald-headed sharpshooter, and his personal biography as issued by the NRA is almost as broad and bold as the American Southwest, where he was born sixty-three years ago. Among the many milestones listed are thirty-four years with the U.S. Border Patrol, and eight of those as chief; a tour of duty as Southwest regional commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service; officer in charge of “alien enemy detention and prisoner programs” during World War II; “several million illegal aliens and hundreds of thousands of criminals” arrested by officers under his supervision; forty-four national shooting records with rifle and pistol; president of the NRA in 1965-67; election to the NRA executive council for life in 1967; member of board of directors of U.S. Olympic Committee, 1965-67; member of the Secretary of the Army’s National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, 1964-70; “Outstanding American Handgunner of 1977,” and executive vice president of the NRA, in which post, in the early hours of May 22, 1977, at Cincinnati, Ohio, Harlon Carter found himself installed by the vote of fewer than twelve hundred NRA life members.

The emergence of Harlon Carter as king of the gunnery—and if not of that, then at least of its “cutting edge”—is a measure not only of what the man has done with his life over the years but of what he has written and said as well. For a time in the early 1970’s he was a prolific contributor to Guns & Ammo magazine, wherein his forceful prose flailed liberal society, gun controllers, and the softies who would bargain away the people’s right to keep and bear arms.

In an article titled “Anti-Gun Hysteria Prelude to a Police State,” Carter established his credentials as a noncompromiser: “As long as we concur that any measure of gun control equates with some measure of crime control we are in agreement with those who would eliminate our rights. We would then again be backed into our defensive position, held for forty years, always losing a little here and a little there until finally nothing would be left us.”

As for legislation to ban the Saturday Night Special, Carter had this to say in Guns & Ammo: ”… there will never be a time when strident voices among our opponents [described elsewhere in the piece as ‘dedicated gents with cold eyes and bleeding hearts’] will not be after our last six-shooter-then our rifle—then our shotgun. Don’t ever doubt it.”

And as for Richard Nixon, he was Guns & Ammo ’s “The Shooters’ Man for ’72.” Wrote Carter that October: “I like Nixon. When a man supports the law abiding citizens’ right to keep and bear arms it is likely other virtues naturally accrue to him.”

Carter likewise projects an image of one who always knows absolutely where he stands, as in the following exchange with Conyers subcommittee member George Danielson of California:

DANIELSON : … Does [the] National Rifle Association still assert the position that [amendment] 2 of the Constitution prohibits government to, by legislation, infringe the right of the people to keep and bear arms?

CARTER : We feel like that. The last word by the Supreme Court has not been said with respect to the second amendment.…

DANIELSON : Believe me, I am pleased to hear you say that because you do recognize that the Supreme Court has the burden of interpreting the Constitution.

CARTER : Oh, yes. I have always felt that way, right.

Yet within a year Carter was citing an NRA-sponsored poll which found that 78 per cent of the respondents believed the right to bear arms was a constitutional right; and in the New York Daily News , writer Hillary Johnson was quoting Carter as having said: “If 78% of the people believe that this is their right, then it doesn’t matter what the Supreme Court has held.”

Carter’s rise to power began in 1971, the association’s centennial year, when Executive Vice President Maxwell Rich began to speak of a “National Shooting Center” and the need to keep pace “with a changing world.” Also that year, NRA President Woodson D. Scott, a New York attorney, suggested that NRA headquarters might well be moved to avoid “adverse conditions in Washington.” One condition cited as adverse to the NRA was the high cost of competing with federal wage scales. Other conditions were left unstated, but everyone knew what they were, especially after an NRA lobbyist was fatally wounded by a thug with a gun and a staff editor was twice assaulted by armed thieves. After that, the NRA administration of Maxwell Rich couldn’t get out of Washington fast enough, and plans were prepared to move the headquarters staff west to Colorado Springs. The Springs would be convenient to Raton, New Mexico, where the NRA would soon purchase 37,700 acres and draw up a master plan for its projected $30,000,000 National Center. The “Shooting” Center? No, that word had been changed to “Outdoor.” There would still be shooting, all right, but there would also be programs in conservation and wilderness survival.

Guns & Ammo , meanwhile, had uncovered a startling bit of news. In its April, 1975, issue, Washington correspondent C. E. Clay ton revealed that “high officials” of the NRA were “considering a plan that would license every gun owner in the country. What’s more the proposal would apparently have the NRA be the federal government’s official ‘licenser.’ ” Maxwell Rich later conceded that such a proposal had indeed been circulated at NRA headquarters, but that it “definitely was not presented to the NRA Board of Directors.…”

With their confidence shaken in the Rich administration, some NRA members began to question the proposed activities at Raton and Colorado Springs. The Outdoor Center at Raton, it was said, might well become a haven for “bird watchers” and “butterfly netters.” And the move to Colorado Springs was seen as a ploy to dilute the effectiveness of Harlon Carter’s Washington-oriented Institute for Legislative Action.

These were the issues, then, as more than two thousand NRA members crowded into the Cincinnati Convention-Exposition Center for the association’s annual meeting. Only life members were entitled to vote. They voted to oust Maxwell Rich. They voted to oust most of Rich’s management team. They voted a one-year suspension of further spending on the Raton Outdoor Center. They voted to block the new headquarters at Colorado Springs. And with their voices rising to the rafters, they voted Harlon B. Carter into the most powerful post of the American gunnery.


Camp Perry is a National Guard facility located on the shore of Lake Erie northwest of Port Clinton, Ohio. It is a flat and rather monotonous piece of property, about six hundred acres all told, and is doubtless remembered with mixed feelings by thousands of Italian and German veterans who, relieved of their Mannlicher-Carcanos and Mausers at Anzio and other such places, were posted there as prisoners to sit out World War II. Camp Perry was discovered, after a fashion, in 1905, by General Ammon Critchfield of the Ohio National Guard, who was shooting ducks in a marsh when it occurred to him that, with a little landfill, one also might shoot at targets. The Ohio legislature agreed and appropriated twenty-five thousand dollars to purchase the first three hundred acres. Critchfield immediately informed the National Rifle Association that a splendid new shooting range would be available for the national matches of 1907. Drainage, of course, would be a problem. But the general was confident. “We’ll get the camp so dry,” he said, “the bullfrogs will have to carry canteens.”

Bullfrogs had no need for canteens when I arrived at Camp Perry last August for the NRA’s National Rifle and Pistol Championships. It had been raining hard. There were frogable puddles along the ready line, and riflemen fresh off the range were hanging their shooting mats to dry on their station wagons and vans. It was smallbore rifle week. Already, in three weeks’ time, the NRA had mustered nearly fifteen hundred participants through the National Police Firearms Instructor School, the National Shotgun Instructor and Coach Schools, the National Rifle Instructor School, and the National Pistol and Revolver Championship Matches. In progress were the National Smallbore Rifle Prone Championships, to be followed by the National Smallbore Position Championships, the Small Arms Firing School, the Junior Shooter Phase, the High Power Rifle Championships, the President’s Match, and National Trophy Matches sponsored by the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, and the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps cup matches. These would involve another eighteen hundred participants. Ed Andrus, the NRA statistical officer, said he figured that by the end of the final shoot, the total number of rounds sent down-range toward the butts would be close to one million. This estimate did not include the .177-caliber pellets fired from air rifles by the juniors. Andrus had just finished computing his figures when someone mentioned it was a pity I was here for the smallbore but not the high caliber. Later I asked NRA publicist Lee LaCombe what his colleague had against watching smallbore shooting. “Some people,” said LaCombe, “think it’s like watching paint dry .”

The shooting range at Camp Perry is the longest in North America, three-quarters of a mile end to end, with up to eight hundred yards between the firing line and the farthest lakeshore butts. In one smallbore match during my visit, 485 riflemen (and riflewomen, one must add) were on the line with their foam-padded cowhide shooting gloves and mats with double thicknesses of jute padding and aluminum alloy shooting stands supporting ammo blocks filled with the preferred British Eley Tenex .22-caliber long-rifle cartridges that go pfft when they leave the heavy barrels and splat on the targets a hundred yards out. And prrrrng , on the ricochet.

The undisputed champion of smallbore last year was Mary Stidworthy, a tall, twenty-year-old woman who holds the rank of private, first class, in the Arizona National Guard. After 640 rounds of match shooting, she was down only three-a shooter’s way of saying that she missed the center ten-ring bull’s-eye only three times out of 640 shots. At an awards ceremony in the Camp Perry theater, with flags of all the states fluttering from the proscenium arch and martial music blaring over the public address system, Stidworthy was proclaimed winner of the Metallic Sight Aggregate, the Any Sight Aggregate, High Service, High Lady, and National Championship. Harlon Carter presented her with a National Champion Trophy Match Rifle. To their left hung a huge and vivid oil painting of a buckskinned pioneer battling a redskinned warrior, hand to hand.

The sun was bright and hot the morning of my last day at Camp Perry. The puddles were evaporating, and over the transpiring wetness of the range quivered a slight oscillation—a mirage factor-which made this the sort of morning a target shooter would have been wiser to stay abed. “There are 132 recorded alibis for poor shooting,” NRA range official Dave Parsons was saying. “You’re fighting Mother Nature all the way.”

Parsons and I walked down along the range—“trooping the line,” he called it—as the smallbore people prepared their gear for the day’s match. Parsons is a retired army officer. He said he remembered the old days when there were special trains for shooters directly to Camp Perry and the men “piled off looking like a bunch of Mexican bandits.” And then he was speaking of other things, contemporary things such as handguns and crime: “Only 246 out of every million handguns are used illegally. And only three per cent of our criminals ever go to jail.… When the death penalty was abolished, the crime rate doubled. … In Russia, you know, young people receive more than 300 hours of military training while in school, and most of that is on the firing range.” We paused beside a spectators’ bench. A copy of the morning’s Cleveland Plain Dealer was lying there, front page up. Below the fold, the major story told of New York City detectives celebrating the capture of “Son of Sam,” the alleged .44-caliber killer of six who had circumvented the city’s Sullivan Law by having a friend ship him the weapon from Texas. Above the fold another story told of a Warren, Ohio, woman who had been slain by her abductor “in a blaze of gunfire.” The assailant, one Thomas Thompson, then shot and killed himself. Police said that Thompson apparently had been unarmed at the outset of the episode but had found the gun, a .22-caliber pistol, in his victim’s home.

On the range at Perry, now, the loudspeakers began to crackle and a voice called out: “Ready on the Right?… Ready on the left? … Ready on the firing line? … Commence firing.” And as the riflemen began to squeeze off their first rounds, I looked obliquely down the long line of prone bodies on the steaming grass and saw Harlon Carter striding our way, trooping the line with a smile for the sun and the sound of the Eley Tenex .22 bullets just a-going it.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.