It is now fair to ask whether the National Rifle Association is
winning — or has in fact won — this era of the gun debate in this country.
Gun control advocates have tried to use the horror that exists in the wake of
mass shootings to catalyze the public into action around sensible gun
restrictions. But rather than these tragedies being a cause for pause in
ownership of guns, gun ownership has spiked in the wake of these shootings.
A striking report released Friday by the Pew Research Center revealed that “for
the first time, more Americans say that protecting gun rights is more important
than controlling gun ownership, 52 percent to 46 percent.”
One of the reasons cited was Americans’ inverse understanding of the reality and
perception of crime in this country. As the report spells out, in the 1990s,
people’s perception of the prevalence of crime fell in concert with actual
instances of violent crime. But since the turn of the century, things have
changed: “A majority of Americans (63 percent) said in a Gallup survey last year
that crime was on the rise, despite crime statistics holding near 20-year lows.”
Furthermore, it used to be that the people most worried about crime favored
stricter gun control, but “now, they tend to desire keeping the laws as they are
or loosening gun control. In short, we are at a moment when most Americans
believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership — not gun
control — makes people safer.”
The report adds: “Why public views on crime have grown more dire is unclear,
though many blame it on the nature of news coverage, reality TV and political
rhetoric. Whatever the cause, this trend is not without consequence. Today,
those who say that crime is rising are the most opposed to gun control: Just 45
percent want to see gun laws made more strict, compared with 53 percent of those
who see crime rates as unchanged or dropping.”
Another cause is most likely the intermingling of politics and high-profile
crimes. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2012: “As sure as summer
follows spring, gun sales rise after a mass shooting. It happened after the
shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. It happened after
the Tucson, Ariz., shootings last year that killed six. Now, after the killing
of 12 people last week at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., gun sales are
spiking again — not just in Colorado but around the country.”
It continued: “Self-protection is part of the reason. But a bigger factor, say
gun dealers, is fear of something else: politicians, specifically, their ability
to enact restrictions on gun ownership and acquisition of ammunition. When a
high-profile shooting takes place, invariably the airwaves are full of talk
about gun control.”
It appears to be an extreme example of unintended consequences, or a boomerang:
the more people talk about gun control, the more people buy guns. And not only
do gun sales surge, but apparently so does N.R.A. membership. As The Huffington
Post reported in 2013: “The National Rifle Association’s paying member ranks
have grown by 100,000 in the wake of the December school shooting in Newtown,
Conn., the organization told Politico.”
The report continued: “In the week after the shooting, Fox News reported that
the N.R.A. was claiming an average of 8,000 new members a day. High-profile mass
shootings are often followed by periods of increased interest in the N.R.A., but
representatives said this rate was higher than usual.”
It was after the Newtown shooting that President Obama established a task force,
led by Vice President Joseph Biden Jr., to develop a proposal to reduce gun
violence, which the president said he intended to “push without delay.”
Those proposals, including expanded background checks (which were characterized
as “misguided” by the N.R.A.’s Chris Cox) and a ban on some semiautomatic
weapons, were roundly defeated in the Senate, although polls showed about 90
percent public approval for expanded background checks.
In fact, this month The Washington Times reported: “The American firearms
industry is as healthy as ever, seeing an unprecedented surge that has sent
production of guns soaring to more than 10.8 million manufactured in 2013 alone
— double the total of just three years earlier.”
It continued: “The 2013 surge — the latest for which the government has figures
— came in the first full year after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook
Elementary School, signaling that the push for stricter gun controls, strongly
backed by President Obama, did little to chill the industry despite the passage
of stricter laws in states such as New York, Maryland, Connecticut and
One may begrudge and bemoan the fact, but it is hard to deny it: the N.R.A.
appears to be winning this round.
I invite you to join me on Facebook and follow me
on Twitter, or e-mail me at
A version of this op-ed appears in print
on April 20, 2015,
on page A19 of the
New York edition with the headline:
Has the N.R.A. Won?.
— The National Rifle Association provoked a furious response from the White
House on Wednesday by releasing a video accusing President Obama of being an
“elitist” and a “hypocrite” because he opposes posting armed guards at schools,
while his daughters have Secret Service protection.
The video also prompted commentary on social media about whether the gun rights
organization might have been too strident, even for its own members.
The White House lashed out at the N.R.A. even as Mr. Obama stood with young
children to unveil broad proposals to create tougher gun laws and use the power
of the presidency to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
“Most Americans agree that a president’s children should not be used as pawns in
a political fight,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “But to go
so far as to make the safety of the president’s children the subject of an
attack ad is repugnant and cowardly.”
The N.R.A. video refers to Mr. Obama’s strong reservations about the group’s
idea to prevent school massacres by posting armed guards at all of the nation’s
“I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools,” Mr. Obama
said during a recent interview on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.” “And I
think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow
is going to solve our problem.”
The video, posted at a Web site called N.R.A. Stand and Fight, starts by asking,
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” The video does not show
Mr. Obama’s daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, but it suggests that Mr. Obama
holds their safety to a different standard than he is willing to offer for other
The N.R.A. does not appear to have spent much money paying for the video to run
as an advertisement on television. But it still generated ire among Democrats
and gun control advocates who said it improperly dragged the president’s
daughters into the national debate over guns.
Kim Anderson, a top official with the National Education Association, a
teachers’ union, said the video “demonstrates a level of insensitivity and
disrespect that N.E.A. members wouldn’t tolerate in any classroom in America.”
The video prompted quick declarations of outrage among liberal talk show hosts
and on Twitter, with many people saying that the N.R.A. had gone too far by
referring to the president’s children.
But the video also generated expressions of support, with some conservatives
criticizing the president for standing with children at his event. On Twitter,
N.R.A. backers used the hashtag #standandfight to express support.
“Patriots, we must back the #NRA in their efforts to preserve our liberties,”
one person wrote on Twitter.
The N.R.A. has been the subject of intense criticism in some quarters since the
shooting in Newtown, Conn., last month. Shortly after the massacre, Wayne
LaPierre, the chief executive and vice president of the N.R.A., held a news
conference in which he called for more security in schools and an end to the
“gun-free zones” that are common around school buildings.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Mr.
LaPierre said at the time.
But the organization has said that its rejection of any new restrictions on guns
has led to a surge in new members, suggesting that its influence on Capitol Hill
is not about to wane.
In a second video posted to its Stand and Fight Web site on Wednesday afternoon,
the organization replays parts of Mr. LaPierre’s news conference and suggests
that the “elite” news media and the president are out of touch with everyday
“America agrees with Wayne and the N.R.A.,” the four-and-a-half-minute video
The N.R.A. understands that. It’s as patient with us as a husband with a
tremulous pregnant wife prone to crying jags.
This is just a passing meltdown. We’ll get ourselves back under control soon and
things will return to normal.
For decades, when the public has grown more sympathetic to gun control after an
attempted assassination or a spike in gun murders or a harrowing school
shooting, Wayne LaPierre and his fellow N.R.A. officials have hunkered down to
wait for the “emotional period” or “hysteria,” as they call it, to pass.
They rule in the back rooms on Capitol Hill and rein in panicked senators and
congressmen who fret that they should support some measly legislation to pretend
they are not pawns of the gun lobby.
They defend anyone owning anything with a trigger, reiterating that
military-style semiautomatics are just uglier hunting guns.
While there were more heartbreaking funerals in Newtown, Conn., with long
hearses carrying small bodies, LaPierre stepped to the microphone in Washington
on Friday to present the latest variation of his Orwellian creed: Guns don’t
kill people. Media kill people.
“Rather than face their own moral failings,” he said in high dudgeon, “the media
demonize gun owners, amplify their cries for more laws, and fill the national
media with misinformation and dishonest thinking that only delay meaningful
action, and all but guarantee that the next atrocity is only a news cycle away.”
So it’s our fault.
LaPierre, who literally trembles when the omnipotent gun lobby is under siege,
went ballistic painting a threatening picture of the dystopia that awaits if we
don’t protect our schools from guns by putting guns in schools.
“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine
monsters,” he said. “People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by
voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend
them. They walk among us every single day, and does anybody really believe that
the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already
identified at this very moment?”
How many more copycat killers, he asked ominously, are waiting in the wings for
their moment of fame?
On the day that 6-year-old Olivia Engel, who was going to play an angel in her
church’s Nativity play, was buried, LaPierre heinously cloaked his refusal to
consider any remedies to gun violence — not even better background checks — as
tender concern for the 20 “little kids” shot in cold blood.
He kicked around the old whipping boy, violent video games, even though plenty
of his four million members no doubt play violent video games. And he repeated
his old saw: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with
a gun.” Guns don’t kill people. Guns save people.
The press conference, where the press was not allowed to ask questions, played
like an insane parody: a tightly wound lobbyist who earns a million or so a year
by refusing to make the slightest concession on gun safety, despite repeated
slaughters by deranged shooters with jaw-droppingly easy access to firearms.
LaPierre makes Charlton Heston look like Michael Moore. The N.R.A. vice
president, who once called federal agents “jackbooted government thugs,” insists
the solution to gun violence is putting police officers, or “armed good guys,”
in every one of the nation’s 98,817 K-12 schools.
His logic is spurious. Hunters can have their guns without leaving Americans so
vulnerable to being hunted by demented souls with assault rifles that can fire
45 rounds per minute.
And consider that in 1999 an armed sheriff’s deputy policing Columbine High
School exchanged fire with the shooters, and still they killed 12 other students
and a teacher. Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused LaPierre of “a shameful evasion.”
It’s hard to believe that the N.R.A. needed to go dark for a week after the
Newtown shootings to cook up such a chuckleheaded arms race. And LaPierre made a
worse case against himself than the media ever could. It’s shocking that the
N.R.A. can’t even fake it better.
It didn’t try to mask its obdurate stance by putting forth a less harsh official
— a woman who’s a mother and a hunter, for instance. Maybe it could have
prompted a serious discussion about armed guards at schools if it had a less
crazed presentation and less of an absolute vision that “guns are cool,” as
David Keene, its president, says.
The 63-year-old LaPierre and the 67-year-old Keene, a cantankerous former Bob
Dole adviser whose son went to prison for shooting at another driver in a
road-rage fit, seemed as out-of-touch as Mitt Romney’s campaign and the rest of
the white, macho Republican Party.
President Obama, who should have been alarmed that his re-election inspired a
boom in gun sales, seems daunted at the prospect of taking on gun lovers, having
handed the matter off to Joe Biden to study. The president seems to be setting
the table for defeat. If only he had the visceral outrage of a Bloomberg. Who
knows what could happen?
— After a weeklong silence, the National Rifle Association announced Friday that
it wants to arm security officers at every school in the country. It pointed the
finger at violent video games, the news media and lax law enforcement — not guns
— as culprits in the recent rash of mass shootings.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Wayne
LaPierre, the N.R.A. vice president, said at a media event that was interrupted
by protesters. One held up a banner saying, “N.R.A. Killing Our Kids.”
The N.R.A.’s plan for countering school shootings, coming a week after the
massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was met with
widespread derision from school administrators, law enforcement officials and
politicians, with some critics calling it “delusional” and “paranoid.” Gov.
Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, said arming schools would not make
Even conservative politicians who had voiced support this week for arming more
school officers did not rush to embrace the N.R.A.’s plan.
Their reluctance was an indication of just how toxic the gun debate has become
after the Connecticut shootings, as gun control advocates push for tougher
Nationwide, at least 23,000 schools — about one-third of all public schools —
already had armed security on staff as of the most recent data, for the 2009-10
school year, and a number of states and districts that do not use them have
begun discussing the idea in recent days.
Even so, the N. R. A’s focus on armed guards as its prime solution to school
shootings — and the group’s offer to help develop and carry out such a program
nationwide — rankled a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“Anyone who thought the N.R.A. was going to come out today and make a
common-sense statement about meaningful reform and safety was kidding
themselves,” said Representative Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat, who has
called for new restrictions on assault rifles.
Mr. LaPierre struck a defiant tone on Friday, making clear that his group was
not eager to reach a conciliation. With the N.R.A. not making any statements
after last week’s shootings, both supporters and opponents of greater gun
control had been looking to its announcement Friday as a sign of how the
nation’s most influential gun lobby group would respond and whether it would
pledge to work with President Obama and Congress in developing new gun control
Mr. LaPierre offered no support for any of the proposals made in the last week,
like banning assault rifles or limiting high-capacity ammunition, and N.R.A.
leaders declined to answer questions. As reporters shouted out to Mr. LaPierre
and David Keene, the group’s president, asking whether they planned to work with
Mr. Obama, the men walked off stage without answering.
Mr. LaPierre seemed to anticipate the negative reaction in an address that was
often angry and combative.
“Now I can imagine the headlines — the shocking headlines you’ll print
tomorrow,” he told more than 150 journalists at a downtown hotel several blocks
from the White House.
“More guns, you’ll claim, are the N.R.A.’s answer to everything,” he said. “Your
implication will be that guns are evil and have no place in society, much less
in our schools. But since when did the gun automatically become a bad word?”
Mr. LaPierre said his organization would finance and develop a program called
the National Model School Shield Program, to work with schools to arm and train
school guards, including retired police officers and volunteers. The gun rights
group named Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman from Arkansas and
administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency, to lead a task force to develop
Mr. LaPierre also said that before Congress moved to pass any new gun
restrictions, it should “act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to
put armed police officers in every single school in this nation” by the time
students return from winter break in January.
The idea of arming school security officers is not altogether new. Districts in
cities including Albuquerque, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and
St. Louis have armed officers in schools, either through relationships with
local police departments or by training and recruiting their own staff members.
A federal program dating back to the Clinton administration also uses armed
police officers in school districts to bolster security, and Mr. LaPierre
himself talked about beefing up the number of armed officers on campuses after
the deadly shootings in 2007 at Virginia Tech.
But what the N.R.A. proposed would expand the use of armed officers nationwide
and make greater use of not just police officers, but armed volunteers —
including retired police officers and reservists — to patrol school grounds. The
organization offered no estimates of the cost.
Mr. LaPierre said that if armed security officers had been used at the Newtown
school, “26 innocent lives might have been spared that day.”
The N.R.A. news conference was an unusual Washington event both in tone and
substance, as Mr. LaPierre avoided the hedged, carefully calibrated language
that political figures usually prefer, and instead let loose with a torrid
attack on the N.R.A.’s accusers.
He blasted what he called “the political class here in Washington” for pursuing
new gun control measures while failing, in his view, to adequately prosecute
violations of existing gun laws, finance law enforcement programs or develop a
national registry of mentally ill people who might prove to be “the next Adam
Lanza,” the gunman in Newtown.
Mr. LaPierre also complained that the news media had unfairly “demonized gun
owners.” And he called the makers of violent video games “a callous, corrupt and
corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people,”
as he showed a video of an online cartoon game called “Kindergarten Killer.”
While some superintendents and parents interviewed after the N.R.A.’s briefing
said they might support an increased police presence on school campuses as part
of a broader safety strategy, many educators, politicians, and crime experts
described it as foolhardy and potentially dangerous. Law enforcement officials
said putting armed officers in the nation’s 99,000 schools was unrealistic
because of the enormous cost and manpower needed.
At a news conference Friday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat
who is leading an effort to reinstitute a ban on assault rifles, read from a
police report on the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, which
detailed an armed officer’s unsuccessful attempts to disarm one of the gunmen.
“There were two armed law enforcement officers at that campus, and you see what
happened — 15 dead,” Ms. Feinstein said.
Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators,
called the N.R.A.’s plan “unbelievable and cynical.”
He said placing armed guards within schools would “expose our children to far
greater risk from gun violence than the very small risk they now face.”Officials
in some districts that use armed security officers stressed that it was only
part of a broader strategy aimed at reducing the risk of violence.
But Ben Kiser, superintendent of schools in Gloucester County, Va., where the
district already has four police officers assigned to patrol schools, said it
was just as important to provide mental health services to help struggling
children and families.
“What I’m afraid of,” said Mr. Kiser, who is also president of the Virginia
Association of School Superintendents, “is that we’re often quick to find that
one perceived panacea and that’s where we spend our focus.”
In Newtown, Conn., the N.R.A.’s call for arming school guards generated
considerable debate among parents and residents on Friday — much of it negative.
Suzy DeYoung, a parenting coach who has one child in the local school system,
said she thought many parents in town and around the country would object to
bringing more guns onto school campuses.
LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, would
have been better advised to remain wherever he had been hiding after the
Newtown, Conn., massacre, rather than appear at a news conference on Friday. No
one seriously believed the N.R.A. when it said it would contribute something
“meaningful” to the discussion about gun violence. The organization’s very
existence is predicated on the nation being torn in half over guns. Still, we
were stunned by Mr. LaPierre’s mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant.
Mr. LaPierre looked wild-eyed at times as he said the killing was the fault of
the media, songwriters and singers and the people who listen to them, movie and
TV scriptwriters and the people who watch their work, advocates of gun control,
video game makers and video game players.
The N.R.A., which devotes itself to destroying compromise on guns, is blameless.
So are unscrupulous and unlicensed dealers who sell guns to criminals, and gun
makers who bankroll Mr. LaPierre so he can help them peddle ever-more-lethal,
ever-more-efficient products, and politicians who kill even modest controls over
His solution to the proliferation of guns, including semiautomatic rifles
designed to kill people as quickly as possible, is to put more guns in more
places. Mr. LaPierre would put a police officer in every school and compel
teachers and principals to become armed guards.
He wants volunteer and professional firefighters, who already risk their lives
every day, to be charged with thwarting an assault by a deranged murderer. The
same applies to paramedics, security guards, veterans, retired police officers.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Mr.
We cannot imagine trying to turn the principals and teachers who care for our
children every day into an armed mob. And let’s be clear, civilians bristling
with guns to prevent the “next Newtown” are an armed mob even with training
offered up by Mr. LaPierre. Any town officials or school principals who take up
the N.R.A. on that offer should be fired.
Mr. LaPierre said the Newtown killing spree “might” have been averted if the
killer had been confronted by an armed security guard. It’s far more likely that
there would have been a dead armed security guard — just as there would have
been even more carnage if civilians had started firing weapons in the Aurora
In the 62 mass-murder cases over 30 years examined recently by the magazine
Mother Jones, not one was stopped by an armed civilian. We have known for many
years that a sheriff’s deputy was at Columbine High School in 1999 and fired at
one of the two killers while 11 of their 13 victims were still alive. He missed
People like Mr. LaPierre want us to believe that civilians can be trained to use
lethal force with cold precision in moments of fear and crisis. That requires a
willful ignorance about the facts. Police officers know that firing a weapon is
a huge risk; that’s why they avoid doing it. In August, New York City police
officers opened fire on a gunman outside the Empire State Building. They killed
him and wounded nine bystanders.
Mr. LaPierre said the news media call the semiautomatic weapon used in Newtown a
machine gun, claim that it’s a military weapon and that it fires the most
powerful ammunition available. That’s not true. What is true is that there is a
growing call in America for stricter gun control.
The New York Times
By CHARLES M. BLOW
Seriously, what was the National Rifle Association performing on Friday? I
thought it was going to be a press conference. It wasn’t. I really don’t know
how to describe it. A soliloquy of propaganda? A carnival of canards? A herding
Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.’s executive vice president, blamed gun violence in
general, and mass shootings in schools in particular, on everything except for
the proliferation of brutally efficient, high-capacity guns and his
organization’s efforts to resist virtually any restriction on people’s access to
It was an appalling display of deflection and deception. So much smoke and so
He blamed American culture, and the media, and video games and even natural
disasters. But not a society saturated with guns that spray bullets the way that
Super Soakers spray water and have made us the embarrassment of the developed
He blamed “every insane killer,” “monsters and the predators,” and “people that
are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no
sane person can ever possibly comprehend them.” It is true that America has
those types of people, but so do other countries. The difference here is that
help can be too hard — and guns too easy — to come by.
The simple truth is that more guns equal more death.
An analysis this year from the Violence Policy Center found that “states with
low gun ownership rates and strong gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.”
The report continued, “by contrast, states with weak gun laws and higher rates
of gun ownership had far higher rates of firearm-related death.” According to
the analysis, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut had
the lowest per capita gun death rates. Each of those states had “strong gun laws
and low gun ownership rates. On the other hand, “ranking first in the nation for
gun death was Louisiana, followed by Wyoming, Alabama, Montana, and
Mississippi.” Those states had “weak gun laws and higher rates of gun
What’s more, deaths may be a misleading statistic that minimizes the true
breadth of gun violence. Another report this year by the Violence Policy Center,
using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that while
gun deaths remained relatively flat from 2000 to 2008, the total number of
people shot went up nearly 20 percent since 2001. Why the difference between
rates of shootings and deaths? “Advances in emergency services — including the
911 system and establishment of trauma centers — as well as better surgical
techniques,” the report said.
Just because more people aren’t dying doesn’t mean that more aren’t being shot.
And the report points out that survivors’ injuries are “often chronic and
LaPierre didn’t talk much about the broad societal implications of all this.
Instead, he kept his “solutions” (if you want to call them that) to school
safety. His big thought: Put armed guards in school. As LaPierre said: “The only
thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
That seems to be quite an apocalyptic gun policy, especially since lax gun
regulations pump an ever-increasing number of guns into our country, thereby
increasing the chances that “bad guys” will get them.
How about taking the opposite approach and better regulating guns? How about not
giving up on so many children that we label “bad boys” so that they grow up
without hope or options and become “bad men?”
As the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association
said in a joint statement on Thursday:
“Guns have no place in our schools. Period. We must do everything we can to
reduce the possibility of any gunfire in schools, and concentrate on ways to
keep all guns off school property and ensure the safety of children and school
The statement continued:
“But this is not just about guns. Long-term and sustainable school safety also
requires a commitment to preventive measures. We must continue to do more to
prevent bullying in our schools. And we must dramatically expand our investment
in mental health services. Proper diagnosis can and often starts in our schools,
yet we continue to cut funding for school counselors, school social workers, and
school psychologists. States have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental
health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of
State Mental Health Program Directors. It is well past time to reverse this
trend and ensure that these services are available and accessible to those who
need our support.”
It’s time to call out the N.R.A.’s sidewinding and get serious about new set of
sensible gun regulations.
National Rifle Association is scheduled to hold a news conference on Friday
where it says it plans to provide details about its promise of “meaningful
contributions” to prevent another a massacre like the one in Newtown, Conn.
We would like to believe that the N.R.A., the most influential opponent of
sensible gun-control policies, will do as it says, but we have little faith that
it will offer any substantial reforms. The association presents itself as a
grass-roots organization, but it has become increasingly clear in recent years
that it represents gun makers. Its chief aim has been to help their businesses
by increasing the spread of firearms throughout American society.
In recent years, the N.R.A. has aggressively lobbied federal and state
governments to dilute or eliminate numerous regulations on gun ownership. And
the clearest beneficiary has been the gun industry — sales of firearms and
ammunition have grown 5.7 percent a year since 2007, to nearly $12 billion this
year, according to IBISWorld, a market research firm. Despite the recession,
arms sales have been growing so fast that domestic manufacturers haven’t been
able to keep up. Imports of arms have grown 3.6 percent a year in the last five
The industry has, in turn, been a big supporter of the N.R.A. It has contributed
between $14.7 million and $38.9 million to an N.R.A.-corporate-giving campaign
since 2005, according to a report published last year by the Violence Policy
Center, a nonprofit group that advocates greater gun control. The estimate is
based on a study of the N.R.A.’s “Ring of Freedom” program and very likely
understates the industry’s total financial support for the association, which
does not publicly disclose a comprehensive list of its donors and how much they
Officials from the N.R.A. have repeatedly said their main goal is to protect the
Second Amendment rights of rank-and-file members who like to hunt or want guns
for protection. But that claim is at odds with surveys that show a majority of
N.R.A. members and a majority of American gun owners often support restrictions
on gun sales and ownership that the N.R.A. has bitterly fought.
For instance, a 2009 poll commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that
69 percent of N.R.A. members would support requiring all sellers at gun shows to
conduct background checks of prospective buyers, which they do not have to do
now and which the N.R.A. has steadfastly argued against. If lawful gun owners
are willing to subject themselves to background checks, why is the association
resisting? Its position appears only to serve the interest of gun makers and
dealers who want to increase sales even if it means having dangerous weapons
fall into the hands of criminals and violent individuals.
Businesses and special-interest groups often cloak their profit motives in the
garb of constitutional rights — think Big Tobacco and its opposition to
restrictions on smoking in public places and bold warnings on cigarette
packages. The Supreme Court has made clear that the right to bear arms is not
absolute and is subject to regulations and controls. Yet the N.R.A. clings to
its groundless arguments that tough regulations violate the Second Amendment.
Many of those arguments serve no purpose other than to increase the sales of
guns and bullets.
December 20, 2012
The New York Times
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON — David Keene — big-game hunter, éminence grise to
conservatives, and now head of the National Rifle Association — was explaining
last month why people are buying more guns these days.
“Today,” Mr. Keene told a roomful of conservatives in Hawaii, “guns are cool.”
That, of course, was before the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school
dramatically revived the once-moribund debate over gun control.
With the N.R.A. set to hold its first news conference on the shootings Friday
after a weeklong silence, Mr. Keene is facing perhaps the biggest threat in
decades to his organization’s gun rights stance.
He finds himself in the difficult position of persuading Americans outside the
N.R.A. that guns are, if not “cool,” at least not the stark danger that
President Obama made them out to be this week. “His instinct is to fight back
and make his case as strongly as he can — that’s been his modus operandi for as
long as I’ve known him,” said Craig Shirley, a conservative author and former
business partner and occasional hunting buddy of Mr. Keene.
Indeed, Mr. Keene, 67, a combative and sometimes bombastic political operative
who has advised Republican leaders from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney, has rarely
shied from a fight.
In a videotaped confrontation that quickly made the Republican rounds in 2009,
he threatened to punch a conservative filmmaker who challenged his leadership of
the American Conservative Union and his criticism of “whining” by the former
vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
And when Mr. Keene was a senior adviser to Senator Bob Dole’s losing
presidential bid in 1988, his clashes with others in the Dole campaign became so
heated that he and another top aide were fired midtrip, with the campaign
manager yelling during a stopover at the Jacksonville airport to “Get their
baggage off the plane!”
That fighter’s instinct puts him squarely in the tradition of past leaders of
the N.R.A., a four-million-member group that has one of Washington’s most
powerful, well-financed lobbying arms.
In the most iconic scene of defiance in the N.R.A.’s 141-year history, its most
famous president — the actor Charlton Heston — lifted a colonial musket over his
head in 2000 and dared opponents to take it “from my cold, dead hands!”
A year earlier, the N.R.A. spurned calls to cancel its convention in Denver less
than two weeks after shootings at nearby Columbine High School killed 13 people.
As 7,000 people protested, Mr. Heston declared that the N.R.A. “cannot let
tragedy lay waste” to gun rights.
Even after the Columbine shootings, the N.R.A. was able to block a measure in
2000 to close the so-called gun-show loophole, allowing private gun sales at
shows without background checks. The aftermath of the Columbine shootings
provides one possible road map for how the N.R.A. may respond now.
The group has been uncharacteristically quiet in the week since the Connecticut
shootings, and Mr. Keene and other N.R.A. officials did not respond to messages
and e-mails seeking comment for this article.
The N.R.A. did offer a short statement of condolence four days after the
shootings and said, without elaboration, that it “is prepared to offer
meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
What it was billing as a “major news conference” Friday will be its first
response to growing calls for greater gun restrictions. Mr. Keene, elected
president last year, was also scheduled to appear Sunday on “Face the Nation” on
After past shootings, N.R.A. officials have stressed the need for greater safety
training and enforcement of existing gun laws, without offering significant
concessions to gun control advocates.
Josh Sugarman, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which supports
increased gun control, says he expects a similar approach this time.
“I don’t see him as any type of change-agent inside the organization,” Mr.
Sugarman said. “What will guide the N.R.A. is to try to delay any action on guns
for as long as they possibly can.”
With a shock of white hair and a deep baritone voice, Mr. Keene has proved a
durable figure in conservative circles for four decades, working as a lobbyist,
columnist, lawyer, and political strategist for top Republican candidates,
although often in losing campaigns.
He likes to tell audiences how he grew up the son of staunchly Democratic union
organizers in Wisconsin but discovered conservatism in high school and wound up
volunteering for Barry Goldwater’s Republican presidential campaign in 1964.
He found his most influential platform beginning in 1984, in the heyday of
Republican Reaganism, as the leader of the American Conservative Union, a group
espousing “liberty, personal responsibility, traditional values, and strong
The group’s annual convention is a required stop for Republicans on the rise,
making Mr. Keene a kingmaker of sorts as he held court for conservative
lawmakers, governors and presidential candidates.
But he sometimes took strong stances at odds with the political and ideological
positions of many fellow Republicans. He denounced the broad counterterrorism
powers given the government under the Patriot Act — a measure pushed by the
administration of George W. Bush and popular among Republicans.
In 2007, after Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, had been forced to
resign from Congress over ethics allegations, Mr. Keene appointed him to the
board of the American Conservative Union. Four board members quit in protest.
And Mr. Keene joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2008 in a
prisoners’ rights campaign. He had a personal motivation: his son had been
sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for firing a gun at another motorist in
a road-rage episode.
After 27 years, Mr. Keene left the American Conservative Union last year amid
internal tensions over his leadership. Mr. Keene’s inclusion of a gay
conservative group at its convention upset some members, and there were
allegations that his ex-wife, Diana Hubbard Carr, who was bookkeeper for the
group, had embezzled $400,000 from its bank accounts. (She pleaded guilty.)
When Mr. Keene moved last year to take over the N.R.A.’s top spot, he called it
“an opportunity for me to continue to fight for a constitutional right that has
so deeply enriched my life.”
It was no surprise to Mr. Shirley, the former partner who remembers going bird
hunting in Maryland and deer hunting in West Virginia with Mr. Keene. (A 2010
N.R.A. blog post shows a smiling Mr. Keene, rifle in hand, posing with a buffalo
killed in a televised hunt.)
“It was the perfect job for Dave,” Mr. Shirley said of the N.R.A. move. “My goal
was always to be rich and famous. His was to hunt and fish. That’s his passion
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
This article has been revised
to reflect the following
Correction: December 20, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated
the position once held
by former Representative Tom DeLay.
He was majority leader in the House of Representatives,
The New York Times
By RICHARD W. PAINTER
FOR years, protection rackets dominated dangerous urban neighborhoods. Shop
owners and residents lived in relative security only by paying off or paying
homage to organized criminals or corrupt cops. Anyone who dared to stand up to
these “protectors” would not be around for long.
The Republican Party — once a proud bastion of civic and business leaders who
battled Southern racism, Northern corruption and the evils of big government —
has for the past several decades been itself the victim of political protection
rackets. These rackets are orchestrated by fringe groups with extremist views on
social issues, which Republican politicians are forced to support even if they
are unpopular with intelligent, economically successful and especially female
voters. Their influence was already clear by the time I joined the Bush White
House staff in 2005, and it has only increased in the years since.
The most blatant protection racket is orchestrated by the National Rifle
Association, which is ruthless against candidates who are tempted to stray from
its view that all gun regulations are pure evil. Debra Maggart, a Republican
leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives, was one of its most recent
victims. The N.R.A. spent around $100,000 to defeat her in the primary, because
she would not support a bill that would have allowed people to keep guns locked
in their cars on private property without the property owner’s consent.
The message to Republicans is clear: “We will help you get elected and protect
your seat from Democrats. We will spend millions on ads that make your opponent
look worse than the average holdup man robbing a liquor store. In return, we
expect you to oppose any laws that regulate guns. These include laws requiring
handgun registration, meaningful background checks on purchasers, limiting the
right to carry concealed weapons, limiting access to semiautomatic weapons or
anything else that would diminish the firepower available to anybody who wants
it. And if you don’t comply, we will load our weapons and direct everything in
our arsenal at you in the next Republican primary.”
For decades, Republican politicians have gone along with this racket, some
willingly and others because they know that resisting would be pointless.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the N.R.A. spent almost $19
million in the last federal election cycle. This money is not just spent to beat
Democrats but also to beat Republicans who don’t toe the line.
But the last election showed the costs to Republicans of succumbing to the
N.R.A. and to other groups with extremist views on issues like homosexuality and
stem cell research. The fringe groups, drenched with money and the “free speech”
that comes with it, have stood firm, and become even more radical, as the
population as a whole — including many traditional Republican voters — has moved
in the opposite direction.
Gun violence in particular frightens voters in middle- and upper-income suburbs
across the country, places like my hometown, Edina, Minn. These areas, once
Republican strongholds, still have many voters who are sympathetic to the
economic platform of the Republican Party but are increasingly worried about
their own safety in a country with millions of unregistered and unregulated
guns. Some suburban voters may keep a hunting rifle locked away in a safe place,
but few want people bringing semiautomatic weapons into their neighborhoods.
They also believe that insane people should not have access to guns.
A few clicks on the N.R.A. Web site lead you to the type of weapons the group
wants to protect from regulation. Many are not needed for hunting pheasants or
deer. They are used for hunting people. They have firepower unimaginable to the
founding fathers who drafted the Second Amendment, firepower that could wipe out
an entire kindergarten classroom in a few minutes, as we saw so tragically last
This is not the vision of sportsmanship that soccer moms and dads want or will
vote for, and they will turn against Republicans because of it. Who worries
about the inheritance tax when gun violence may kill off one’s heirs in the
Republican politicians must free themselves from the N.R.A. protection racket
and others like it. For starters, the party establishment should refuse to
endorse anyone who runs in a primary with N.R.A. money against a sitting
Republican. If the establishment refuses to support Republicans using other
Republicans for target practice, the N.R.A. will take its shooting game
Reasonable gun control legislation will then be able to pass Congress and the
state legislatures. Next, Republicans should embrace legislation like the
proposed American Anti-Corruption Act, which would rid both parties of their
dependence on big money from groups like the N.R.A. The Republican Party will
once again be proud to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
And voters will go back to feeling that their children are safe, their democracy
works, and they will once again consider voting Republican.
a professor of law at the University of Minnesota,
July 12, 2010
The New York Times
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON — Fresh off a string of victories in the courts and
Congress, the National Rifle Association is flexing political muscle outside its
normal domain, with both Democrats and Republicans courting its favor and
avoiding its wrath on issues that sometimes seem to have little to do with guns.
The N.R.A., long a powerful lobby on gun rights issues, has in recent months
also weighed in on such varied issues as health care, campaign finance, credit
card regulations and Supreme Court nominees.
In the health care debate this year, for instance, the N.R.A.’s lobbyists worked
with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to include a little-noticed
provision banning insurance companies from charging higher premiums for people
with guns in their homes.
The N.R.A. worked out a deal last month exempting itself from a proposal
requiring groups active in political spending to disclose their financial
donors. Its push this spring for greater gun rights in the District of Columbia
served to effectively kill a measure — once seemingly assured of passage — to
give the district a voting seat in Congress.
With a push from the N.R.A., a popular bill last year restricting credit card
lenders came with an odd add-on: It also allowed people to carry loaded guns in
national parks. And the gun lobby put potential supporters of the Supreme Court
nominee Elena Kagan on notice this month that a vote for her would be remembered
at the ballot boxes in November.
The N.R.A.’s expanding portfolio is an outgrowth of its success in the courts,
Congressional officials and political analysts said. With the Supreme Court
ruling last month for the second time since 2008 that the Second Amendment
guarantees an individual the right to have a gun, the N.R.A. now finds that its
defining battle is a matter of settled law, and it has the resources to expand
into other areas.
When the N.R.A. had a narrower range of targets, it relied on a core group of
political figures and met with stiffer resistance from vocal gun control
advocates in Congress and outside groups. It now has freer rein to leave its
mark politically on issues that once seemed out of its reach.
“The last two years have been a disaster for us,” said Representative Carolyn
McCarthy, a New York Democrat and a longtime advocate of increased gun control.
“A lot of members are just afraid of the N.R.A.”
On Monday, the N.R.A. began broadcasting advertisements urging senators to
oppose or filibuster the Kagan nomination. But the group’s top priority is still
finding ways to use the Supreme Court ruling in cities, states and courts
nationwide to overturn more restrictive gun laws and establish gun rights
N.R.A. officials say they are determined to protect gun rights even if it means
using the group’s $307 million budget and membership of more than four million
gun owners to influence ancillary issues.
“What you’re seeing is a recognition that support for the Second Amendment is
not only a very powerful voting bloc, but a very powerful political force.”
Chris W. Cox, the N.R.A.’s chief lobbyist, said in an interview last week at the
group’s Washington office, a few blocks from the Capitol.
He pointed to the debate this spring over loosening gun laws in the District of
Columbia after a 2008 Supreme Court ruling found the city’s gun ban
unconstitutional. At the time, advocates for district voting rights saw their
best chance in many years to gain a voting seat in the House, but they abandoned
their own proposal after gun rights supporters attached a provision weakening
local gun laws.
“I honestly don’t care about D.C. voting rights,” Mr. Cox said of the
legislative maneuvering. “I care about reforming D.C. gun laws, and we’re going
to use voting rights or any other vehicle at our disposal to address what we
consider a blatant disregard for the Constitution.”
The N.R.A. was just as aggressive last month in getting Congressional Democrats
to carve out an exemption tailor-made for the group to exclude it from the
so-called Disclose Act, requiring disclosure of donors, rather than risk a
defeat of the whole bill because of opposition from Republicans and conservative
Democrats supportive of gun rights.
“They shot holes in the Disclose Act with such precision and force that it would
make an N.R.A. member proud,” said Kenneth Gross, a Washington lawyer who
specializes in lobbying issues.
But the group’s muscle has generated tensions with some gun owners themselves,
who do not like the idea of the N.R.A. straying into areas outside its core base
and aligning itself with Democrats as it broadens its agenda.
The headline on a recent blog post from a rival faction, the Gun Owners of
America, singling out the N.R.A.’s exemption from the campaign finance bill,
captured the sentiment: “The N.R.A. Sells out Freedom to the Democrats.”
A point of contention on both the left and the right is the N.R.A.’s close
working relationship with Mr. Reid, the Senate leader who helped get a number of
pro-gun rights measures included in broader bills.
That relationship has led some gun rights supporters to lobby against the idea
that the N.R.A. might endorse Mr. Reid in his tough re-election campaign this
November in Nevada.
The N.R.A. is not tamping down speculation. While Mr. Cox said the group had not
decided on any endorsements, he pointed to what he considered an unattractive
alternative if Mr. Reid loses and the Democrats hold power. “I’ll give you four
words: Majority Leader Chuck Schumer,” he said.
Mr. Reid, for his part, does not run from his support for the N.R.A. His office
noted that he had been a longtime “champion of the Second Amendment.”
One reason for the group’s greater political leverage is that battles in
Washington are so closely fought now that powerful interest groups hold more
sway even if they can only deliver a handful of votes.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, said in
pursuing an ambitious legislative agenda, President Obama — who has been largely
silent on gun issues — and Congressional Democrats must either work with the gun
lobby or risk losing votes. “They basically end up saying, ‘We’re willing to
capitulate to the N.R.A. to get the greater good of whatever passed,’ ” he said.
That approach bothers him and Ms. McCarthy, who first came to politics on a
pro-gun-control platform after a gunman with a semiautomatic weapon killed her
husband and five others during a rampage on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993.
Ms. McCarthy said the group drew its power from its money — it has donated more
than $17.5 million to federal candidates, mostly Republicans, since 1989, and
spent millions more in lobbying — and the fear of political retribution.
“I’ve told the Democratic leadership, if you give in to them once, you’re going
to see every piece of legislation with a gun amendment added to it,” she said.
“But it’s put the leadership in a very difficult position because they know they
might not get their bill passed.”
N.R.A. leaders say they plan on broadening their efforts.
“I think we’ve done it better than any organization in the country, to be
honest,” said Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.’s executive vice president.
Thirteen days ago, the Supreme Court undermined Chicago’s ban on handguns by
applying the Second Amendment to the states, ruling that people have a right to
protect their homes with a gun. Four days after that, Chicago passed another
handgun restriction that edged right up to the line drawn by the court. And on
Tuesday, a group of gun dealers and enthusiasts sued the city again to overturn
the new law.
Bullets are flying on city streets, but the vital work of limiting gun use has
become a cat-and-mouse game. Beleaguered citizens deserve better from both
We strongly disagreed with the reasoning that led the court to find an
individual right to bear arms in the Second Amendment, ending handgun bans in
Washington, D.C., in 2008 and everywhere else last month. Nonetheless, the law
of the land is now that people have a constitutional right to a gun in their
home for self-defense.
That right can be limited, the court explicitly said, with reasonable
restrictions. But it provided very little guidance as to what is reasonable,
leaving lawyers, lawmakers and judges to thrash it out in a bog of lawsuits that
could take many years to clear.
Cities and states have a need to be extremely tough in limiting access to guns,
but they need to do it with more forethought than went into the Chicago
ordinance. Lawmakers there sensibly limited residents to one operable handgun
per home, with a strict registration and permitting process. But residents are
not allowed to buy a gun in the city. They must receive firearms training, but
ranges are illegal in the city. Chicago lawmakers sloughed off on the suburbs
the responsibility to regulate sales and training. As a result, more people will
travel more miles to transport guns.
The law is likely to draw heightened equal-protection scrutiny from skeptical
judges at all levels. Chicago would have been better off allowing gun sales
under the strict oversight of the police department, which could then better
check the backgrounds and movements of every buyer and seller. The District of
Columbia passed a largely similar ordinance last year after its law was struck
down by the court. But it permits sales at the few gun shops in the district,
and a federal judge upheld that ordinance after it was challenged. It could
stand as a model for other cities.
As flawed as the Chicago regulation is, the lawsuit challenging it is entirely
over the top. It disputes virtually every aspect of the law as a violation of
the Second Amendment and poses ludicrous hypothetical situations to show that
everyone needs a gun. “If an elderly widow lives in an unsafe neighborhood and
asks her son to spend the night because she has recently received harassing
phone calls,” the lawsuit complains, “the son may not bring his registered
firearm with him to his mother’s home as an aid to the defense of himself and
his mother.” Putting granny in the middle of a neighborhood firefight is
preferable to having her simply call the police?
The gun lobby is going to attack virtually every gun ordinance it can find, if
only to see what it can get away with now. (Last week, the same lawyers who
brought the Chicago and Washington cases sued North Carolina, challenging a law
that prohibits carrying weapons during a state of emergency.)
Lawmakers need not match the lobby’s obduracy. Cities and states should counter
with tough but sensible laws designed to resist legal challenges and keep gun
possession to a minimum.
About 10,000 Americans died by handgun violence, according to federal
statistics, in the four months that the Supreme Court debated which clause of
the Constitution it would use to subvert Chicago’s entirely sensible ban on
handgun ownership. The arguments that led to Monday’s decision undermining
Chicago’s law were infuriatingly abstract, but the results will be all too real
This began two years ago, when the Supreme Court disregarded the plain words of
the Second Amendment and overturned the District of Columbia’s handgun ban,
deciding that the amendment gave individuals in the district, not just militias,
the right to bear arms. Proceeding from that flawed logic, the court has now
said the amendment applies to all states and cities, rendering Chicago’s ban on
handgun ownership unenforceable.
Once again, the court’s conservative majority imposed its selective reading of
American history, citing the country’s violent separation from Britain and the
battles over slavery as proof that the authors of the Constitution and its later
amendments considered gun ownership a fundamental right. The court’s members
ignored the present-day reality of Chicago, where 258 public school students
were shot last school year — 32 fatally.
Rather than acknowledging Chicago’s — and the nation’s — need to end an epidemic
of gun violence, the justices spent scores of pages in the decision analyzing
which legal theory should bind the Second Amendment to the states. Should it be
the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, or the amendment’s immunities
clause? The argument was not completely settled because there was not a
five-vote majority for either path.
The issue is not trivial; had the court backed the immunity-clause path
championed by Justice Clarence Thomas, it might have had the beneficial effect
of applying more aspects of the Bill of Rights to the states. That could make it
easier to require that states, like the federal government, have unanimous jury
verdicts in criminal trials, for example, or ban excessive fines.
While the court has now twice attacked complete bans on handgun ownership, the
decision left plenty of room for restrictions on who can buy and sell arms.
The court acknowledged, as it did in the District of Columbia case, that the
amendment did not confer “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any
manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” It cited a few examples of what it
considered acceptable: limits on gun ownership by felons or the mentally ill,
bans on carrying firearms in sensitive places like schools or government
buildings and conditions on gun sales.
Mayors and state lawmakers will have to use all of that room and keep adopting
the most restrictive possible gun laws — to protect the lives of Americans and
aid the work of law enforcement officials. They should continue to impose
background checks, limit bulk gun purchases, regulate dealers, close gun-show
They should not be intimidated by the theoretical debate that has now concluded
at the court or the relentless stream of lawsuits sure to follow from the gun
lobby that will undoubtedly keep pressing to overturn any and all restrictions.
Officials will have to press back even harder. Too many lives are at stake.
The New York Times
June 28, 2010
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court held Monday that the
Constitution's Second Amendment restrains government's ability to significantly
limit "the right to keep and bear arms," advancing a recent trend by the John
Roberts-led bench to embrace gun rights.
By a narrow, 5-4 vote, the justices signaled, however, that less severe
restrictions could survive legal challenges.
Writing for the court in a case involving restrictive laws in Chicago and one of
its suburbs, Justice Samuel Alito said that the Second Amendment right "applies
equally to the federal government and the states."
The court was split along familiar ideological lines, with five
conservative-moderate justices in favor of gun rights and four liberals opposed.
Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority.
Two years ago, the court declared that the Second Amendment protects an
individual's right to possess guns, at least for purposes of self-defense in the
That ruling applied only to federal laws. It struck down a ban on handguns and a
trigger lock requirement for other guns in the District of Columbia, a federal
city with a unique legal standing. At the same time, the court was careful not
to cast doubt on other regulations of firearms here.
Gun rights proponents almost immediately filed a federal lawsuit challenging gun
control laws in Chicago and its suburb of Oak Park, Ill, where handguns have
been banned for nearly 30 years. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says
those laws appear to be the last two remaining outright bans.
Lower federal courts upheld the two laws, noting that judges on those benches
were bound by Supreme Court precedent and that it would be up to the high court
justices to ultimately rule on the true reach of the Second Amendment.
The Supreme Court already has said that most of the guarantees in the Bill of
Rights serve as a check on state and local, as well as federal, laws.
Monday's decision did not explicitly strike down the Chicago area laws, ordering
a federal appeals court to reconsider its ruling. But it left little doubt that
they would eventually fall.
Still, Alito noted that the declaration that the Second Amendment is fully
binding on states and cities "limits (but by no means eliminates) their ability
to devise solutions to social problems that suit local needs and values."
June 26, 2009
The New York Times
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ken Pagano, the pastor of the New Bethel Church here, is
passionate about gun rights. He shoots regularly at the local firing range, and
his sermon two weeks ago was on “God, Guns, Gospel and Geometry.” And on
Saturday night, he is inviting his congregation of 150 and others to wear or
carry their firearms into the sanctuary to “celebrate our rights as Americans!”
as a promotional flier for the “open carry celebration” puts it.
“God and guns were part of the foundation of this country,” Mr. Pagano, 49, said
Wednesday in the small brick Assembly of God church, where a large wooden cross
hung over the altar and two American flags jutted from side walls. “I don’t see
any contradiction in this. Not every Christian denomination is pacifist.”
The bring-your-gun-to-church day, which will include a $1 raffle of a handgun,
firearms safety lessons and a picnic, is another sign that the gun culture in
the United States is thriving despite, or perhaps because of, President Obama’s
election in November.
Last year, the National Rifle Association ran a multimillion-dollar advertising
campaign against Mr. Obama, stoking fears that he would be the most antigun
president in history and that firearms would be confiscated. One worry was that
a Democratic president and Congress would reinstitute the assault-weapons ban,
which expired in 2004.
But there is little support for the ban. Mr. Obama and his party have largely
ignored gun-control issues, and the president even signed a measure that will
allow firearms in national parks.
Still, the fear remains that Mr. Obama, and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder
Jr., will crack down on guns sooner or later. That — along with the faltering
economy, which gun sellers say has spurred purchases for self-defense — has
fueled a record surge in gun sales.
“Every president wants to be re-elected, and gun bans are pretty much a
nonstarter for getting re-elected,” said Win Underwood, owner of the Bluegrass
Indoor Range here. “What I suspect is going to happen is, Obama’s going to cool
his jets until he can get re-elected, and then he’ll start building his legacy
in these hot-button areas.”
When Mr. Obama was elected in November, federal instant background checks, the
best indicator of gun sales, jumped 42 percent over the previous November. Every
month since then, the number of checks has been higher than the year before,
although the postelection surge may be tapering off, as all surges eventually
do. While the number of checks in April increased 30 percent from the year
before, the number of checks in May (1,023,102) was only 15 percent higher than
in May 2008.
The National Rifle Association says its membership is up 30 percent since
November. And several states have recently passed laws allowing gun owners to
carry firearms in more places — bars, restaurants, cars and parks.
“We have a very active agenda in all 50 states,” said Chris W. Cox, legislative
director of the N.R.A., widely considered the country’s most powerful lobby. “We
have right-to-carry laws in over 40 states; 20 years ago, it was in just six.”
Of the 40 states with right-to-carry laws, 20 allow guns in churches.
Public attitudes also seem to be turning more sympathetic to gun owners. In
April, the Pew Research Center found for the first time that almost as many
people said it was more important to protect the rights of gun owners (45
percent) than to control gun ownership (49 percent). Just a year ago, Pew said,
58 percent said gun control was more important than the rights of gun owners (37
Gun-control advocates say they feel increasingly ineffective, especially after a
recent spate of high-profile shootings, including last month’s murder, inside a
church in Kansas, of a doctor who performed late-term abortions.
“We’ve definitely been marginalized,” said Pam Gersh, a public relations
consultant here who helped organize a rally in Louisville in 2000, to coincide
with the Million Mom March against guns in Washington.
“The Brady Campaign and other similar organizations who advocate sensible gun
responsibility laws don’t have the money and the political power — not even
close,” she said. “This pastor is obviously crossing a line here and saying ‘I
can even take my guns to church, and there is nothing you can do about it.’ ”
Ms. Gersh said she was not aware that a group of local churches and peace
activists were staging a counterpicnic — called “Bring your peaceful heart,
leave your gun at home” — at the same time as Mr. Pagano’s event.
But news media attention — some from overseas — has focused on Mr. Pagano, who
has been planning the event for a year, in celebration of the Fourth of July.
Cameras will not be allowed in the church, he said, to protect the
The celebration will feature lessons in responsible gun ownership, Mr. Pagano
said. Sheriff’s deputies will be at the doors to check that openly carried
firearms are unloaded, but they will not check for concealed weapons.
“That’s the whole point of concealed,” Mr. Pagano said, adding that he was not
worried because such owners require training.
Mr. Pagano said the church’s insurance company, which he would not identify, had
canceled the church’s policy for the day on Saturday and told him that it would
cancel the policy for good at the end of the year. If he cannot find insurance
for Saturday, people will not be allowed in openly carrying their guns.
Arkansas and Georgia recently rejected efforts to allow people to carry
concealed weapons in church. Watching the debate in Arkansas was John Phillips,
pastor of the Central Church of Christ in Little Rock. In 1986, Mr. Phillips was
preaching in a different church there when a gunman shot him and a parishioner.
Both survived, but Mr. Phillips, 51, still has a bullet lodged in his spine.
In a telephone interview, he said he found the idea of “packing in the pew”
“There is a movement afoot across the nation, with the gun lobby pushing the
envelope, trying to allow concealed weapons to be carried in places where they
used to be prohibited — churches, schools, bars,” Mr. Phillips said.
“I don’t understand how any minister who is familiar with the teachings of the
Bible can do this,” he added. “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Go ahead, make my day.’ ”
Mr. Pagano takes such comments as a challenge to his faith and says they make
him more determined.
“When someone from within the church tells me that being a Christian and having
firearms are contradictions, that they’re incompatible with the Gospel —
baloney,” he said. “As soon as you start saying that it’s not something that
Christians do, well, guns are just the foil. The issue now is the Gospel. So in
a sense, it does become a crusade. Now the Gospel is at stake.”
A year ago, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision
establishing the constitutional right of Americans to own guns. But the justices
did not explain what the practical effect of that ruling would be on city and
state gun laws.
Could a city still ban handguns? The justices said the District of Columbia
could not, but only because it is a special federal district. The question of
the constitutionality of existing city and state gun laws was left unanswered.
That left a large vacuum for the lower courts to fill. Supporters of gun rights
filed a flurry of lawsuits to strike down local gun restrictions, and now
federal appeals courts have begun weighing in on this divisive issue, using very
One court this month upheld Chicago’s ban on automatic weapons and concealed
handguns, while in April a California court disagreed on the constitutional
The differing opinions mean that the whole issue of city and state gun laws will
probably head back to the Supreme Court for clarification, leading many legal
experts to predict a further expansion of gun rights.
The new cases are fallout from last year’s Supreme Court case, District of
Columbia v. Heller, which struck down parts of Washington’s gun control
ordinance, the strictest in the country, and stated for the first time that the
Second Amendment gives individuals a right to keep and bear arms for personal
use. But the court declined to say whether the Second Amendment in general
applies to state and local governments.
In January, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New
York, in a ruling joined by Judge Sonia Sotomayor, declined to apply the Second
Amendment to a New York law that banned the martial arts device known as chukka
sticks. The ban was allowed to stay in place.
Then in April, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled
that the Second Amendment did apply to the states, even though it allowed a
California county to ban guns on government property like state fairgrounds.
That case, Nordyke v. King, is being considered for a rehearing by the full
Those two conflicting cases set the stage for two other cases that were heard as
one in the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, testing that city’s handgun ban. On June
2, a three-judge panel of the court, led by Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook, a
well-known conservative, ruled that there was no basis for the court to apply
the Second Amendment to the states. Such a decision, Judge Easterbrook wrote,
should be made only by the Supreme Court, not at the appellate level.
The right of states to make their own decisions on such matters, Judge
Easterbrook wrote, “is an older and more deeply rooted tradition than is a right
to carry any particular kind of weapon.”
The lawyers for the plaintiffs, including the National Rifle Association, have
asked the Supreme Court to take up the Chicago cases.
A split among the federal appeals circuits, especially on constitutional issues,
invites Supreme Court action, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the
University of California, Los Angeles.
“Californians, Hawaiians and Oregonians have a Second Amendment right to bear
arms, but New Yorkers, Illinoisans, and Wisconsinites don’t,” Professor Winkler
said. “The Supreme Court will want to correct this sooner rather than later.”
The process of applying amendments of the Bill of Rights to the states, known as
incorporation, began after the Civil War but had its heyday in the activist
Supreme Court of the Earl Warren era. Much of the Bill of Rights, including the
First Amendment’s freedom of speech and some rights of criminal defendants, have
been applied to the states, but other elements have not, including the Seventh
Amendment right to a civil jury trial and the Second Amendment.
Incorporation fell out of favor after the 1960s, but a new generation of largely
liberal scholars of law and history have brought it back into the intellectual
mainstream, said Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale University, who
supports the process.
“The precedents are now supportive of incorporation of nearly every provision of
the Bill of Rights,” Professor Amar said. “Now what’s odd is that the Second
Amendment doesn’t apply to the states.”
Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas, said he would be
surprised if the Supreme Court accepted these gun cases, because some of the
conservative justices on the court had scoffed at incorporation arguments in the
past and might not want to set a precedent.
Professor Amar, however, argued that the justices would not only take up the
case but would also ultimately vote for incorporation of the Second Amendment.
Even if the Second Amendment becomes the controlling law of every state and
town, constitutional scholars say it is still unlikely that gun laws would be
overturned wholesale. The Supreme Court’s Heller decision last year, notes
Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University, “clearly indicates that
governments will still have wide latitude to regulate firearms.”
Even the Ninth Circuit in California, while applying the Second Amendment to the
states, still upheld the gun ordinance that gave rise to the lawsuit.
Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles,
said the view of the Ninth Circuit reflected what polls have said was, by and
large, the view of the American people.
“There is a right to bear arms,” Professor Volokh said, “but it’s not absolute.”
— The Supreme Court declared for the first time on Thursday that the
Constitution protects an individual’s right to have a gun, not just the right of
the states to maintain militias.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in the landmark 5-to-4
decision, said the Constitution does not allow “the absolute prohibition of
handguns held and used for self-defense in the home.” In so declaring, the
majority found that a gun-control law in the nation’s capital went too far by
making it nearly impossible to own a handgun.
But the court held that the individual right to possess a gun “for traditionally
lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home” is not unlimited. “It is
not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and
for whatever purpose,” Justice Scalia wrote.
The ruling does not mean, for instance, that laws against carrying concealed
weapons are to be swept aside. Furthermore, Justice Scalia wrote, “The court’s
opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the
possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the
carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government
buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale
The decision upheld a federal appeals court ruling that the District of
Columbia’s gun law, one of the strictest in the country, went beyond
constitutional limits. Not only did the 1976 law make it practically impossible
for an individual to legally possess a handgun in the district, but it also
spelled out rules for the storage of rifles and shotguns. But the court did not
articulate a specific standard of review for what might be a reasonable
restraint on the right to possess a firearm.
The court also said on Thursday that the district law’s requirement that lawful
weapons be rendered essentially inoperable, by trigger locks or disassembly, was
unconstitutional because it rendered the weapons useless for self-defense.
Joining Justice Scalia were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices
Clarence Thomas, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
A dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens asserted that the majority “would have us
believe that over 200 years ago, the framers made a choice to limit the tools
available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons.”
Joining him were Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G.
The high court’s ruling was the first since 1939 to deal with the scope of the
Second Amendment, and the first to so directly address the meaning of the
amendment’s ambiguous, comma-laden text: “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.”
Not surprisingly, Justice Scalia and Justice Stevens differed on the clarity (or
lack thereof) of the Second Amendment. “The amendment’s prefatory clause
announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second
clause,” wrote Justice Scalia. “The operative clause’s text and history
demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.”
Not at all, Justice Stevens countered, asserting that the majority “stakes its
holding on a strained and unpersuasive reading of the amendment’s text.” Justice
Stevens read his dissent from the bench, an unmistakable signal that he
disagreed deeply with the majority.
Indeed, it was clear from the conflicting opinions of Justices Scalia and
Stevens that the case had generated emotional as well as intellectual sparks at
Justice Scalia devoted page after page of his opinion to the various state
constitutions and to the use of language in the 18th and 19th centuries to
support his view that an individual right to bear arms is embodied in the
Constitution. And Justice Scalia, who clearly takes pride in his writing as well
as his reasoning, used adjectives like “frivolous” and “bizarre” to describe the
other side’s arguments.
Not to be outdone, Justice Stevens called the majority’s interpretation of the
Second Amendment “overwrought and novel” and said it “calls to mind the parable
of the six blind men and the elephant,” in which each of the sightless men had a
different conception of the animal.
“Each of them, of course, has fundamentally failed to grasp the nature of the
creature,” Justice Stevens wrote.
The ruling on Thursday will surely not quiet the debate about guns and violence
in the United States, where deaths by firearm take a far higher toll than in
many other countries, as Justice Scalia acknowledged.
“We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country,” he wrote,
saying that he took seriously the concerns of those who believe that
“prohibition of handgun ownership is a solution.”
Lawmakers in the District of Columbia and across the country may look to the
decision as a blueprint for writing new legislation to satisfy the demands of
constituents who say there is too much regulation of firearms now, or too
little, depending on the sentiments in their regions. (Washington’s Mayor,
Adrian M. Fenty, will instruct the police department to issue new
handgun-registration rules within 30 days while city officials study the ruling,
The Washington Post reported on its Web site.)
Nor was there any suggestion that the court’s ruling would lead to a
proliferation of deadly, military-style assault weapons. Alluding to the 1939
Supreme Court decision, which held that the weapons protected under the Second
Amendment were those “in common use at the time,” Justice Scalia said, “We think
that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting
the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’ ”
The White House issued a statement saying that President Bush “strongly agrees
with the Supreme Court’s historic decision today that the Second Amendment
protects the individual right of Americans to keep and bear arms.”
The Supreme Court ruling is likely to play out in this year’s elections, as
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee for
president, made clear. “I applaud this decision as well as the overturning of
the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns and limitations on the ability to use
firearms for self-defense,” Mr. McCain said in a statement, which contained a
reminder that his Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, refused
to join him in signing an amicus brief in support of overturning the district’s
Indeed, Mr. Obama’s view, expressed in a statement, was more nuanced than Mr.
McCain’s. “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right
of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged
communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets
through common-sense, effective safety measures,” Mr. Obama said, predicting
that the ruling would provide needed guidance for lawmakers.
The National Rifle Association and other supporters of rights to have firearms
are sure to use the decision as a launch pad for lawsuits. The N.R.A. said it
would file suits in San Francisco, Chicago and several Chicago suburbs
challenging handgun restrictions there. “I consider this the opening salvo in a
step-by-step process of providing relief for law-abiding Americans everywhere
that have been deprived of this freedom,” Wayne LaPierre, executive vice
president of the N.R.A., told The Associated Press.
Reaction on Capitol Hill differed sharply. Representative John A. Boehner of
Ohio, the Republican minority leader in the House, applauded the ruling. “The
Constitution plainly guarantees the solemn right to keep and bear arms, and the
whims of politically correct bureaucrats cannot take it away,” he said in a
But Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and a former mayor of San
Francisco, said she was disappointed in the ruling. “I speak as a former mayor,”
she said at a session of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I speak as somebody
who has gone to homicide crime scenes.”
The last time the Supreme Court weighed a case involving the Second Amendment,
in 1939, it decided a narrower question, finding that the Constitution did not
protect any right to possess a specific type of firearm, the sawed-off shotgun.
By contrast, the issues in the District of Columbia case seemed much more
“mainstream,” if that term can be used in reference to gun-control issues. When
the justices announced on Nov. 20 that they were accepting the case of District
of Columbia v. Heller, No. 07-290, they indicated that they would go to the
heart of the long debate.
The question, they said, is whether the district’s restrictions on firearms
“violate the Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with
any state-regulated militia but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for
private use in their homes.”
Dick Anthony Heller, a security guard who carries a handgun for his job
protecting federal judiciary offices, challenged the District of Columbia’s law
after his request for a license to keep his gun at home was rejected.
There have been debates about the efficacy of gun-control efforts in the
capital. Those district residents who want guns — and are willing to risk
punishment if caught with them without bothering to apply for permits — can get
them easily enough, across the Potomac River in Virginia and in other nearby
Washington’s homicide rate, while high by world standards, is sharply lower than
it was in the early 1990s. Last year, there were 181 homicides in Washington,
down from a peak of 479 in 1991, when crack cocaine was a huge problem in some
sections of the city.
Concluding his opinion, Justice Scalia wrote, “Undoubtedly some think that the
Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride
of our nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and
where gun violence is a serious problem.”
“That is perhaps debatable,” Justice Scalia wrote, “but what is not debatable is
that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment
When the Heller case was argued before the justices on March 18, Mr. Heller’s
lawyer, Alan Gura, did not assert that the Second Amendment precluded any kind
of ban related to gun possession. He said that a ban on the shipment of machine
guns and sawed-off shotguns would be acceptable, and in answer to a question
from the justices, so, too, might be a prohibition on guns in schools. Some of
the justices signaled during arguments that they thought the District’s
near-total ban on handguns went too far.
A legislature “has a great deal of leeway in regulating firearms,” Mr. Gura
argued, but not to the extent of virtually banning them in homes.
The Washington law not only established high barriers to the private possession
of handguns, it also required that rifles and shotguns be kept either in a
disassembled state or under a trigger lock.
Walter Dellinger, the lawyer who argued for the district on March 18, asserted
that “the people” and “the militia” were essentially the same, and that the
Second Amendment gave people the right to bear arms only in connection with
their militia service.
Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, representing the federal government, argued
on behalf of the individual-rights position, which has been the Bush
administration’s policy. But he said that the appeals court had also gone too
far in overturning the ordinance and that the right to bear arms was always
subject to “reasonable regulations.”
Charlton Heston, who appeared in some 100 films in his 60-year acting career
but who is remembered chiefly for his monumental, jut-jawed portrayals of Moses,
Ben-Hur and Michelangelo, died Saturday night at his home in Beverly Hills,
Calif. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by a spokesman for the family, Bill Powers, who declined
to discuss the cause. In August 2002, Mr. Heston announced that he had been
diagnosed with neurological symptoms “consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.”
“I’m neither giving up nor giving in,” he said.
Every actor dreams of a breakthrough role, the part that stamps him in the
public memory, and Mr. Heston’s life changed forever when he caught the eye of
the director Cecil B. De Mille. De Mille, who was planning his next biblical
spectacular, “The Ten Commandments,” looked at the young, physically imposing
Mr. Heston and saw his Moses.
When the film was released in 1956, more than three and a half hours long and
the most expensive that De Mille had ever made, Mr. Heston became a marquee
name. Whether leading the Israelites through the wilderness, parting the Red Sea
or coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets from God in hand, he was a
Moses to remember.
Writing in The New York Times nearly 30 years afterward, when the film was
re-released for a brief run, Vincent Canby called it “a gaudy, grandiloquent
Hollywood classic” and suggested there was more than a touch of “the rugged
American frontiersman of myth” in Mr. Heston’s Moses.
The same quality made Mr. Heston an effective spokesman, off-screen, for the
causes he believed in. Late in life he became a staunch opponent of gun control.
Elected president of the National Rifle Association in 1998, he proved to be a
powerful campaigner against what he saw as the government’s attempt to infringe
on a Constitutional guarantee — the right to bear arms.
In Mr. Heston, the N.R.A. found its embodiment of pioneer values — pride,
independence and valor. In a speech at the N.R.A.’s annual convention in 2000,
he brought the audience to its feet with a ringing attack on gun-control
advocates. Paraphrasing an N.R.A. bumper sticker (“I’ll give you my gun when you
take it from my cold, dead hands”) he waved a replica of a colonial musket above
his head and shouted defiantly, “From my cold, dead hands!”
Mr. Heston’s screen presence was so commanding that he was never dominated by
mammoth sets, spectacular effects or throngs of spear-waving extras. In his
films, whether playing Buffalo Bill, an airline pilot, a naval captain or the
commander of a spaceship, he essentially projected the same image — muscular,
steely-eyed, courageous. If critics regularly used terms like
“marble-monumental” or “granitic” to describe his acting style, they just as
often praised his forthright, no-nonsense characterizations.
After his success in “The Ten Commandments,” Mr. Heston tried a change of pace.
Another legendary Hollywood director, Orson Welles, cast him as a Mexican
narcotics investigator in the thriller “Touch of Evil,” in which Welles himself
played a murderous sheriff in a border town. Also starring Janet Leigh and
Marlene Dietrich, the film, a modest success when it opened in 1958, came to be
accepted as a noir classic.
But the following year Mr. Heston stepped back into the world of the biblical
epic, this time under the director William Wyler. The movie was “Ben-Hur.” Cast
as a prince of ancient Judea who rebels against the rule of Rome, Mr. Heston
again dominated the screen. In the film’s most spectacular sequence, he and his
co-star, Stephen Boyd, as his Roman rival, fight a thrilling duel with whips as
their horse-drawn chariots careen wheel-to-wheel around an arena filled with
“Ben-Hur” won 11 Academy Awards — a record at the time — including those for
best picture, best director and, for Mr. Heston, best actor.
He went on to star opposite Sophia Loren in the 1961 release “El Cid,” battling
the Moors in 11th-century Spain. As a Marine officer stationed in the Forbidden
City in 1900, he helped put down the Boxer Rebellion in Nicholas Ray’s 1963 epic
“55 Days at Peking.” In “Khartoum” (1966), he played Gen. Charles (Chinese)
Gordon, who was killed in a desert uprising led in the film by Laurence
Olivier’s Mahdi. When George Stevens produced and directed “The Greatest Story
Ever Told” in 1965, there was Mr. Heston, back in ancient Judea, playing John
the Baptist to Max von Sydow’s Jesus.
He portrayed Andrew Jackson twice, in “The President’s Lady” (1954) and “The
Buccaneer” (1958). There were westerns (“Major Dundee,” “Will Penny,” “The
Mountain Men”), costume dramas (“The Three Musketeers” and its sequel, “The Four
Musketeers,” with Mr. Heston cast as the crafty Cardinal Richelieu in both) and
action films aplenty. Whether playing a hard-bitten landowner in an adaptation
of James Michener’s novel “The Hawaiians” (1970), or a daring pilot in “Airport
1975,” he could be relied on to give moviegoers their money’s worth.
In 1965 he was cast as Michelangelo in the film version of Irving Stone’s novel
“The Agony and the Ecstasy.” Directed by Carol Reed, the film pitted Mr.
Heston’s temperamental artist against Rex Harrison’s testy Pope Julius II, who
commissioned Michelangelo to create frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine
Chapel. Mr. Heston’s performance took a critical drubbing, but to audiences, the
larger-than-life role seemed to be another perfect fit. Mr. Heston once joked:
“I have played three presidents, three saints and two geniuses. If that doesn’t
create an ego problem, nothing does.”
Mr. Heston was catapulted into the distant future in the 1968 science-fiction
film “Planet of the Apes,” in which he played an astronaut marooned on a
desolate planet and then enslaved by its rulers, a race of anthropomorphic apes.
The film was a hit. He reprised the role two years later in the sequel, “Beneath
the Planet of the Apes.”
Son of the Midwest
It was all a long way from Evanston, Ill., where Charlton Carter was born on
Oct. 4, 1924, and from the small town of St. Helen, Mich., where his family
moved when he was a small boy and where his father ran a lumber mill. He
attended a one-room school and learned to fish and hunt and to savor the feeling
of being self-reliant in the wild, where his shyness was no handicap.
When his parents divorced in the 1930s and his mother remarried — his
stepfather’s surname was Heston — the family moved to the Chicago suburb of
Winnetka. He joined the theater program at his new high school and went on to
enroll at Northwestern University on a scholarship. By that time, he was
convinced he had found his life’s work.
Mr. Heston also found a fellow drama student, Lydia Clarke, whom he married in
1944, just before enlisting in the Army Air Force. He became a radio-gunner and
spent three years stationed in the Aleutian Islands. After his discharge, the
Hestons moved to New York, failed to find work in the theater and, somewhat
disenchanted but still determined, moved to North Carolina, where they spent
several seasons working at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Theater in Asheville.
When they returned to New York in 1947, Mr. Heston got his first big break,
landing the role of Caesar’s lieutenant in a Broadway production of
Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” staged by Guthrie McClintick and starring
Katharine Cornell. The production ran for seven months and proved to be the high
point of Mr. Heston’s New York stage career. He appeared in a handful of other
plays, most of them dismal failures, although his performance in the title role
of a 1956 revival of “Mr. Roberts” won him praise.
If Broadway had little to offer him, television was another matter. He made
frequent appearances in dramatic series like “Robert Montgomery Presents” and
“Philco Playhouse.” The door to Hollywood opened when the film producer Hal B.
Wallis saw Mr. Heston’s performance as Rochester in a “Studio One” production of
“Jane Eyre.” Wallis offered him a contract.
Mr. Heston made his film debut in 1950 in Wallis’s “Dark City,” a low-grade
thriller in which he played a small-time gambler. Two years later, he did his
first work for De Mille as a hard-driving circus boss in “The Greatest Show on
Throughout his career he studied long and hard for his roles. He prepared for
the part of Moses by memorizing passages from the Old Testament. When filming
began on the sun-baked slopes of Mount Sinai, he suggested to De Mille that he
play the role barefoot — a decision that he felt lent an edge of truth to his
Preparing for “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” he read hundreds of Michelangelo’s
letters and practiced how to sculpt and paint convincingly. When filming “The
Wreck of the Mary Deare” (1959), in which he played the pilot of a salvage boat,
he learned deep-water diving. And he mostly rejected stunt doubles. In
“Ben-Hur,” he said, he drove his own chariot for “about 80 percent of the race.”
“I worked six weeks learning how to manage the four white horses,” he said.
“Nearly pulled my arms right out of their sockets.”
As the years wore on, the leading roles began to go to younger men, and by the
1980s, Mr. Heston’s appearances on screen were less frequent. He turned to stage
work again, not on Broadway but in Los Angeles, at the Ahmanson Theater, where
he played roles ranging from Macbeth to James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into
Night.” He also returned to television, appearing in 1983 as a paternalistic
banker in the miniseries “Chiefs” and as an oil baron in the series “The
Rifles and a ‘Cultural War’
Mr. Heston was always able to channel some energies into the public arena. He
was an active supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., calling him “a
20th-century Moses for his people,” and participated in the historic march on
Washington in 1963.
He served as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1966 to 1971, following
in the footsteps of his friend and role model Ronald Reagan. A registered
Democrat for many years, he was nevertheless selective in the candidates he
chose to support and often campaigned for conservatives.
In 1981, President Reagan appointed him co-chairman of the President’s Task
Force on the Arts and Humanities, a group formed to devise ways to obtain
financing for arts organizations. Although he had reservations about some
projects supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Mr. Heston wound up
defending the agency against charges of elitism.
Again and again, he proved himself a cogent and effective speaker, but he
rejected suggestions that he run for office, perhaps for a seat in the Senate.
“I’d rather play a senator than be one,” he said.
He became a Republican after Democrats in the Senate blocked the confirmation of
Judge Robert Bork, a conservative, to the Supreme Court in 1987. Mr. Heston had
supported the nomination and was critical of the Reagan White House for
misreading the depth of the liberal opposition.
Mr. Heston frequently spoke out against what he saw as evidence of the decline
and debasement of American culture. In 1992, appalled by the lyrics on “Cop
Killer,” a recording by the rap artist Ice T, he blasted the album at a Time
Warner stockholders meeting and was a force in having it withdrawn from the
In the 1996 elections, he campaigned on behalf of some 50 Republican candidates
and began to speak out against gun control. In 1997, he was elected vice
president of the N.R.A.
In December of that year, as the keynote speaker at the 20th anniversary gala of
the Free Congress Foundation, Mr. Heston described “a cultural war” raging
across America, “storming our values, assaulting our freedoms, killing our
self-confidence in who we are and what we believe.”
A Relentless Drive
The next year, at 73, he was elected president of the N.R.A. In his speech at
the association’s convention before his election, he trained his oratorical
artillery on President Bill Clinton’s White House: “Mr. Clinton, sir, America
didn’t trust you with our health care system. America didn’t trust you with gays
in the military. America doesn’t trust you with our 21-year-old daughters, and
we sure, Lord, don’t trust you with our guns.”
He was in the news again after the shootings at Columbine High School in
Littleton, Colo., in April 1999, when he said that the N.R.A.’s annual
membership meeting, scheduled to be held the following week in Denver, would be
scaled back in light of the killings but not canceled.
In a memorable scene from “Bowling for Columbine,” his 2002 documentary about
violence in America, the director, Michael Moore, visited Mr. Heston at his home
and asked him how he could defend his pro-gun stance. Mr. Heston ended the
interview without comment.
In May 2001, he was unanimously re-elected to an unprecedented fourth term by
the association’s board of directors. The association had amended its bylaws in
2000 to allow Mr. Heston to serve a third one-year term as president. Two months
after his celebrated speech at the 2000 convention, it was disclosed that Mr.
Heston had checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation program after the
convention had ended.
Mr. Heston was proud of his collection of some 30 guns at his longtime home in
the Coldwater Canyon area of Beverly Hills, where he and his wife raised their
son, Fraser, and daughter, Holly Ann. They all survive him, along with three
Never much for socializing , he spent his days either working, exercising,
reading (he was fond of biographies) or sketching. An active diarist, he
published several accounts of his career, including “The Actor’s Life: Journals
In 2003, Mr. Heston was among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of
Freedom awarded by President Bush. In 1997, he was also a recipient of the
annual Kennedy Center honors.
Mr. Heston continued working through the 1990s, acting more frequently on
television but also in occasional films. His most recent film appearance found
him playing a cameo role, in simian makeup, in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of
“Planet of the Apes.”
He had announced in 1999 that he was receiving radiation treatments for prostate
He had always hated the thought of retirement and once explained his relentless
drive as an actor. “You never get it right,” he said in a 1986 interview. “Never
once was it the way I imagined it lying awake at 4 o’clock in the morning
thinking about it the next day.” His goal remained, he said, “To get it right