The Teen Killer Who Radicalized the NRA

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tags: NRA, Harlon Carter



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

Harlon Carter, “Mr. NRA,” the man who turned America’s national rifle club into its formidable gun lobby, knew guns could kill people—including the 15-year-old Mexican kid he blew away with a shotgun when he was 17. 

Believe it or not, the National Rifle Association began in 1871 committed to “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation”—according to the sign displayed for years at its national headquarters. Its famous lobby sign with the edited version of the militia-less Second Amendment—“… the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”—only came a century later.

Founded by two Civil War veterans embarrassed by Northern soldiers’ inferior marksmanship, the NRA helped pass America’s first gun control laws in the 1930s. Harlon Carter, a tough, bullet-headed conservative, hijacked this nationwide sporting club in 1977 with convention floor machinations immortalized as The Cincinnati Revolt.

Born in Granbury, Texas, in 1913, Carter was a trained lawyer who also accumulated 44 national shooting records. He led the Border Patrol from 1950 through 1957, before heading the Southwestern Region of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1961 through 1970. In 1954, he proclaimed “the biggest drive against illegal aliens in history,” calling it, in those politically incorrect times, “Operation Wetback.”

As NRA president from 1965 to 1967, Carter stewed as gun control became a pet cause of the ’60s radicals he hated. The terrifying urban crime epidemic, along with the John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, helped trigger the Gun Control Act of 1968. The law banned buying guns or ammunition by mail order—as Lee Harvey Oswald had done—stopped the importing of surplus military weapons and prohibited gun purchases by drug addicts and mental patients. When asked about such dangerous individuals wielding guns, Carter deemed it “a price we pay for freedom.” ...




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