How the Modern NRA Was Born at the Border

Historians in the News
tags: Second Amendment, racism, immigration, Mexican American history, National Rifle Association

In my new documentary, The Rifleman, I use archival footage to tell the story of Harlon Carter (1913–1991), who led the National Rifle Association (NRA) from 1977 until 1985, during a period when it transformed from principally a sporting organization into a radical right political bloc. When he was seventeen, Carter, who grew up in the Texas borderlands, was convicted of murdering a thirteen-year-old, Ramón Casiano, after Casiano was supposedly seen on the Carters’ property. This kind of white nationalist violence would be a prominent feature of the rest of Carter’s life. After his murder conviction was vacated by the Texas Court of Appeals, Carter would join the U.S. Border Patrol, eventually becoming its head. In that role, he ran Operation Wetback (1954), which made a spectacle of deporting undocumented Mexican farm workers.

In making The Rifleman, I was interested in using Carter’s life to tell the story of the NRA beyond the limited context of the current debate over gun control, and instead place it in the broader context of how gun ownership has, since early in the nation’s founding, been central to enforcing a white nationalist vision of the United States. This continues the work of the films I have been making for the last eight or so years, which all explore how white supremacy operates within the mainstream, whether it’s through the proliferation of Confederate monuments (Graven Image, 2017) or the rise of the Tea Party (Town Hall, 2013, codirected with Jamila Wignot).

I’m an archival researcher by trade, through which I found my way into directing. And so my filmmaking process always begins with trying to find as much primary source material as I can. In this film, that was a challenge because the NRA’s archives are sealed and inaccessible to researchers. Telling this story through Carter’s life, though material of him was scarce, allowed for a broader commentary on the NRA: Operation Wetback was primarily a media operation, and Carter was the person who really turned the NRA into a savvy media-facing organization. There’s something about the way, then, that white supremacy operated in these instances as an open secret that’s really insidious. Carter and the NRA weren’t even trying to hide it.

To delve more into the history of Carter, the NRA, guns, the Second Amendment, and the connection of all of these to white supremacy, I talked with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, whose book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (2018) helped shaped my thinking when I was making The Rifleman. Her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States also shaped another recent film, Raoul Peck’s HBO miniseries Exterminate All the Brutes.

—Sierra Pettengill

Boston Review is proud to partner with Field of Vision to release The Rifleman. We invite readers to stream the film for free (embedded below) and then read the conversation between filmmaker Sierra Pettengill and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.



Sierra Pettengill: Roxanne, thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. My film, The Rifleman, focuses on a particular midcentury moment in the history of the NRA and of U.S. immigration enforcement. But how far back does this go? How deep are guns and white supremacy in the history of the United States?


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, the Springfield Armory that George Washington orders created to make arms for the War of Independence means that gun manufacture is among the first U.S. industries. And despite industrialization and then globalization, the gun industry has remained heavily reliant on domestic manufacturing.

The gun as a technology is deeply tied to the history of U.S. expansion and warfare. A lot of guns are created specifically to serve the needs of particular U.S. wars. A whole bunch of new guns are created for or popularized by the Civil War, including the six shooters—you know, the Jesse James cowboy six shooter. And then the Winchester rifle was created for conquering the West by slaughtering Native Americans.

A key part of the story of America’s love affair with the gun is also how a romanticized fantasy of the American hunter gets invented—you know, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, all that. It’s completely fake. These were all commercial hunters. They didn’t even use the meat. It was for the furs. It was a huge fur industry. And it was all commercial. And the fur industry becomes a way, in part, to sell guns to everyone. It’s an incredible amount of violence but it’s all treated as something that is rather banal at the same time.

Along those lines, something I really appreciate about your film is how it shows that Harlon Carter was just a very bland person. Yes, a teenage murderer. But he’s not some kind of colorful creature. He did study law, you know. He got a law degree at Emory University. He’s a very educated man. He was no border ruffian.

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