Sons of Guns

Epic Magazine
Nov 17 · 33 min read

The story of the 1977 Revolt at Cincinnati, and the men who changed the course of the NRA forever.

by Elena Saavedra Buckley

In a convention center in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, the late May air turned thick, and the vending machines emptied their final sodas. The clock tipped past midnight. On the ceiling high above, languid black streamers barely rippled from an industrial air vent, blowing irrelevant gusts into the early morning humidity. Attendees sweat through the pits of their sports jackets, shifting anxiously in their folding chairs.

The event wasn’t supposed to have gone on this long. In the front of the room, men paced the floor with walkie-talkies, wearing orange hunting caps — a last minute decision to distinguish themselves from the crowd. In their hands, they held pages of notes outlining their plan, which had been finalized the night before in a series of hotel rooms in Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. More than two thousand members of the National Rifle Association stared, expectantly, at the stage before them.

It was 1977. They had all come to town for the NRA’s annual convention, where gun manufacturers showed their latest wares to the public, and enthusiasts gathered around velvet-roped booths to discuss their preferred carbines and munitions. That year, antique collectors had shown muskets from the American Revolution, while towheaded boys snagged the autographs of shooting medalists from the recent Montreal Olympics and posed with long, heavy M16 rifles beside U.S. Marines. It was a routine affair — a weekend for the board members to schmooze with the executive committee before they flew back to Washington.

The men in orange, however, had other plans: They had spent the last 24 hours preparing for a coup.

It was a move months in the making. Since its founding in 1871, the NRA had been far more concerned with marksmanship and shooting sports than with actual legislation. Both of its founders, William Conant Church and George Wood Wingate, had served in the Civil War, and had created the NRA to help soldiers improve their aim, and to ally with the federal government. This mission had colored the organization — its political priorities, its timidity on Capitol Hill, and its finances — ever since.

But lately, some of its members had been getting restless. Following years of high-profile assassinations, city uprisings, and War on Crime policies that targeted Black neighborhoods, gun control bills had been gaining momentum throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s—and the NRA had been unprepared. Its top executive leaders, known as the Old Guard, were conservative suits who mostly came from military and business backgrounds. They hoped for a milder path forward: firmly right wing and certainly pro-gun, but cooperative with the powers in Washington and with big American corporations. Despite growing pushback from many of their members, they wanted the NRA to continue focusing on shooting sports and conservation, perhaps even moving the whole shop out West and out of Washington for good. As they saw it, it was better not to plant the organization in a partisan arena — something too polarized for their moderate members and, more importantly, their big-pocketed donors.

The men in orange hats, however, saw an entirely different future for the NRA, led by two rising members, both originally from Texas. Harlon Carter, the former head of the U.S. Border Patrol, was the voice of the NRA’s growing political heft, creating its Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) in 1975 to lobby, testify, and rake in new members. Meanwhile, Neal Knox, an editor who had led the publications Gun Week, Handloader, and Rifle, built power from the periphery, writing widely-read pieces on every niche of gun legislation that passed through Congress. They were the figureheads of the NRA’s New Guard, whose foot soldiers had been rallying support from American gun owners for months, and wanted the Old Guard out of the way.

Leading up to the coup, the two groups had coexisted for years, and seemed to operate as separate entities altogether. Then, just six months before Cincinnati, the Old Guard unceremoniously fired most of Carter’s staff — a last-ditch effort to end his, and Knox’s, growing influence. In response, the two men, alongside some of their loudest supporters, began hatching their plan to take over the NRA.

Now, it was time to carry it out.

In the seven years leading up to the revolt, Maxwell E. Rich worked from the Executive Vice President’s office in the NRA’s headquarters at 1600 Rhode Island Avenue. If viewed from above, the building appeared at 8 o’clock on a traffic circle, a little more than half a mile north of the White House, which could be seen through a single window in his suite.

It was an auspicious view. For the century it had existed, the NRA had often sought funding and prestige from the federal government; to maintain that stability, they had chosen to act as a careful interest group — one that preferred legislative compromise to shaking things up. Its founders, Church and Wingate (a journalist and lawyer, respectively), had created the association after returning home from the Civil War and joining the National Guard, noting that, in a fractured nation, every at least shared in poor aim. On November 17, 1871, alongside thirteen other Guardsmen, they formed the National Rifle Association in Church’s lower Manhattan office.

The NRA spent its early years quietly, hosting international shooting competitions at its range on Long Island, where spectators would drink warm ginger ale and watch athletes contort their rifles around their bodies for high-scoring shots. Later, under President Theodore Roosevelt — through his obsessions with big game hunting and riflery — they would receive government funds and, even later, hundreds of thousands of military surplus weapons and ammunition at a steep discount for NRA-sponsored clubs.

It wasn’t until 1934 that the NRA even met its first major piece of gun control legislation, in the National Firearms Act, a law aimed at curbing organized crime by restricting machine guns and banning sawed-off shotguns and silencers. NRA leaders at the time had opposed the law in the pages of the American Rifleman, their in-house publication. But after working with Congress, and ultimately reducing the scope of the bill — “emasculating” it, as the assistant attorney general said at the time — the group decided to endorse it.

Max Rich

This was the middle ground tradition that Max Rich came from. By most measures, Rich was born to be in the Old Guard. He came from a large, tight-knit Mormon family in Salt Lake City, Utah, the kind that gathered often and knew all the details of its own ancestry. He became an Eagle Scout at 13 and joined the National Guard at 17. When he was old enough to enlist in the Army, World War II sent him to bases across the country and in Europe, fighting in some of America’s bloodiest battles. He returned from the war an anti-Communist, and when he got home to Utah, he joined the National Guard again, rising to become the youngest adjutant general, a top administration position, in Utah’s history.

Rich had hawkish, Nixonian eyebrows and a nose that turned upward, as if made out of pinched clay. He and his wife liked to throw parties — they both loved to dance — which he would use as networking opportunities for the National Guard. He avoided conflict, liked tradition, and wanted to see the same institutions he once passed through outlive him.

The NRA, though, hadn’t been one he cared about. While guns were a symbolic fixture, and occasionally a tool, in his work, they never played a role in his personal life. He’d never been particularly interested in them: He rarely shot as a kid, save for aiming at the odd tin can, and didn’t hunt as an adult. If he even owned a gun, it stayed in the basement. It surprised his family, then, when Rich accepted the offer to take over the NRA position after Franklin Orth, the executive vice president before him, died of a heart attack. Max? The head of the National Rifle Association? But Rich thought it would be an adventure, going to Washington. So, he took the job.

Rich was used to schmoozing in leadership positions, and he and his wife enjoyed having colleagues over to their D.C. apartment for parties. But when it came to the job itself, he never had a clear ideology for the NRA — he wanted to keep things essentially as they were. Once, a journalist from New York visited his office in 1976 and noticed that he’d rather talk about his eccentric hat collection than anything to do with guns. “Every time I have an interview,” Rich complained, wearing a pair of Mickey Mouse ears from the set, “99 percent of it is on one subject.” That subject had recently been carved into the black marble facade of the building: “The people’s right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

There was at least one person in D.C. who wasn’t content to let it fall by the wayside. While Rich spun his wheels and modeled his hat collection, on the floor below his office, a man from Texas was tending the NRA’s growing voice on Second Amendment extremism. He was powerful, well-versed in Capitol Hill, and experienced with guns — everything Rich was not. “Max Rich’s lack of ferocity,” the New York journalist wrote in the same article, “is compensated for by Harlon Carter’s surplus.”

Harlon Bronson Carter was born in Granbury, Texas, in 1913, before his family moved to Laredo when he was a boy. Just ten years after the Mexican Revolution, Laredo was, like many border towns, a changing city, where racial and political differences collided—and like many other white men in the town, his father, Horace, was in the Border Patrol.

At age 16, in 1930, Harlon joined the NRA. The next spring, he went home one afternoon and found his mother looking out a front window. Four Mexican boys were standing near their house. She’d decided, baselessly, that they had something to do with the recent disappearance of the family car.

The boys wandered off, and Carter grabbed a shotgun. He found the group at a nearby swimming hole and confronted them, while Ramón Casiano, the eldest of the group at 15, drew a knife. Carter raised the gun. Casiano laughed, trying to brush him off. But Carter fired, blowing a gaping, two-inch hole in the right side of his chest.

A grand jury indicted Carter with murder. In court, his lawyers argued self-defense, and that he meant to hit Casiano in the arm. The jury convicted him, but he faced only three years in prison; months later, the Texas Courts of Appeals overturned the decision, saying the judge hadn’t adequately explained self-defense law to the jury.

With a clean record, Carter followed in his father’s footsteps to the Border Patrol, and ascended fast, becoming the agency’s youngest-ever chief in 1950, at age 37. Soon after, he proposed a mission called Operation Cloudburst that would have used military force to deport undocumented immigrants, an illegal use of federal troops. It was shot down by President Eisenhower, but Carter wasn’t deterred: A few years later, he tried again, helping organize “the biggest drive against illegal aliens in history,” as he described it to the Los Angeles Times, that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had ever seen — an exceptionally ignominious chapter in the history of the Border Patrol known, publicly, as “Operation Wetback.” It used jeep, aircraft, raids, and wire-fenced “concentration camps” in city parks to deport tens of thousands of Mexican citizens, including many legal immigrants, and even some American citizens, too. It was a war-like operation by design that caused panic in many Mexican American communities.

Carter was good at this. He knew how to look powerful. It was the exact quality his version of the NRA fed on. After over twenty years as a member, he began serving on the board in the 1950s and writing for the American Rifleman as he rose to lead the INS’s Southwestern region. He became NRA president — a part-time position — in 1965, before joining its Executive Council two years later. He was known for his presence in a room, always described with the same three terms: broad-chested, bald, and bullet-headed, “like a Rodin statue come to life,” as the writer Osha Gray Davidson put it. When gun control bills began coming in earnest in the 1960s, Carter emerged as their most fervent opponent in the NRA.

Harlon Carter (L) and Neal Knox (R)

And he wasn’t alone. There was another Texan gaining a following among gun owners outside of Washington. Neal Knox was less of a politician than Carter, but just as influential. From his desk, he spoke to the readers of gun magazines — some in the NRA, some in regional gun groups. Carter knew how to gain power within the doors of institutions, but Knox, the younger, riskier, and louder one, knew how to harness it everywhere else.

Clifford Neal Knox was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Texas. He was a child of divorced parents, a rarity in the fundamentalist Christian communities he lived in. Guns were always a part of his life. He hunted regularly with his father and became an accomplished benchrest shooter. When he went to Abilene Christian College, he met the one woman who kept a gun in her dormitory closet at school, and knew that she would be his wife. In a photograph from around 1955, the Knoxes stand on a bridge over the Red River in Texas. A youthful Neal, far taller than his wife Jay, sticks his chin out in a prideful smile. His jowls and sideburns have not yet drooped and grown, as they would later in his life, but he wears the same square aviator eyeglasses. Jay’s hand grips Neal’s inner elbow. His arms are full, cradling a single-barreled rifle.

Guns would remain a constant in the Knox family’s life. As their two sons grew up, the patriarch made sure they knew how to shoot. The kids kept guns and ammo in their room before the age of ten. To teach them about gun safety, they shot at grapefruits and cans full of mud balanced on a wash behind their house.

Unlike Rich or Carter, it took Knox some time to find his path in life. He joined the Texas National Guard, but ultimately left. He tried to start a trucking company with a friend, but the partnership failed. He eventually took night classes in journalism and started working at small newspapers. For a while, he made his living writing freelance articles for gun magazines, sending them out and occasionally getting a check back in the mail.

Eventually, Knox landed the founding editor position at a newspaper called Gun Week, where he built a following separate from the NRA and the American Rifleman. He saw himself as a voice for the masses, the “individual members of the gun fraternity,” as he liked to call them. He was eventually poached by the editor of Handloader, another gun magazine, which was based in Illinois — but Knox didn’t want to move there. Instead, he wanted somewhere more gun-friendly, he told his new boss, and picked Prescott, Arizona, instead.

With their different styles of right-wing power building — Carter the strategic populist, Knox the charismatic voice on the fringe — the two Texans made the NRA’s path to political power possible. It wouldn’t be long before they’d have their chance to show it.

In late June, 1972, Max Rich sat in front of a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, in a spacious room with long, velvet curtains. As a top representative for the nation’s most preeminent gun advocacy group, an NRA executive vice president often has to testify in front of Congress, and Rich had been called to the stage. In response to rising crime rates, the committee was discussing proposed federal gun legislation from the Nixon Administration, including that which would restrict handgun ownership and ban “Saturday Night Specials,” a kind of cheap handgun that was often associated with gang violence. Rich was there, in theory, to make the case for why the NRA thought the ban was unnecessary — likely citing the Second Amendment, the committee expected, as the organization had been ramping up their constitutional armor in recent years. When the committee questioned him, however, Rich did not exactly bare his teeth.

“Do you still maintain that the bills before us are unconstitutional?” the committee chairman, Senator Emanuel Celler, said.

“Could be, sir,” Rich responded.

“Can you say whether they are or are not?”

“No; I cannot.”

A couple weeks after Rich’s lukewarm performance, Carter addressed the NRA’s executive committee during a Sunday meeting to express his disapproval. As a speaker, Carter had a disciplined kind of charisma, lacing the restrained rhythm of a soldier with a folksy, South Texas lilt. His lips would pucker into a sneer in front of his bared teeth, so that he almost chewed his words. His eyes would close up into slits.

“I have a feeling, a strong feeling, that when a man leans into a situation and if he does not draw a little blood, he is not leaning hard enough,” Carter began.

He laid out his complaints. The NRA, in his estimation, had not been strong enough on gun control. “You and I, it is every man in this room — we have not been clear,” he said. “We have vacillated.” Even though the American Rifleman had been publishing editorials against gun control for years, and had encouraged members to boycott media organizations that supported it, it wasn’t enough for Carter. They needed more aggressive lobbying, better PR, and a disavowal of any previous support of gun laws, no matter how mild. The key, he said, was to treat gun control advocates — especially those in the newly devised Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division of the U.S. Treasury — like “enemies.”

“We must prepare now — and I know the gentlemen will cringe a bit — but we must prepare now for the next assassination,” Carter said. “What is going to be your answer?”

By the time Carter gave that speech, it had been almost a decade since November 1963, when Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy through a sixth floor window in Dallas’s Texas School Book Depository. He’d used a secondhand bolt-action rifle, purchased with a coupon from the back pages of the American Rifleman, that cost him $21.45, shipping included.

He likely wasn’t the only one to have used the coupon. For years prior to Kennedy’s assassination, America had been watching television and learning how to shoot. In the 1950s, when Hollywood studios were churning out Westerns, Popular Science estimated that half a million Americans had started quick-draw shooting for fun, and by the end of the decade, 3,000 Western-style guns were selling per week, according to Frank Smyth in his book The NRA: The Unauthorized History.

At the same time, accidental gun wounds and deaths were on the rise, and three out of four Americans supported stricter gun control measures as a result. The NRA braced itself for new legislation in the early 1960s, sprinkling the first references to the Second Amendment in the American Rifleman. Eight months before Kennedy died, the magazine had even added a new statement to its masthead: “The strength of the NRA, and therefore the ability to accomplish its objects and purposes,” it read, “depends entirely upon the support of loyal Americans who believe in the right to ‘Keep and Bear Arms.’”

It was largely the idea of who kept and bore arms — or who was thought to — that shaped both early gun legislation and the NRA’s reaction to it: In order for there to be gun laws, there had to be gun problems. And, in order for there to be “good guys” with guns, there had to be an opposing force. For the NRA, and many lawmakers, that opposing force was usually Black.

In 1965, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles went up in flames after police struck a 21-year-old Black man named Marquette Frye with a baton during a traffic stop. The resulting protests lit up the Watts neighborhood, and American television screens, for six days. Later, there were more protests: in Cleveland, in Newark, in Detroit. As Black people demonstrated their power in the streets, politicians responded with the racist policies of the budding War on Crime — and, alongside them, more gun control bills.

Then, two years after the Watts protests, armed members of the newly-formed Black Panther Party walked into the California State House in Sacramento, protesting a bill that would forbid carrying loaded weapons in incorporated areas. As some members were being arrested, Bobby Seale read a passage from the Black Panther Executive Mandate, calling for “the American people in general and the Black people in particular to take full note of the racist California legislature which is now considering legislation aimed at keeping the Black people disarmed and powerless.”

“For many whites,” the historian Rick Perlstein wrote in his book Nixonland, “this statement settled it: Black Power meant arming Black people.” For the NRA, advocating for the Second Amendment increasingly became about protecting white gun ownership and vigilante-like gun use. This also meant that gun control targeting Black gun owners was fair game, and even considered a positive: After the Panthers incident in Sacramento in 1967, California responded by banning open carry of loaded weapons, with the NRA’s support.

This was all aligned with Carter’s strategy to draw attention away from guns themselves, by focusing on the people behind them instead. “Law abiding people, and particularly gun owners, are tired of being blamed for crime,” he once said while lobbying against a gun bill in Congress. Knox agreed. In his view, crime rates had nothing to do with gun control, and the NRA needed to take a firmer stand. “If the status quo doesn’t improve,” Knox wrote in one article around the time, “we’re likely to see ourselves in a gunless society.” The same year, the American Rifleman published an editorial titled “Who Guards America’s Homes?” It depicted protests like Watts’ as “mob violence”: “Who then supports the police? Who then guards the doors of American homes from senseless savagery and pillaging?” it read. “With homefront safeguards spotty and uncertain, the armed citizen represents a potential community stabilizer.”

But despite the NRA’s growing enthusiasm for the Second Amendment, things shifted on Capitol Hill after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, himself an outspoken NRA critic. Their deaths opened the door for Senator Thomas J. Dodd from Connecticut, who reintroduced his Gun Control Act for the third time, an act that would ban the interstate sale of guns and ban their sale to juveniles, convicted felons, and those judged to be “mental defectives.” Knox, like Carter, liked seeing things with Christian binary, and once called the Gun Control Act “an evil law.” Many NRA members agreed, sending thousands of inflamed letters to Congress to express their disapproval.

It forced the NRA to take its most explicit legislative stance yet — and it wasn’t one that the New Guard liked. While Franklin Orth, the NRA’s executive vice president at the time, opposed elements of the bill, he was wary, like many in the Old Guard, of rocking partisan boats. After the bill was weakened, sheepishly, behind the scenes, he ultimately chose to support it. “The measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with,” he wrote in a letter in the American Rifleman, explaining his decision. He got so much flack from membership for the statement that he almost resigned.

Despite objections from the New Guard, however, gun control was also a gift to their version of the NRA, giving them both an enemy and a purpose. Membership skyrocketed by one million the year of the Gun Control Act. Now, they had to channel the fervor.

They found a way in 1975 when NRA management attempted to tame Carter, giving him a small amount of elbow room, and very little money, to form the NRA’s first registered lobby. ILA would be the NRA’s legislative arm, and would “counter effectively one of the most powerful anti-gun campaigns yet mounted, in the legislative halls and the news media,” according to the American Rifleman. The Old Guard, it seemed, thought it would cause Carter to lose steam. ILA had to raise its own funds and rent its own office space, a $1,500-per-month suite in the Gramercy Inn, just a few steps down from the NRA headquarters. But it was all Carter’s, and it gave him enough of a head start to build what he wanted: political power, and the ability to target membership directly.

At ILA, their computer could print 1,100 lines per minute, letting Carter’s team produce thousands of letters addressed to members over a 24-hour period. It was the latest iteration of a powerful tool: direct mail. The medium had reached prominence by the early 1970s, when it was first pioneered by Richard Viguerie, who, as a campaign worker, had copied down the names and addresses of people who had donated to Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential bid. With that list of Republicans and their addresses — “as good as the gold bricks deposited at Fort Knox,” he once wrote — Viguerie had developed a way for conservatives to reach the people most likely to become coveted single-issue voters. With the right messaging, Carter hoped to use the tool to help drum up support for ILA’s legislative work. Viguerie himself collaborated with Carter to build their database.

ILA did all of this under the noses, and the shoes, of the NRA’s executives — gaining ground for a hardened line against gun control. “I’m building an organization capable of public persuasion not only in Washington, but in the states,” Carter said at the time. “We don’t know the best way to reach all the people yet but, of course, we shall.”

Meanwhile, in the executive suite, Max Rich and the board schemed, uncertainly, in the opposite direction. By 1976, the group’s federal funds had dried up, and Rich and the NRA board were rattled. They needed a distraction, and Rich looked as far from Washington as he could to find one.

Fifteen hundred miles west of the NRA’s D.C. headquarters, 37,000 open acres sat near Raton, New Mexico, a small city sustained by coal mines that pushed up against the borders of Colorado and Oklahoma. It got hot there in the summer and cold in the winter, and any water that could be found had to be pumped from deep in the earth. It was here that the Old Guard placed its strange bets.

The NRA had purchased the land in 1973 with plans to build a shooting range. Now, the Old Guard decided, they would turn the land into the National Rifle Association Outdoor Center, a broad institution for outdoor education, conservation research, and, on the side, target practice. Hoping to draw attention away from ILA’s doings, the Old Guard hired a consulting firm called the Oram Group to make the Center a magnet: one that could pull money from the pockets of conservative businessmen and move the entire association out West.

The Oram Group was an interesting choice. Its founder, Harold Oram, was a magnanimous New York City fundraiser, whose list of clients — Planned Parenthood, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, various historic Black colleges and universities — didn’t make much sense alongside the NRA. But he knew some of Rich’s allies personally, and he knew how to flip a public image. Oram took them on as a client, strategizing a financially stable future that left little room for risky hard-liners.

The project would be expensive: It needed $30 million (about $150 million today), an impossible sum without multiple generous donations. To assess the feasibility, Oram sent an employee named Willits Sawyer to work on a fundraising report. Sawyer was a Harvard-educated veteran who had served in the Navy, and, of the Oram employees, seemed most able to fit in with the NRA. He wasn’t exactly undercover, but he felt like it: During his assignment, he was given an office in the association’s headquarters, and taught his children how to shoot in the building’s basement firing range.

Over several months in 1976, Sawyer flew around the country, touring the Outdoor Center idea to high-powered American conservatives. He met Robert O. Anderson, an oil mogul in Los Angeles, in an office with bulletproof glass windows. He smoked cigars with Bill Spencer, the number two executive at what would become Citibank, across the country in New York. He went to Salt Lake City to have lunch with Ezra Taft Benson, the highest-ranking apostle in the Mormon Church—and was so charmed by the visit that he considered converting.

The willing donors with the deepest pockets eventually gathered for three days on-site in New Mexico, a motley crew of corporate power on scrubland neighbored by cows and coal. In the afternoons, they fished trout from a stocked reservoir and shot high-powered rifles into steel boards 100 yards away. At night, they sat around a bonfire and slept in bunks in a dormitory space (save for one who opted to sleep on his private plane).

It was a summer camp for conservative CEOs, the men play-acting a version of the NRA that, at the time, seemed possible: one in which shooting accompanied frontier abundance, funded by the corporations that had long bankrolled conservative causes. One in which guns were a reflection of American might — cowboy-like, to be sure, but still with a military-like formality, rather than a vigilante ethos that saw federal power as a threat.

And the Old Guard wasn’t just hiding from their problems out West. They were ready to fight in Washington, too.

While Carter and many other members of the New Guard knew about the property in New Mexico, it’s hard to say when they found out about its veer toward conservation — or if they even cared. It was clear they were winning the messaging war, and the Outdoor Center only gave them another reason to rouse their supporters. With ILA in its second year, more and more members were joining for its work, and more staff members were aligning with Carter.

The Old Guard decided to purge the threat. On a Friday in November, 1976, Rich fired around 80 staff members, almost all of them loyal to Carter. He announced the decision on a Saturday afternoon, insisting the layoffs came down to budget cuts. The evening became known as the Weekend Massacre, and Carter resigned around the same time — some say in protest.

In Gun Week, Handloader, and Rifle, all publications Knox had once edited, writers began reporting rumors about a shakeup at headquarters. The Oram Group’s report on the Outdoor Center had been leaked, and gun group leaders around the country bristled at its language: “In the public mind … the NRA’s current image is based almost totally on its supposed opposition to any form of gun control,” it read. “This public image constitutes a weakness for fund raising [sic].” A new piece of information had gotten out, too, via a brochure sent in the mail to some members: The executive committee was considering moving the headquarters to Colorado Springs, not far from Raton, where the NRA could focus more squarely on its sport shooting ties.

Regional gun groups began receiving concerned notes from their members. The Shooters Committee of Political Education (SCOPE), based in New York, wrote a letter to Rich protesting the NRA’s recent board appointees — and to let him know that they would advise their membership to write in Neal Knox, among several others, as a board candidate at the annual meeting in Cincinnati. In the American Rifleman, an unsigned editorial appeared: “There have been charges that the National Rifle Association is being ‘subverted,’” it read, “and abandoning its fight against gun control.”

Taking advantage of the momentum, Knox started spending his nights calling the leaders of regional gun groups. He would tuck the receiver of his yellow telephone under his chin, jotting illegible notes in blue flair pen on a legal pad. Before long, the calls started to take on a life of their own. One night in April, Joe Tartaro, a member of SCOPE, was on a call discussing the management changes with a few men from various other gun groups when they decided to dial in Knox and Robert Kukla, the man who had taken over ILA when Carter resigned. After hours of discussion, stretching past midnight, they agreed they needed to meet in person to plan what, exactly, they could do to bring the Old Guard down. Carter, still only freshly resigned from ILA, would be in Texas in early May for a conference, and it seemed as good, and central, a place as any.

In a La Quinta motel next to the San Antonio airport, the men discussed what was possible. How, legally, could they unseat management, backed by a board that seemed to only care about what foundations would donate next? It would need to be something definitive — something that would catch the Old Guard completely unaware.

They decided that the annual members’ convention would be the right stage, and that they needed a war room — a motel room, really — in which to plan the takeover. They scheduled a meetup in Florence, Kentucky, right next to Cincinnati, the day before the convention.

Knox emerged as the leader of the coup. He was a recognizable face from his writing — people at the convention would likely trust his lead. Carter, the man who had engineered the power behind the New Guard, largely stayed quiet. He had spent years setting this political train in motion. He just had to be there when it arrived.

The men knew they would also need a presence in Cincinnati beyond themselves, so they arranged to send out form letters to the members who had contacted them, worried about the Old Guard’s recent actions. One of the men quickly put together a letterhead using the Liberty Bell-and-eagle logo from the Federation of Greater New York Rifle and Pistol Clubs’s stationary. The New Guard decided to keep part of the name, too, officially becoming the Federation for NRA. “Dear Concerned NRA Member,” the notes began. They listed what they wanted to see — a stronger ILA, an Outdoor Center realigned to support a Second Amendment-forward NRA. And then: “Eliminate the present managing committee.”

It was two weeks before the convention, and they were ready. Tartaro would later write about the mounting energy among the reformers, describing the men crowded in an airport La Quinta as if they were Paul Revere reincarnated, warning the masses of monarchs approaching a midwestern convention center battlefield. “Some members were angry enough to bring rope, tar, and feathers to Cincinnati,” Tartaro wrote. “I’m still not sure that some of them did not.”

Cincinnati is a balmy city in late May. That year, the Convention-Exposition Center slowly heated up as the hours passed. On Friday afternoon, the weekend’s events moved forward as planned, and the NRA board held a private meeting in a chandeliered room. While some board members were more aligned with the Federation, most fell in with the Old Guard. No changes would be adopted. The New Guard would have to push through its changes on their own.

Meanwhile, the Federation gathered at a hotel over the river in Florence, Kentucky. A few men memorized the floor plan of the convention center. Others passed a donation hat around the room to help pay for the hotel and the high cost of printing their plan on late ’70s hardware. An artist from Oklahoma had worked for twenty straight hours on signs — white ones on long poles telling voting members where to sit, and orange ones with YES and NO etched on in thick black marker for the votes themselves. Knox, along with the lawyers in the Federation, hunkered down in their motel room, fine-tuning bylaw amendments they would roll out in order.

At seven o’clock, Saturday evening, the Federation members put on their uniforms — blaze orange hats on their heads, clunky walkie-talkies in their hands. Members began filing in, most of them men and many in middle age, thick-framed glasses in every shade and shape sliding down their noses. The Federation passed out literature detailing their plans and funneled voting members to registration booths, sticking orange stickers on their name tags once they had been confirmed.

Carter and Knox both wore blue that day. Carter’s suit was bright and fitted, a dark blue tie wound round his squat neck that seemed to sprout directly from his chin. Knox had more noticeable touches of the age: flairs to the arms of his sport jacket, a paisley tie, and thick, clean sideburns that trailed down near his earlobes. The two men didn’t have to talk much in the moment. The plan was clear.

The Federation waited for the board members to finish their testimonials. To the hard-liners, it felt like they were stalling, as if they knew trouble was brewing — “a pathetic performance,” as Tartaro would later write. Hours later, after the Old Guard sat down, the gavel and a thin, silver, Bob Barker-style microphone were handed to Irvine Porter, a lawyer from Birmingham, Alabama, and a former NRA president with a receded white sweep of hair, who had been chosen to moderate. Knox got up on the stage. A Federation member named William Grief paced in front of the dais with a walkie-talkie held up to his mouth.

Knox would present a bylaw change, the executive committee would oppose it, and Federation members would support it, their bright orange “YES” signs held up in the air. They started by adding a defense of the Second Amendment to the NRA’s mission for the first time. YES. The sale of the Washington headquarters and the development of the Outdoor Center would not go forward. YES. ILA’s position in the association would be strengthened, and it would be directed by the executive vice president. YES. At one point, then-ILA director Bob Kukla got on stage, held a tape machine up to the microphone, and pressed play. Through the speakers came a recording he had taken of a meeting with management, including Rich, where they criticized Kukla for “going to war every time someone mentions gun control” — a damning soundbite to a Federation ear.

By 1:30 AM, the heat had filled the room like a liquid, and the event became raucous, taking on “a Watergate-like atmosphere,” a New York Times writer wrote at the time. Now, the Federation was ready for its own kind of impeachments. Knox began stripping power from the board and managers: Members could elect other members who had gathered 250 signatures to the board. YES. Only members could change future bylaws. YES. Then, the final blow: The executive vice president would be chosen by the members, not the board. The Federation raised their votes: YES.

With that power, just minutes old, Knox proposed the NRA choose Carter as its new executive vice president-elect. When the voting members approved, Carter strode up to the podium, instantly comfortable in the position. Rich, as one attendee described it, looked like a deflated balloon. It was 3:30 am.

“You’re America’s greatest people, my friends, don’t ever forget that you are,” Carter said at the dais. “You have afforded the NRA this wonderful, historically important reaction of yours to the way the Association has been going, to the way you want it to be, to the way it ought to be, and if I have anything to do with it … you are going to win, because you are the NRA.”

A month after Cincinnati, Harlon Carter took up the full cover of the American Rifleman. In the photograph, he’s wearing a dark suit, a striped tie, and a name tag, grinning giddily past the camera. The flash is on, and his head catches the light like a full moon amid the darkness behind him. He looks like a newborn baby; he seems to be seeing, with wonder, a full life ahead of him. Not his own life, but a new breed of power that he has helped bring into the world — a single-issue devotion to a cause, and an association reborn.

Carter was elected to the executive vice president role for three years in a row following Cincinnati, after which he pushed for, and won, a five-year term. His name became the only one at the top of the American Rifleman masthead. Even when a New York Times reporter discovered the court records from his murder trial, publicizing his killing of Ramón Casiano for the first time, he faced no professional consequences. (Rich, meanwhile, died two years following his ousting, shortly after he’d left Washington and moved to California.)

Neal Knox moved from Arizona to D.C. to head ILA in 1978. Under Knox, ILA made its first presidential endorsement in 1980, for Ronald Reagan, a landslide victory — kickstarting the group’s ability to mobilize its members in elections both local and national. Knox also helped solidify the rhetoric that would turn the Second Amendment — gaining popular traction at the time — into the NRA’s political calling card, frequently receiving standing ovations at members’ meetings, where he would bellow his signature greeting: “Good morning, gun lobby!” “In the early days of the organization, the typical NRA member lived far from the urban combat zones,” a Rolling Stone reporter wrote in 1981. “He was a hunter. He shot rifles and shotguns. The new NRA member is likely to be a terrified city man with a pistol in a holster slung over his bedpost at night. He often joins to help Neal Knox scare the hell out of a few politicians.”

Ultimately, however, his political aspirations would be cut short. Despite their kinship, Knox’s style of politics just didn’t mix with Carter’s. He had sold himself as the firebrand outsider for most of his career, and it hadn’t fallen away once he made it to Washington. “While Carter was interested in working with a wide swath of leaders,” Frank Smyth wrote, “Knox clashed with nearly anyone who did not share his own zealotry.”

Even though the NRA fed off of his reactionary brand, the man who had made Cincinnati possible was becoming a liability. His theories, which he continued to broadcast in gun magazines, had also begun spiraling into conspiracy: In one column, he hinted the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. had been staged by gun control advocates.

Carter abruptly forced him to resign in 1982, three years before retiring himself. Knox would continue orbiting the association, even winning back a spot on the board the year after his firing, but he would ultimately be shut out entirely before the new century.

In 2005, he died of colon cancer at the age of 69. In a final letter to his supporters, written less than two weeks before his death, he reflected on a life he considered cut short, though unwavering in its goal. “There have been disagreements, even fights, but the goal of freedom has been a unifying force,” he wrote. “I urge you to continue the fight.” He signed the note: “As always: Yours for the Second Amendment, Neal.”

While the Cincinnati Coup germinated under the guidance of a relatively small group, it’s hard to underestimate the influence it has had on the association in the decades since. Wayne LaPierre, who has been the NRA’s executive vice president since 1991, began his tenure at the NRA right after Cincinnati as a member of Knox’s ILA, before quickly eclipsing him. As he rose through the ranks, the NRA gained more power by prioritizing its legal battles — including the passage of the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act, which solidified citizens’ right “to keep and bear arms” into law.

The organization has faced setbacks. The Brady Bill — named after James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary who suffered brain damage after an attempted assassination of the president — successfully installed background checks in 1993, and President Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. But more and more, the NRA could twist these losses into rallying cries for their members. Controversies over their ties to white supremacist groups and militias — and to people like Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 — didn’t veer them off course, either. In 2000, they began to far outpace gun control advocates in campaign contributions, while early-aughts Stand Your Ground laws and a landmark Supreme Court case in 2008 further affirmed Second Amendment rights for individuals. Even as mass shootings, especially those in schools, rallied more around gun control — Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012, the Charleston church in 2015, the Pulse nightclub in 2016, Las Vegas in 2017, Parkland in 2018, El Paso in 2019, and countless others — the NRA held the line. More guns, and more crime bills, were always the answer.

In the spring of 2016, the NRA endorsed Donald Trump for president, earlier than many Republican-aligned groups. The relationship went both ways: Trump spoke at NRA conventions, linking his base with the organization, and he listened to NRA lobbyists, changing his tune on background checks in 2019 after discussions with LaPierre. The NRA, used to an influential but outsider position, had never been more politically aligned with the country’s most powerful office.

While conquering vast legislative territory, however, the NRA has since crumbled as an organization. Members, former executives, and donors have tried to oust LaPierre and his senior leadership team after allegations of financial corruption, but he has refused to step down. Ackerman McQueen, a public relations firm responsible for the group’s culture war messaging since the 1980s, is wrapped up in lawsuits with the association, and Letitia James, the Attorney General of New York, has cornered LaPierre with lawsuits of her own.

In January 2021, LaPierre filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the association, without telling any board members or the CFO, and announced the group’s plans to reincorporate in Texas. He insisted it had nothing to do with finances, but was done, as a board member said at the time, “to escape the abuse by the New York authorities” — which is exactly why, in May, a federal judge dismissed the filing for aiming to “gain an unfair advantage.” Republicans in Texas, meanwhile — where 400,000 NRA members live — have said the group is welcome in their state.

The NRA now wobbles on the hard line of Cincinnati’s making: Without the Old Guard’s distractions, and donors, they depend on loyal, single-issue members and the political power those members afford. In 1972, Carter warned the executive committee that the group would disappear if they didn’t stake a stronger stance on gun rights. Today, this stance might be the only thing keeping the organization alive.

As for Carter himself, the man who made the NRA’s powerful and polemic future possible, his lung cancer would eventually get the best of him. In November 1991, Knox would travel to Green Valley, Arizona, to see him one last time, despite their clashes in Washington. The men talked for two hours before Knox left, far longer than Carter’s wife, Maryann, thought he had the energy for. Carter died almost a week later.

In the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, where the NRA is now headquartered, there is a bronze bust of Carter lit by a small spotlight. There is no accompanying bust of Neal Knox, who goes unmentioned in much of the NRA’s limited records. Instead of a statue, he has become a folk hero to select members rather than to the institution itself. Different parts of the NRA have always belonged to both the Carters and Knoxes, in this way: to the people who benefit from power grabs, and to the martyrs who write the jeremiads that justify future ones — to those who understand that an enemy within can be just as useful as one on the outside.

This, perhaps more than other people, is what Carter always knew. Not long after the Cincinnati revolt, he told Knox to expect more conflict in the future. Every ten years or so, he said, there would be another battle inside the association; if reactionism is the quickest way to build power — real or projected — the next rival must always be on the horizon. “In that cycle,” Carter told Knox, “revolution begets revolution.”

Credits

Editor: Gina Mei

Additional Research: Charlotte Silver

Illustrations: Mike McQuade

Fact Checker: Parker Richards

Photo Credits: Getty Images, AP Images, Shutterstock, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, the UTNG Visual Information Office, the Department of the Army, the National Museum of American History

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EPIC MAGAZINE

You know that feeling you get when a good true-life tale grabs you right from the start? You can’t stop turning the page — because you realize incredible things happen to real people — and it’s hard to believe that what you’re reading is non-fiction. Welcome to Epic Magazine.