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Harold L. Volkmer


by David T. Hardy

NRA Marks The Passing Of A Second Amendment Giant: Harold L. Volkmer

NRA and American gun owners lost a giant on April 16, 2011, when U.S. Rep. Harold L. Volkmer died in his hometown of Hannibal, Mo. Rep. Volkmer had just celebrated his 80th birthday—a day made more memorable by the hundreds of cards he received from gun owners who appreciated his outstanding service as a warrior for our cause.

Rep. Volkmer had lived in their service, and he died in their service. As a member of the prestigious NRA Executive Council, Volkmer attended the NRA Board meeting in January, accompanied, as he always was, by his beloved wife, Dian. Soon after the meeting, he was hospitalized for months with pneumonia, but that didn’t stop him from telephonically chairing a meeting of the Committee on Elections in March.

When he passed on, Rep. Volkmer was receiving rehabilitation in a nursing home, where he continued to work as a trustee of the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund, evaluating proposals for pro-gun litigation, research and education, and submitting recommendations on grant applications for fund action.

“We received Harold’s last recommendation for a legal case in New York shortly after his death,” Defense Fund Chairman William H. Dailey said. “He literally served our cause, and our rights, to the end.”

“Working alongside Harold Volkmer, I learned that if you are determined in this town not to lose and you are willing to fight every day for what you believe in, you can beat the powers that be,” said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. “Harold was a steadfast leader in the fight for civil liberties who courageously fought for Second Amendment freedom—that’s what saved American gun owners.”

To fully understand his service to us all, look back to when Volkmer was a 55-year-old congressman on the House Judiciary Committee. The 1968 Gun Control Act was still in its original form. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) was barely a decade old, and its management was determined to rise in the world of Washington on the backs of firearm owners through a campaign of harassment and systemic abuse of an entire class of citizens.

Alleged violations under the Gun Control Act required no proof of illegal intent. Just as with a parking ticket, the fact that one thought he had obeyed the law was no excuse. But this was no parking ticket—every violation was a felony. The Gun Control Act punished unlicensed “engaging in the business of dealing in firearms” without defining what that was, yet courts held that a collector selling four to six guns over a year had “engaged in the business.” Targeted collectors at gun shows would be hauled away in handcuffs and their entire collections confiscated on the grounds that their guns were “intended to be used” in future violations.

Dealers were subjected to similar attacks. Paperwork errors would justify seizure of a dealer’s entire inventory and revocation of his license. Even if the collector or dealer won acquittal, the agency still held the firearms or proceeded to revoke the license (a practice the Supreme Court upheld). Few had enough money to fight two or three separate legal battles, so even acquitted dealers and collectors often simply gave up.

The fledgling NRA Institute for Legislative Action pressed for congressional hearings which exposed horror stories nationwide: A disabled veteran who had won acquittal after an enraged federal judge dismissed the flimsy charges, but whose gun shop failed because he couldn’t get his inventory returned; collections and inventories seized, unboxed and thrown into 55-gallon drums, ruining their value even if the owner secured their return; a Maryland police officer convicted of charges so technical that when a senator inquired about his actions, BATF’s director wrote back that the claims must be false because the conduct described was legal.

“Other collectors are so scared that they will not talk to old friends, for fear that their friends might be informants. People are afraid to talk over the phone, as a conversation might be recorded.”
—A Maryland collector, 1978

Decades later, Rep. Volkmer would say that if BATF’s rogue actions had not been stopped, gun ownership as we know it today would not exist. That’s no overstatement.

Starting in 1979, Rep. Volkmer and U.S. Sen. James A. McClure introduced parallel bills that would extensively change the Gun Control Act—requiring proof of criminal intent for most violations; providing that firearms must be returned and license revocations stopped if the person was found not guilty or won dismissal; and defining “engaged in the business of dealing” as repetitive sale for the primary reason of making a profit. The bills also provided for awards of attorneys’ fees to gun owners who won legal proceedings, restricted confiscations based on the “intended to be used” standard, and allowed interstate transportation of firearms through areas with onerous state gun laws, among many other reforms.

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