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Harold L. Volkmer

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Congress after Congress passed over the bills without action, yet Rep. Volkmer and Sen. McClure persisted against all odds in their fight to see the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA) signed into law. The House leadership was strongly anti-gun, and the Senate leadership would only give lip service to these crucial reforms. In short, Washington’s power structure was divided into determined opponents and timid, easily frightened friends.

“Citizens such as a disabled veteran and Boy Scout leader, a policeman in Maryland and an elderly couple in New Mexico, were just examples of those law-abiding individuals caught up in the web of bureaucratic technical enforcement. This is why I first introduced the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act in September 1979.”
—Rep. Harold L. Volkmer, speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, April 1986

Finally, late in the 98th Congress (1984-85) the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act began to move. In the Senate, McClure strong-armed leadership by attaching it to a “must-pass” appropriations bill. The leadership agreed that if he removed the amendment, FOPA would be voted on in the next Congress. In the 99th Congress, it quickly passed the Senate and was sent to the House.

Then came the toughest battle. In the House, Democrats had a 70-vote majority; no pro-gun legislation would move unless supporters could secure defections en masse from the party position. The Speaker of the House was Rep. Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts, who was vehemently anti-gun. The chairman of its Judiciary Committee was Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey whom Handgun Control, Inc. had termed “the guardian of America’s handgun laws.”

Rodino responded to Senate passage by declaring that fopa was “dead on arrival” in the House, and so it seemed. But Rodino was up against Rep. Volkmer, who knew a way around the leadership—a “discharge petition” by which the entire House could discharge a committee from considering a bill, and force a vote. These were nearly impossible to accomplish under the rules since a petition had to be signed by a majority of the entire House, or 218 members. Only the leadership was allowed to know who had signed, so it could pressure them, while the petitioners had to work in the dark. It’s obvious why only seven discharge petitions had succeeded over the previous 25 years.

But the names on the petition kept growing. When the signatures broke 200, a panicked House Judiciary Committee reported out its own watered-down version of FOPA.

But it was too late. On March 13, 1986, the discharge petition received its 218th signature.

“This legislation represents the second most important step in the history of American gun owners. The first was the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
—Rep. Harold L. Volkmer, speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, April 1986

Rep. Volkmer led the charge as floor manager and moved to substitute his own bill for the leadership version. When the vote came on final passage, FOPA passed by a stunning vote of 292-131. More astoundingly, a majority of Democrats had defied their leadership and rallied behind Rep. Volkmer. He needed a seemingly impossible 70 defections; he received 131!

“Harold Volkmer set out to do what had only been done a few times in U.S. history—discharge a bill from the committee over the objections of House leadership,” noted LaPierre. “He was proud of the fact that he was a ‘bulldog’ and that’s what it took to win in the House of Representatives against Tip O’Neill and Peter Rodino. There are a lot of smooth people in Washington who accomplish nothing after all is said and done. If Washington had its say, Harold Volkmer would never have been written into the script, but that’s why this country works. Harold was willing to fight against all odds for what he believed in and what this country was based and founded on. That is his lasting legacy.”

“Mr. Volkmer wasn’t just against gun control, he was famous as the NRA’s point man in Congress.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 18, 2011

That determination to succeed was Volkmer’s life-long hallmark. The future congressman had worked his way through St. Louis University as a stock boy and butcher at a grocery store and later attended the University of Missouri Law School, where he achieved the remarkable feat (yet possible in those days) of passing the Missouri bar exam before receiving his degree.

Volkmer’s public service began with work as an assistant attorney general of Missouri, followed by service in the Army. There, he assisted in construction of the Distant Early Warning Line in Alaska and on the polar icecap, helping to create the radar system that would have provided the first warning of incoming Soviet ICBMs.

After military service, Volkmer was elected county prosecutor, then to a seat in the Missouri House, where he chaired its Judiciary Committee. While campaigning, he forced a segregated hotel to admit his black supporters; when the clerk said there were no rooms for them, he replied that then there were no rooms for the rest of his party, either. The hotel suddenly “discovered” that it had rooms for all.

Missouri voters elected Volkmer to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966, where he served for 20 years. He served on the Judiciary and Agriculture committees and chaired the latter’s Subcommittee on Small Farms and Forests.

Rep. Volkmer vigorously supported the cause of small farmers and the common man and helped pass legislation that funded construction of a flood wall in Hannibal. Less than a month after its completion came the flood of 1993. The Mississippi River reached record levels, hundreds of levees were breached, 50 lives and billions in property were lost, but Hannibal’s wall held and his hometown was saved.

“The Mississippi River quietly climbed past 31 feet Thursday to a crest today in Hannibal as area levees survived another night.”
—Hannibal Courier-Post, July 26, 1993

Always compassionate, when the U.S. House considered a bill that would bar pets from publicly funded senior housing projects, Volkmer spoke movingly about how, after the death of his first wife, Shirley, he returned to a home that was empty save for the family cat, which gave him companionship in those lonely hours. Our elderly citizens, he argued, deserved that same comfort. The provision was defeated.

In Washington, legislative staffers often call their boss the “congressman” or the “senator,” as if the name is too sacred to mention. Rep. Volkmer, though, simply went by “Harold.” He was devoted to his wife, Dian, and during his years of attending NRA Board meetings was rarely seen without her.

Rep. Harold L. Volkmer was laid to rest in his hometown in April; Sen. James A. McClure was laid to rest in his hometown the month before. For those who revere the Second Amendment, the phrase from Winston Churchill seems most appropriate: “Never … was so much owed by so many to so few.”

David T. Hardy is an attorney, author and filmmaker specializing in Second Amendment issues whose work was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonald v. Chicago.

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