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Passing of a Legend


by James O.E. Norell,
Contributing Editor

Photo courtesy U.S. Senate Historical Office

It’s a sad duty to report that retired U.S. Sen. James A. McClure—a peerless friend of gun owners who aggressively led the advancement of the Second Amendment cause in the U.S. Senate for two decades—died Feb. 26 at his home in Idaho. He was 86.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, reflecting on Sen. McClure’s contributions to firearm rights, said, “For me, and for all of us who had the privilege to work with Sen. McClure, his passing is a sad event. But gun owners everywhere can celebrate the accomplishments of a legislator’s legislator who worked so hard to preserve our future. The Second Amendment has rarely had a truer warrior than Jim McClure. His presence on the national scene changed the Second Amendment landscape and laid the foundation for restoration of our rights that we possess today.”

The NRA and its members will most remember Sen. McClure for his 10-year fight to reform the draconian provisions of the 1968 Gun Control Act, culminating in President Ronald Reagan’s signing into law the McClure-Volkmer Act—officially known as the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act—in 1986. Working with his stalwart Democratic colleague in the U.S. House of Representatives, Harold Volkmer, and with the total support of NRA members, the reforms curbed abusive practices that had wrecked the lives of countless innocent gun owners.

It might seem like ancient history for newer NRA members, but McClure’s contributions to our future are more than worth remembering. “Issue-related partnerships, involving effective legislators and advocacy organizations that share values and work smoothly together, are essential to success in the public policy area,” said Richard L. Corrigan, NRA-ILA’s first Federal Affairs director and later its deputy executive director, who was an architect of the organization’s myriad victories at federal and state levels during the 1970s.

Like LaPierre, former NRA-ILA Executive Director James Jay Baker, who recently returned to serve once again as NRA-ILA’s director of Federal Affairs, is among those who worked closely with McClure on a variety of firearm rights issues. Baker, first as a young staff attorney and then as a lobbyist, especially remembers McClure’s early critical work leading to the enactment of the reforms.

“It has been 20 years since Jim McClure retired from the Senate, but what he did during his three terms should always be honored by gun owners,” Baker said. “For the Second Amendment, his time in the Senate was historic. His untiring efforts created a permanent legacy—the foundation for where we are today. He had a visceral understanding not only of the issue, but of our people. And he had an unquenchable attention span for gun rights, a great mind for detail and an amazing understanding of the process. And he had a great staff.

“If it hadn’t been for McClure, there’s no question in my mind the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act would not have become law. He, along with other leaders—like Harold Volkmer, Larry Craig and John Dingell—are the reason we are where we are today.”

From his first days in the Senate, McClure made a difference.

His swearing in as a U.S. senator in 1973 was a benchmark—the beginning of the end of what was then touted by a smug national media and the political establishment as an unstoppable war of attrition against private ownership of firearms.

After all, just months before his election, the U.S. Senate had passed a “Saturday Night Special” bill by a wide margin that would have banned one-third of the handgun models owned by peaceable Americans. That 1972 legislation died in the U.S. House of Representatives, where McClure fought it while finishing his third term there.

The year McClure took his Senate seat, a partial handgun ban was seen as a sure bet to become law—another addition to the 1968 Gun Control Act—part of the seemingly unstoppable step-at-a-time march toward total civil disarmament.

But that never happened, due in large measure to unflinching efforts by Jim McClure on behalf of the nation’s gun owners.

In subsequent Congresses, when the same legislation was pressed by the gun-ban crowd, Jim McClure and his allies were there to stop it.

If McClure’s effectiveness is to be understood, a single phrase is critical to why his presence made the difference: victorious turning points.

In addition to the McClure-Volkmer Act, two others come to mind. Both were very early in his career.

The first came with a 1975 legislative battle over the power of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to regulate any aspect of firearms and ammunition. To this day, regulation of firearms and ammunition by bureaucratic “consumer” edict is a key element in the modern gun-ban movement’s arsenal. The McClure doctrine on that score has held the line to this day.

What McClure and his Senate allies did in that battle left his opponents shell-shocked and changed
the political landscape.

It began with a petition before the CPSC filed Feb. 14, 1975, by the Committee for Hand Gun Control Inc. demanding that the commission adopt “a rule banning the sale of bullets for handguns. The rule would except such sales to police, licensed security guards, the military and licensed pistol clubs.”

The group—which later became Handgun Control, Inc., and now the Brady Campaign—claimed that handgun ammunition constituted “hazardous substances” and “present[ed] an unreasonable risk of injury and no feasible standard would protect the public.”

The petition received widespread publicity and put the fledgling gun-ban vultures of hci/Brady Campaign on the media map.

As part of the regulatory process, the CPSC asked for public comments. An outraged McClure issued a single press release attacking the proposed “bullet-ban” rule, and listed the CPSC’s address for public comment.

The Associated Press ran McClure’s release on the national “a” wire (the ap’s most significant news stories of the day). The result was almost universal ridicule by hundreds of media outlets, led by The New York Times—all calling the “bullet-ban” a national referendum on gun control. In their circus effort to create a new avenue for gun control, the media published the CPSC address in editorial comment that reached millions of homes.

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