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Passing of a Legend

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The ridicule heaped on McClure greatly amused the senator. He knew something the scribblers at The New York Times couldn’t understand—and still don’t understand. This was purely a consumer issue, and the consumers were the tens of millions of gun owners who since 1968 had paid the price for criminals and assassins with their rights.

This was an “enough is enough” moment.

When the comments were counted, the media’s crowing about this being a national referendum on gun control was right on the money.

More than 400,000 Americans wrote individual letters against the ban. And some of those letters contained petitions with additional tens of thousands of signatures. That response was the biggest in the history of federal regulations. That avalanche of letters and calls to CPSC generated by NRA and McClure’s press release produced this result and energized the nation’s beleaguered gun owners for future battles.

Conversely, even with near total media support and the loud backing of every anti-gun politician and gun-control group in the country, support for the ban totaled a mere 500 letters!

With the final score at 400,000 to 500, Jim McClure termed it a “political spontaneous combustion.”

But the turning point didn’t end there.

In the spring of 1975 at the NRA Annual Meetings in San Diego, Calif., the NRA Board of Directors formalized the Executive Committee’s earlier decision to create the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, headed by Harlon B. Carter, whose life’s ambition was to see NRA take its place as the most powerful voice for the Second Amendment.

NRA-ILA was created at a time when NRA members and gun owners across the country faced imminent disaster on all fronts from anti-gun groups, their congressional allies and a hostile national media. All were on the march after enacting the 1968 Gun Control Act, pushing seemingly unstoppable “Saturday Night Special” legislation that would have banned most handguns, as well as CPSC’s ban on handguns and handgun ammunition.

Building on the modest capabilities of the existing Office of Legislative Affairs, NRA-ILA’s leadership team began the arduous task of recruiting and training new staff, developing grassroots member communications, and busting shoe-leather developing relationships with Senators, Congressmen, and their staffs.

At the time, I was McClure’s press secretary and handled the senator’s Second Amendment issues.

In one of those events which changed the course of history, Sen. McClure and his staff were approached by three young men from NRA—Richard L. Corrigan, head of the new ILA-Federal Affairs Division; Michael J. Parker, ILA general counsel; and Russell Wisor, Corrigan’s deputy. They asked a simple question, “What can we do?” With that meeting, a bond was formed that lasted until McClure’s retirement.

ILA wasted no time stirring the grassroots with a series of legislative mailings and a heavy, direct lobbying presence in the Senate and House. Those efforts were matched in the U.S. House to support U.S. Rep. John Dingell’s, D-Mich., companion CPSC bill.

Dick Corrigan observed, “While we didn’t know it at the time, in retrospect, the other side made a serious miscalculation. Sen. McClure in his leadership, teaming with ILA and the nation’s gun owners, enlisted friends and allies on both sides of the aisle and recast the issue in terms of consumers’ rights. Victory on this issue broke the anti-gun momentum and laid the basis for victories way into the future. It gave gun owners hope and the will to fight.”

The CPSC fight came to a head in the Senate on July 18, 1975. In the floor debate, the McClure forces were opposed by Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the gun-ban powerhouse, who pushed for an amendment to give the CPSC power to regulate firearms and ammunition.

He lost on a voice vote. Upon demanding a roll-call vote, Kennedy sat stunned as, one by one, senators voted against him—among them many Democrats whom he believed to be in his pocket. When all was said and done, Kennedy was handed a stinging defeat. He lost by a vote of 75 to 11.

For the gun-ban crowd, it was a turning point all right—a point of no return. It was the loss of losses.

For those who voted with McClure, especially Democrats, there was something remarkable—a grateful, heartfelt response encouraged by the new NRA-ILA consisting of countless thanks from the real gun lobby, the millions of consumers whose rights were endangered by the CPSC regulation. Gratitude felt good.

If this first critical turning point came in a very public forum, the second has remained private and untold—until now. It involved the establishment of McClure’s ultimately trusting relationship with the firearm industry and his personal intervention in what could have been a lasting disaster for gun owners.

More than anything else about gun control, McClure understood that there would never be an end to the demands by the Kennedy-led cabal. For him, compromise on the Second Amendment was not an option.

Shortly after the CPSC vote, I received a visit from a personal friend who was also an industry representative in Washington, D.C. He was sounding an alarm that could have cost him his job.

He said that as a matter of conscience, he was bound to give McClure some documents with respect to agreements between a few handgun manufacturers and New Jersey U.S. Rep. Peter Rodino, then the most powerful anti-gun member of the U.S. House.

The package included correspondence between industry officials and Rodino, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Rodino had already announced his intention to push a new ban on so-called “Saturday Night Specials.” It was a serious threat.

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