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Passing of a Legend

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The package delivered was deeply alarming. In addition to correspondence, there was a draft of legislation prepared by industry lawyers—Washington insiders—that would have banned many models of handguns. It was very well crafted.

McClure saw it as a blatant restraint of trade. It cut out many innovative small companies by specifically requiring patented safety features that existed only on handgun models produced by a handful of companies.

McClure was as angry as his staff had ever seen him. He drafted a letter to the CEOs of those companies. Each paragraph began, “Tell me it ain’t so.”

Allowing time for his message to sink in, McClure called a meeting with the companies’ CEOs, who were ushered into the senator’s office.

McClure’s intent was to lay out the political realities of the new Senate. With none of the usual small talk, he spoke directly and gravely. After the CPSC victory, he said, it is clear that your consumers are the real power. Trust them. Everything has changed, and there is neither reason nor room for any compromise.

He told them with certainty that the line would be held in the Senate; that Kennedy’s gun control forces simply did not have the votes for a gun bill. But, he warned, there was one element that could change that dynamic—an industry intervention.

Brandishing the industry letters, he said softly, “I know everything—all of it.”

As he started to explain his plans for positive action in the Senate, McClure was interrupted with:

“Senator, you don’t understand. We believe that unless we act, our enemies in Congress will put us out of business within five years.”

McClure’s response was quiet and measured.

“No. You’re the one who doesn’t understand. You do this, and I will put you out of business a lot quicker than your enemies will.”

At that point, one CEO stood, and with gravity said, “Thank you very much, senator. We get the message. We trust you.”

That was that. The meeting ended, and ultimately so did the deal with Rep. Rodino.

Without that event, there is no doubt that an industry-supported partial handgun ban might well have become reality. Perhaps the ce0s’ position was understandable. In the face of a Senate-passed ban in 1972, a compromise option might have made sense.

But not after the CPSC fight—the winds had changed.

Furthermore, because of this pivotal see-the-light moment, the industry ultimately joined its consumers in fighting the so-called Saturday Night Special issue. As a result of that united front, the handgun ban never happened.

And that meeting paved the way for today’s stronger alliance between NRA and industry which has been critical in enactment of legislation like the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

So, what made McClure so successful as a legislator? Experience, for one thing. He came to the Senate with three terms in the Idaho Senate, and three in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But the United States Senate was different. There was much to learn. Jim McClure possessed a remarkably quick mind for critical detail. His long hours pouring over the rules and over old debates gave him a mastery of Senate proceedings that was unparalleled.

And he spent hours presiding over the Senate, volunteering for “chair duty,” an onerously boring task assigned to freshmen who gladly deferred to McClure.

As he watched over the routine business of the Senate day in and day out, he studied something else—the players. He absorbed the political dynamics of the Senate as a body. And he had the measure of individual Senators—all of them.

When he was done, he possessed a unique ability: He could see the entire forest because he knew the trees.

At the same time, McClure, as a conservative, pointedly not as a Republican, was instrumental in organizing something called the Senate Steering Committee, an ad hoc group of like-minded Senators. This floating alliance, which often included Democrats, served the cause of the Second Amendment well.

For gun owners who were his contemporaries, his passing should be revered; for those not old enough, it should be understood and equally honored. Jim McClure was an icon.

Senator McClure is survived by his wife, Louise; daughter, Marilyn Roach; sons Ken and David; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Editor’s Note: Contributing Editor Jim Norell left McClure’s staff in the fall of 1975 to answer a call from Harlon B. Carter to join the then-new NRA Institute for Legislative Action as director of communications. Norell is an award-winning screenwriter and a freelance journalist.

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