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In the early years, the NRA and law enforcement were the best of friends. A shared interest in firearms, coupled with the NRA's training programs in marksmanship and safety forged strong bonds between the two groups. But the "New NRA" destroyed those bonds when Harlan Carter's absolutist opposition to gun laws ran into the police officers' campaign for bans on cop-killer bullets, plastic guns and assault weapons. The NRA's response was an all-out attack on the police leadership -- from the chiefs to the head of the rank-and-file's Fraternal Order of Police.

The NRA's approach to fighting any efforts to control firearms is no hold barred, 100% with us or against us. In the 1980's and early 1990's this approach found the NRA diametrically opposed to the police -- in the issue of "cop-killer" bullets, plastic guns and assault weapons. While it might have been possible to oppose the issues on the merits of the case, the NRA's "take no prisoners" tactics led them to personal attacks on the police and officers who opposed them.

In the first battle, over armor(ed vest)-piercing, "Cop Killer" bullets, the initiative for the legislation came from a police union -- New York City's Policemen's Benevolent Union requested former NYPD patrolmen turned Congressman, Mario Biaggi, to sponsor legislation banning the ammunition following a televised special report that was prepared with the technical assistance of an NRA Field Representative in California. /1/

The bill Biaggi presented was flawed and overly-broad, but the NRA's tactics did not include correcting the flaws; they relied on defeating the entire bill. When the National Coalition to Ban Handguns approached the NRA on sponsoring a bill both could support, the NRA's answer was "[A ban] on those bullets found to penetrate soft body armor would undoubtedly impact on bullets used by sportsmen."/2/

But what the NRA was counting on was that the issue would blow over. After all, the bill's primary constituency -- the police -- were, up to that time, close friends of the NRA and they were disorganized as a lobbying organization and split between rank and file and the officers.

But the NRA miscalculated the effects. While the NRA had long publicized its close relationship with the police, now it was the opposition's turn, and Handgun Control was running ads in police trade magazines calling on the police to "Help Stop the Cop-Killers." The campaign was successful and the NRA reacted in it's standard manner (see "The Ultimate Lobbying Machine") -- it sent a mailing to its membership claiming the effort was part of the plot to separate gun owners from their guns:

    "Mark my words, the so-called 'cop-killer" bullet issue is a Trojan Horse waiting outside the gun owners' doors. If the anti-gunners have their way, this highly publicized and emotionalized issue will be used to enact a backdoor, national gun control scheme.... The anti-gun forces will go to any lengths to void your rights to keep and bear arms..."/3/

Meanwhile, in an effort to lessen the damage the NRA position had its relationship with the police and because it wanted their support in its primary legislative goal of gutting GCA'68 that was starting as the McClure Volkmer Bill (it would be passed several years later, with some modifications, as the Firearm Owners' Protective Act of 1988), it sat down behind closed doors with the officials from the Treasury and Justice department to craft a minimalist bill. This bill was presented to the the police as a take it or leave it bill (they weren't told it had been authored by the NRA) and, with the Biaggi bill going nowhere, they supported the "administration" measure. In spite of the "as is" demand, the bill eventually passed with little fanfare.

The NRA calculation that the damage its opposition had caused might have been correct, except for two problems: 1) it taught the police a lesson about organized lobbying, and even as it was trying to mend fences, it was launching new attacks on specific police officers who opposed its efforts to block "plastic guns" and McClure Volkmer.

It was Police Chief Neil Behan (of Baltimore) who was puzzled by the NRA's claim that police organizations backed McClure-Volkmer. He checked and found no such support had been given. Recalling the battle over the cop-killer bullets, he organized an umbrella organization, the Law Enforcement Steering Committee (LESC), to provide for coordination and cover for the individual officers and chiefs.

So the NRA went after Chief Behan, claiming he was out of touch with the rank-and-file police (even though many of the rank and file organizations, including the largest , the Fraternal Order of Police, were part of the LESC) and was a stooge of the anti-gun organization.

That brought a response from the director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (another group which belonged to the LESC), Jerald Vaughn:

    "Your tactics have included taking the liberty of improperly acting as a spokesman for law enforcement in this country. You have misrepresented our position, you have attempted to discredit and undermine the leadership of our professional law enforcement associations and have blatantly insulted our intelligence by implying we are the dupes of the anti-gun lobby...."/4/

The same sentiment was echoed by the IACP's president, John Norton, in the IACP magazine in April 1985, after an NRA affiliated group passed a resolution calling for Norton's expulsion form the NRA.

But the most vitriolic attack was directed at the Chief of the San Jose Police Department, John McNamara. Chief McNamara, the son of an NYPD cop had been a beat cop himself, who had obtained a PhD from Harvard. He had become the nation's youngest chief when he took the job in Kansas City and then became the longest tenured chief in the nation (15 years in San Jose). Today, he is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

McNamara was telegenic, eloquent and, worst of all, quite ready to speak out against the NRA by name and to criticize them for working against the interests of of law enforcement.

The NRA responded in fashion -- its attorney threatened him with a lawsuit if he didn't shut up. McNamara's response: "I was a little surprised, because it's so stupid. You don't threaten an Irish cop." /5/

So the NRA took out full page ads in USA Today, Time and Newsweek, titled "SO YOU WANT TO LEGALIZE DRUGS IN AMERICA? SORRY ABOUT THAT CHIEF". The text ran:

    Pictured and quoted in recent national news media, San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara wants to legalize drugs, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crack. The cruel cripplers invading our neighborhoods and shattering our families.

    So why does one man's opinion cause the National Rifle Association to run this message?

    Because we care about American kids and families, about the future of this country and its freedoms. And because it is also Joseph McNamara who is leading Handgun Control, Inc. on its march to deprive Americans of lawful firearms ownership.

    It's ironic that a police chief -- and entrusted model of moral behaviour for our youth -- wants to make illegal drugs legal but lawful guns unlawful. Such nonsense says nothing about real solutions to drugs and crime, but much about McNamara's lost confidence in his ability to enforce the law. And tough enforcement is part of the answer.

    That's why McNamara should chase drug pushers, not headlines. McNamara should attack repeat offenders, not millions of law abiding firearms owners. McNamara should support constitutional freedom, not drug freedom.

    As long as Chief McNamara wants to make criminals of the law-abiding and law-abiding of the criminals, we think he will hear a resounding response: Sorry about that chief./6/

Sounds great, but there is one problem: it was a lie. McNamara didn't support legalizing drugs. In fact, he opposed it. He had made that clear on the Oprah Winfrey Show on which the NRA based the claim. When responding to Oprah's question about whether he said it was time to legalize drugs, he answered "No. I haven't. What I said is, it's time we consider this in an unemotional way. We must find a way to take the profit out of drugs."

And the ads backfired. They didn't affect McNamara's position with the San Jose police, but they did give McNamara even greater visibility and increased the gap between the NRA and the police.

Almost mindlessly, the NRA continued the attacks. Oak Park, Il Police Chief Keith Bergstrom's sin was enforcing the handgun ban in Oak Park, so the NRA tried (and failed) to block his appointment as police chief in Tarpon Springs, Florida. They were more successful in blocking Minneapolis Chief Anthony Bouza's application in Suffolk County, NY. Bouza had actually appeared in an HCI video. Nashville Chief and IACP president Joe Casey, was attacked for supporting waiting periods with statements like " "I've been in law enforcement for 36 years. . . . I can remember when the NRA was a hunting and gun safety organization. Clearly the 'new' NRA has abandoned its traditions and is putting gun industry profits ahead of the public welfare." /7/ That campaign, like the one against McNamara only strengthened the resolve of the IACP.

During this period, the NRA kept claiming the chiefs were out of touch with the rank and file. But that didn't work when they took on Dewey Stokes, head of the 225,000-member Fraternal Order of Police.

Stokes was no bleeding heart liberal. In fact, he was so conservative he worried that the NRA was too closely tied to the ACLU. But he not only brought his organization into the LESC, he actually supported the Brady Bill. Worse yet, he travelled the country supporting politicians who were supporting gun control measures, helping them counter the NRA's efforts to portray them as somehow soft on crime.

By 1991, the NRA's attacks reached new levels. According to Stokes, the NRA funneled money through the Law Enforcement Alliance of America (a name selected to give the impression it represented Law Enforcement Officers, although it was open to anyone), an organization created by NRA board member, Leroy Pyle, to finance the campaign of an opponent of Stokes for the leadership of the FOP. /8/ It failed, with membership voting over 2 to 1 to re-elect Stokes.

By now, the chickens were coming home to roost. And, on the Brady Bill and Assault Weapons ban, any congressional official who had supported the measures could be assured that, if s/he wanted it, there would be an endorsement from Law Enforcement to dispel the NRA's claim that the candidate did not care about the police or law enforcement. In the end, that support was critical for those candidates supporting the AW Ban (see: A Favorite Son Goes Bad)


  1. Osha Gray Davidson, Under Fire, The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control - Expanded Edition, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA, 1998, pg 88-89  Back^
  2. ibid, pg 88  Back^
  3. ibid, pg 92  Back^
  4. as quoted in Davidson,op cit, pg 100  Back^
  5. Robert Lindsey, "Chief in San Jose Battles Gun Lobby", New York Times, June 8, 1986, Part 1, page 26.  Back^
  6. Davidson, op cit, pg 102-3  Back^
  7. "Police Under the Guns," Washington Post, June 8, 1988, page A26.  Back^
  • "NRA Takes Aim at President of Fraternal Order of Police," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 4, 1991, page 6A.  Back^
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    ©Copyright, 2000, Mike Rosenberg