Monday, April 07, 2008

Among Heston's legacies: A stronger NRA, more pro-gun Democrats, and maybe President Bush

Charlton Heston, who died Saturday at 84, played a significant role as president of the National Rifle Association in changing Democratic politicians' attitudes about gun control, writes Calvin Woodward of The Associated Press.

Heston, who had marched for civil rights and headed the Screen Actors Guild, "became NRA president in 1998 as the group was dealing with internal strife and hostility from Bill Clinton's administration and many in Congress," Woodward reports. "It raised its membership to 4 million members during his time as president," ending in 2003, when he stepped down after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.

"Heston may have done more for the gun movement than any other individual," NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd writes in FirstRead. "His leadership on the issue humanized the pro-gun advocates at a time when the NRA, in particular, was under siege by gun control legislation all over the country."

In the 2000 presidential race, the NRA took aim at Democrat Al Gore, "who favored mandatory photo ID licenses for future handgun buyers," Woodward notes. The campaign's iconic moment was Heston holding a musket high over his head, above, just as he had held the staff of Moses in "The Ten Commandments" and daring Gore to pry the gun "from my cold dead hands."

When the returns and exit polls were tallied, "About half of voters were from gun-owning households, and they voted for Bush by 61 percent to 36 percent. Voters from households without guns backed Gore 58 to 39," Woodward notes. Those numbers reflected a rural-urban split; Bush carried rural voters 62 to 38. "Were it not for your active involvement," then-Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida told Heston later, "it's safe to say my brother may not have been president of the United States."

After the election, Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said "I knew we were in trouble" when he was flying over Gore's home state of Tennessee and overheard one man in business class tell another, "The problem with Al Gore is he'll take our guns away." Woodward concludes his tale of Heston's influence: "That exchange, it could be said, was his Holy Moses moment."

Gore's party learned its lesson. "Ever since, Democrats in presidential and many congressional and governors' races have scrambled to establish their bona fides as hunters, if they can, or as admirers of firearms or the Second Amendment if they can't," Woodward notes. (Read more) For the latest example of that, see the item below.

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