By Dave Kopel
Gun World, 1996. More by Kopel on politics and the gun issue.
It’s been nearly a year now, since George Bush resigned his NRA membership in a very public huff. As an NRA member myself, I haven’t missed him very much. But the story of George Bush’s relationship with the NRA—a story that the media entirely ignored while praising Bush’s resignation—is worth knowing, because the story shows the dangers that will be faced by gun owners should Republicans take the White House in 1996.
Now George Bush appears to be a nice guy. He served his country bravely during World War II. He would probably make a good neighbor. But in terms of how George Bush carried out his Presidential oath to defend the Constitution, including the Second Amendment, Bush was an absolute disaster.
George Bush’s first major political encounter with the gun issue came when Congress was enacting the Gun Control Act of 1968. Representative Bush was the only Texas Congressperson to vote for the Act, and when doing so, he said that much more needed to be done.
Technically, Bush’s vote wasn’t counted as an anti-gun vote by the National Rifle Association; the NRA agreed to a compromise by which the gun registration provisions would be removed from the bill, and the NRA, while not endorsing the bill, would not count a vote for the bill as an anti-gun vote.
Still, the entire Texas delegation (except for Rep. Bush) and many other legislator recognized the repressive potential of the Gun Control Act. Shortly after passage of the bill, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (apparently given a green light by gun-hating President Richard Nixon), was perpetrating enforcement abuses against innocent citizens at a rate that has never been equaled, not even under the Clinton administration.
In 1972, Representative Bush captured the Republican nomination for Senate in Texas. But Bush was defeated by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, who heavily stressed his own opposition to gun control, and Bush’s support for it. (Bentsen maintained a very strong pro-gun record in the Senate until 1990).
In 1980, Bush ran for the Presidency. He still liked gun control enough to endorse the idea of a ban on small, inexpensive handguns (so-called “Saturday Night Specials”). Ronald Reagan beat Bush in one primary after another, though, and Bush’s support for gun control and abortion hurt him badly among Republican activists.
As Vice-President, George Bush experienced what he described as a profound “change of heart” about abortion, and turned into a major opponent of abortion rights. He courted abortion opponents intensely, even demagogues like Jerry Falwell. Later, as President, Bush kept the promises he had made about abortion, and vetoed many pro-abortion bills passed by Congress.
On the gun issue, Bush underwent a similar, although shorter-lived conversion.
By the end of the Reagan Presidency, Ronald Reagan’s declining faculties had made him almost irrelevant to the Machiavellian policy-making going on in the White House. Attorney General Edwin Meese—not exactly a libertarian—was getting ready to have the administration endorse Senator Howard Metzenbaum’s bill to ban “plastic handguns.” (There’s no such thing, but the Metzenbaum bill would have outlawed many thousands of small, all-metal handguns, such as derringers, which were claimed to be invisible to airport metal detectors.)
The NRA went to Vice-President Bush, and he succeeded in blocking Meese’s plan. Gun control advocates were furious. Even without administration support, the Metzenbaum bill lost by only two votes in the Senate; had Bush not stopped Meese, the bill almost certainly would have passed.
In early 1988, with the Presidential nominating season about to begin, George Bush reached into his deep pocket, and bought himself a $500 life membership in the National Rifle Association.
After winning the Republican Presidential nomination in 1988, George Bush wrote a public letter to the NRA promising his opposition to waiting periods, gun bans, gun registration, and other forms of gun control.
The NRA gave George Bush more support than it had ever given a Presidential candidate. The NRA dropped over six million dollars in an independent expenditure campaign for Bush, and against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. The NRA bought huge amounts of radio time in rural areas detailing Dukakis’s support for gun prohibition. In many areas, NRA “Defend Firearms, Defeat Dukakis” bumper stickers were more numerous than pro-Bush or pro-Dukakis bumper stickers distributed by the political parties.
Dukakis, who had been running even in the polls in Texas, plummeted once word of his anti-gun record got out.
In the end, the NRA campaign was not essential to Bush’s victory, but (as with the Reagan victory in 1980), the NRA’s intensive campaign changed what would have been a reasonably close election into a landslide. Support from pro-gun, normally Democratic voters helped put Bush over the top in close states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Montana.
But once George Bush became President, this man—who had claimed loyalty and trustworthiness as his prime public virtues—almost immediately began betraying his election promises. The “no new taxes” pledge as least lasted until 1990. But opposition to gun control was abandoned within weeks of the Bush inauguration.
The aptly titled drug “czar” William Bennett—on his first day in office—convinced the Treasury Department to outlaw the import of several models of so-called “assault weapons.” The NRA, attempting to preserve a relationship with the White House, praised the “temporary” import moratorium as providing a cooling-off period for a rational discussion of the “assault weapon” issue.
But a few weeks later, President Bush dramatically expanded the import ban to cover many dozens of additional firearms models. Bush Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater added that President Bush wished that he had the additional authority to simply outlaw the domestic manufacture of so-called “assault weapons.”
As the New York Times explained, the White House decision to back gun prohibition was based less on deep conviction than the desire to get out in front on what appeared to be a popular issue, after the political setback stemming from the Senate’s rejection of John Tower as Presidential nominee for Secretary of Defense.
In the months that followed, the Republican National Committee and the White House were flooded with mail from outraged gunowners. Eventually, Bush waffled a little bit back towards the pro-gun side. In May of 1989, President Bush made the import ban permanent, and proposed a ban on all magazines holding more than 15 rounds, but he backed away from active support for a ban on any additional guns. Under the Bush proposal, all large-capacity “ammunition feeding devices” currently in private hands would have to be registered with the federal government, under terms similar to the current registration of machine guns.
For the rest of the Bush administration, gun rights advocates were shut out of the White House. Even with President Bush trailing badly in the polls in the late summer of 1992, the Bush administration refused to have anything to do with the gun lobby, or to do even the most minor things to help the interests of gun owners.
Instead, the White House pushed for the magazine ban at every opportunity. The White House offered to sign the Brady Bill and a more comprehensive ban on semiautomatics (including a retroactive registration requirement) if the gun control laws were included in a crime bill that the White House wanted.
All the while, President Bush accelerated the trend begun in the late Reagan administration towards militarizing federal law enforcement and freeing it from Constitutional constraints. “No-knock” break-ins became the routine method of serving search warrants. Wiretapping rates set new records year after year. The use of informants grew rapidly. Law enforcement agencies acquired huge stocks of military equipment. The military became increasingly involved in domestic law enforcement, often under specious pretexts designed to avoid statutory restrictions on use of the military against the American people.
The Bush administration pushed hard for even greater restrictions on freedom. The centerpiece of the Bush crime bill would have allowed courtroom use of illegally seized evidence, if the evidence happened to be a gun. If the police broke into your home for no reason, and, literally, tortured you until you told them where your unregistered gun was hidden, the gun could be used against you in court. Other elements of the Bush crime bill (now included in President Clinton’s proposed Terrorism Bill) included trials with secret evidence for certain legal resident aliens, and destruction of the right of habeas corpus, by which federal courts review whether state or federal prisoners are being illegally held in prison.
The entrapment of Randy Weaver, the killing of Sammy and Sara Weaver, and the subsequent FBI coverup all took place during the Bush administration. So did the investigation of David Koresh, and the planning for the unprovoked tank, helicopter, and grenade assault on the home of the Branch Davidians. President Bush failed miserably to uphold his Presidential oath to ensure that the laws be faithfully executed. To the contrary, the White House for all practical purposes gave a green light to federal law enforcement lawlessness.
Given the Bush administration’s horrible record, the NRA would have been nuts to endorse President Bush for re-election. A second Bush term would have seen a continued White House push for new federal gun controls. And the Bush White House would have treated the NRA with the contempt the NRA would have deserved for supporting a candidate who had gone out of his way to betray his campaign promises.
President Bush would have lost his re-election bid even with gun-owner support. But NRA support on the 1988 level would at least have allowed Bush to keep things close in 1992, rather than suffer a humiliating landslide defeat.
All the above information—including Bush’s understandable anger at the NRA for not endorsing him in 1992—was ignored by the media when reporting Bush’s resignation from the NRA. Instead, Bush was lauded as a solid friend of the Second Amendment who was standing up for principle against the NRA.
In the spring of 1995, the NRA had sent out a fund-raising letter stating that out-of-control rogue federal agents were endangering public safety, and behaving like "jack-booted government thugs." Technically speaking, the letter was incorrect, since a “jackboot” was originally an over-the-knee cavalry boot, or, more generally, “a laceless military boot reaching to the calf.” [Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary(Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1980), p. 612].
But a secondary definition of “jackbooted” is “ruthlessly and violently oppressive.” And under George Bush’s administration, that is exactly what too many rogue federal agents were allowed to become.
"Your broadside against federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor, and it offends my concept of service to country," Bush wrote NRA President Tom Washington. "It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us."
Rather than slandering good federal law enforcement officers, the NRA letter amounted to an indirect criticism of Bush himself, for Bush’s failing even to try to control lawless federal law enforcement officers, and for creating the drug “war” climate in which law enforcement violence and brutality became far too common.
Back in 1989, after President Bush had shown that his pro-gun election promises were merely a scrap of paper, grassroots NRA activists in Texas started circulating petitions to have him expelled from the organization. In retrospect, the NRA leadership was wrong in squashing the petition.
If federal law enforcement’s reputation is suffering these days, it’s not because of NRA fund-raising letters; it’s because of George Bush’s failure to uphold his Presidential oath to defend the Constitution
Today, all of the three leading Republican Presidential contenders—Dole, Gramm, and Alexander—mouth pro-gun pieties. But in their careers, they have been just as blind of federal law enforcement violence as was George Bush. Should any of these men be elected President, gun owners and other friends of the Constitution will be in no position to relax.
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