For many decades after the National Rifle Association was founded in 1871, a main focus of the group was on urging and teaching gun safety, to help reduce gun-related accidents.
In fact, the famous slogan associated with the NRA — “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” — was once used as a cautionary safety warning, rather than as defensive response in the debate over gun control.
In recent decades, the NRA’s primary public focus has been on protecting and expanding Americans’ right to own and carry guns.
Your position on the controversial issue of gun control probably determines how you view the NRA slogan and a famous (and infamous) gun-related quote that’s linked to the date April 13.
In a fundraising letter to NRA members, dated April 13, 1995, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called the federal officials who enforce U.S. gun laws “jack-booted government thugs.”
LaPierre tied the phrase to a law banning certain semi-automatic and automatic weapons, which had passed during President Bill Clinton’s first term in office, with Clinton’s support.
That law is popularly known as The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB).
The AWB is a subsection of the broader Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The provisions in that act which imposed harsher penalties on violent and repeat offenders have recently inspired “Black Lives Matter” protesters to heckle both Hillary and Bill Clinton at their 2016 primary campaign speaking engagements.
Back in 1995, it was Wayne LaPierre who was making news for harshly attacking the measure and its enforcement.
Among other things, LaPierre said in the April 13, 1995 letter to NRA members:
“…the semiauto-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”
The last part of that sentence conjured up images of the fatal confrontations between officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and Randy Weaver’s family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas in 1993.
LaPierre’s use of the phrase “jack-booted government thugs” was his metaphorical way of equating BATF officials with Nazis.
During the early part of World War II, before leather shortages developed, German soldiers wore distinctive military “jack boots.”
Since then, the name of those high leather boots has been commonly used as a symbolic reference to totalitarian governments.
On April 19, 1995, just six days after LaPierre sent out his NRA fundraising letter, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb, killing 168 people.It was later discovered that the conspirators behind the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, were also angry over gun control laws and the federal government’s involvement in the Ruby Ridge and Waco tragedies.
Gun control advocates suggested that the inflammatory rhetoric in LaPierre’s letter had encouraged the bombing.
However, a few weeks after the Oklahoma bombing, in an interview reported by the Associated Press, LaPierre did publicly apologize for the harshness of his remarks about federal officials.
“If anyone thought the intention was to paint all federal law enforcement officials with the same broad brush,” LaPierre said, “I’m sorry.”
Nonetheless, LaPierre’s use of the phrase “jack-booted government thugs” in his fundraising letter remains notorious among gun control advocates and critics of the NRA.
For example, in 2011, liberal groups harshly criticized Fox News for using LaPierre as a commentator in a segment about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“LaPierre is the last person a responsible media outlet should have on its airwaves to comment on the Bureau…because LaPierre once referred to ATF agents as ‘jack-booted government thugs.’”
Today, the phrase is still being cited in articles and commentary about gun control, the NRA and LaPierre.
A January 5, 2016 editorial in the New York Daily News about the continued opposition to gun control by the NRA and its political allies, despite the recent wave of mass shootings in schools and other public places, reminded readers:
“Just one month before Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City Federal Building, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre railed against ‘jack-booted government thugs.’”
Of course, in the view of NRA members, guns and ill-advised words don’t kill people — ill people do.
It’s a debate that is likely to continue for many decades to come.
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