EDITOR’S NOTE: The recent deadly school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, not long after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, reminded me of the context of Charlton Heston’s first notable use of his famous/infamous quote “From my cold, dead hands.” It was in a speech at an NRA meeting held a few months after the 1989 Stockton, California schoolyard shooting, in which dozens of children were killed and wounded by a lunatic armed with a semi-automatic rifle. Heston used those words in other speeches after that, including one on May 20, 2000 that gained even wider attention because he aimed them at Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. If Heston were still around, I suspect he would still be using the same defiant catchphrase to oppose any restrictions on guns in this country today, despite how many lives they have been used to take since 1989.
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For most of his life, Charlton Heston was best known for his long, highly successful career as an actor.
He appeared in more than 100 films, including some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters.
By the late 1980s, his movie career was starting to wane. But his prominence as a Second Amendment gun rights activist was just beginning.
During the ‘60s, Heston had publicly supported Democratic politicians and liberal causes.
He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at civil rights events, supported labor union activities, and endorsed gun control legislation, such as President Lyndon Johnson’s Gun Control Act of 1968.
As he got older, Heston became increasingly conservative.
He became a supporter of Republican candidates, like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and spoke out against “political correctness.”
He also became an active, high-profile supporter of the National Rifle Association and its political efforts to block gun control laws.
In the 1980s, Heston appeared in NRA ads and direct mail campaigns. In 1998, he was elected President of the NRA. He served in that role until 2003.
It was during his years as a prominent NRA supporter that Heston popularized the gun rights slogan: “From my cold, dead hands.”
Those words became his most widely-known non-movie quotation. He is even sometimes credited with coining it. But he didn’t.
It’s based on previous slogans used by gun rights groups as early as the mid-1970s.
It was a catchy way of suggesting that gun owners were willing to literally fight to the death to prevent the government from “taking away their guns.”
Charlton Heston first used the last five words of the bumper sticker line in a notable public forum on April 29, 1989, at the NRA’s annual convention in St. Louis.
Three months before that, on January 17, 1989, an unemployed welder named Patrick Edward Purdy had used a semi-automatic rifle to shoot and kill five school children and wound 32 others on the playground at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California.
This shocking and, at the time, still rare example of a mass school shooting generated a media firestorm.
It soon led to calls for state and federal action to ban semi-automatic weapons.
In his speech at the NRA’s April 29, 1989 convention, Heston argued that proposals for such bans were sparked by “media bias” against guns and would be unworkable, unacceptable infringements on the Second Amendment rights of American citizens.
After Heston finished the speech, he was presented with a silver-and-gold plated replica of a flintlock rifle, as a sign of appreciation from the NRA.
Smiling happily, Heston held up the gun and said: “I have only one more comment to make: From my cold, dead hands.”
Heston later used “From my cold, dead hands” in other speeches at NRA events, usually as part of his closing lines.
One particularly high-profile use was in the speech he gave at the NRA’s May 20, 2000 annual convention, which came during the 2000 presidential campaign and garnered considerable media attention.
In that speech, Heston criticized Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore for his support of stronger gun control laws.
At the end, he lifted the flintlock he was given in 1989 over his head and said:
“As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’”
“From my cold, dead hands” has continued to be a favorite slogan of gun rights advocates — and a target of mockery by gun control advocates.
It has also spawned numerous take-offs and variations involving things other than guns.
Some of my favorite examples are listed in the post on my QuoteCounterquote.com site at this link.
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