One morning during the winter weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, the gun lobbyist Larry Pratt made the short drive from his offices in Springfield, Virginia, to the Arlington headquarters of the Leadership Institute, a training center for young conservatives. Pratt and the Institute’s founder, Morton Blackwell, share a history in conservative activism going back four decades, and Pratt had spoken there many times, providing legislative updates on the politics of guns. Today, there seemed to be a jauntiness to the oddly boyish-faced 71-year old, who’d found himself at the center of a national media story just beginning to fade. He opened with a joke.
"Piers Morgan sends his regrets he won’t be able to attend," Pratt deadpanned.
The audience chuckled at the reference. On December 18th, 2012, four days after Adam Lanza’s killing spree, the CNN host had invited Pratt to debate gun control, as most major networks have over the years. When Pratt stated that gun-free school zones — and, by extension, gun control advocates like Piers Morgan — were to blame for the tragedy in Newton, Morgan stuttered and seethed. “You’re an unbelievably stupid man, aren’t you?” said the host.
Pratt’s critics have called him many things over the years: extreme, radical, pernicious, creepy, dogged, effective. But no one who’s studied his multi-faceted career could describe him as stupid. On CNN, Pratt was smart enough not to tell Piers Morgan what he really thinks about the Second Amendment. Because what he really thinks resonates deeply with the theocratic tenets of Christian Reconstructionism, which holds that American government should be ordered according to events and dictates found in the Old and New Testaments. Nor is Pratt so stupid as to use his regular access to mainstream media to promote the “active measures” he believes American gun owners will one day be forced to unleash on a secular federal government. As he explained in his 1999 essay, “What does the Bible Say About Gun Control?” Pratt writes, “If Christ is not our King, we shall have a dictator to rule over us, just as Samuel warned.”
Pratt doesn’t talk like this when being interviewed by The New York Times or answering questions on C-SPAN. Instead, he uses the more familiar language of ensuring public safety and respecting constitutional rights. He has employed this two-track communications operation with admirable efficacy and consistency since launching Gun Owners of America as the Beltway’s first “no-compromise” gun-rights lobbying group in 1976. Over 40 years, Pratt has blazed the path and built the model for a gun-rights movement that has transformed the landscape of American gun politics.
Today, Pratt, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, holds the power to derail and delay gun legislation enjoying broad public support, and quickly inject falsehoods and amplify paranoia among a growing network of gun activists. With the rise of the Tea Party scene, Pratt has discovered new constituencies and new platforms for spreading his message of a Biblically mandated rollback of all gun regulation. He has also found new champions in the forms of his favorite senators: Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. He believes this November offers a chance to further grow the “Second Amendment Absolutist” bloc in Congress.
Larry Pratt addresses about 500 demonstrators during a rally in support of the Second Amendment in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
"Look forward to 2014 as a time when we get involved as never before," Pratt told an audience at the Leadership Institute. "Look for those candidates that deserve our support. The Rand Pauls. The Ted Cruzes. The Steve Stockmans of the House and try to multiply their number … The RINOS [Republicans in Name Only] need to be humiliated. They need to be driven out of public life."
By Pratt’s design, today’s gun movement has little room for RINOS, but accommodates extremists and sometimes adopts their language. As the director of an organization claiming 300,000 members, Pratt understands the gun movement’s role as that of a heavily armed guard, holding a cautionary gun to the head of America’s would-be dictators.
"The Second Amendment is not for hunting, it’s not even for self-defense," Pratt explained in his Leadership Institute talk. Rather, it is "for restraining tyrannical tendencies in government…Especially those in the liberal, tyrannical end of the spectrum. There is some restraint, and even if the voters of Brooklyn don’t hold them back, it may be there are other ways that their impulses are somewhat restrained. That’s the whole idea of the Second Amendment." He reiterated the point this March during an interview with conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham. Speaking of a New York Congresswoman who had expressed fear that one of Pratt’s members wanted to shoot her, Pratt said, "You know, I’m kind of glad that’s in the back of their minds. Hopefully they’ll behave."
And if they don’t? When speaking before smaller, conservative audiences, Pratt explains that it is necessary to both generate an undercurrent of fear and muster the organization and will to defeat the dictator prophesized in the Book of Samuel. When asked during a 2010 Q&A session, “Do we have the will to stand up to the government when they trample our rights?” Pratt replied, “That is an exceptionally important point to raise. We can have all the guns in the world, and if we don’t have the will to use them [against the government], then they are useless.”
This is the language found etched along the gun-movement’s aqueduct into the dark crosscurrents of the militia movement and the radical right. It is written in Pratt’s voice, because he has personally overseen engineering and construction of this aqueduct while building the larger gun-rights movement. This movement, considered as a whole, is not as conservative as Pratt. It is increasingly flavored with Libertarian ideas and language, building on outreach efforts designed to deflect attention from socially conservative politics that command ever fewer Americans. But it is no less zealous than Pratt on the question of gun reform. The gun-rights movement is distinct from, and often at odds with, the official gun “lobby” that is dominated by the National Rifle Association and its industry allies. The NRA remains the 500-pound gorilla of gun politics, with a budget and membership that dwarfs all other gun groups combined. But it is now surrounded, most heavily on its right, by a growing cluster of so-called “Second Amendment Absolutist” groups, from influential state-level activist networks like the Arizona Citizens Defense League, to ascendant fundraising dynamos like Dudley Brown’s National Association for Gun Rights.
Among the most pedigreed of these purist outfits is Pratt’s Gun Owners of America.
"The NRA describes itself as a religion, and Larry Pratt is the snake handler," says Tom Diaz, a former analyst at the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun control group, and author of two books on the gun lobby. "The NRA debates using arguable premises of the American system: What is the meaning of the Second Amendment, of self-defense? Pratt unconnects from all that, and appeals to the least informed, most paranoid people." In parallel with his frequent national media appearances, Pratt aggressively pursues smaller radio audiences to peddle conspiracy theories and recycled John Birch Society propaganda from the 1960s. In recent years he has argued that the Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting was an inside job and that the Justice Department was pursuing charges against George Zimmerman to stir up racial animosity, trigger social chaos, and “build their own communist society.”
As the gun-rights movement grows into and with the new century, Pratt is seen as a dinosaur, yet one who still commands respect. “Larry’s a hardcore throwback and a bit of a weirdo — a black helicopter and Trilateral Commission kind of guy — but he has a certain brand and a namehe’s been around forever,” says a staffer in the office of a veteran GOP senator. Indeed, few figures have had a greater impact in the development of the pro-gun movement. Purist groups created on his “no compromise” model now lead the charges in the courts and the states to block new gun-control legislation and chip away at those that exist. Most make the NRA look moderate by comparison.
"The NRA is concerned about its right flank on purity from people like Larry," says Richard Feldman, a former gun industry lobbyist and president of the Independent Firearms Owners Association. "He has said things I thought were crazy at the time, but turned out to be right…Activists respect him for getting things done."Adds Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center: "When NRA members stamp their feet over some rumored compromise, Pratt’s who they go to. When he says make the calls, the calls are made, and it has influence on the Hill."
Larry Pratt speaks at a pro-gun rally organised by the ‘Restore the Constitution’ movement in Virginia park near Washington D.C.
Sipa via AP Images
This influence has only recently caught the attention of media that have generally focused on the NRA and ignored the growth of group’s like Pratt’s. When Gun Owners of America helped lead the gun-rights charge against an expansion of background checks, the New York Times discovered this “influential force” capable of both “freezing” and “empowering” senators. This influence may help to explain the reluctance of elected officials and their staffs to discuss Pratt’s lobbying operation. When contacted, several current and former members of Congress and congressional staffers from both parties declined to comment on the experience of being on the receiving end of GOA’s lobbying fire. The list of those who shied away from talking included nine senators and congressman, such as Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, as well as Democratic Senators Jon Tester and Mark Begich.
Pratt enters his fifth decade of gun activism with ambitious plans for this influence. At an age when many lobbyists considering retiring, Pratt is working through GOA’s PAC, his membership, his allies, and a small team of fellow lobbyists to do what he’s been trying to do since the 1970s: defeat any Republican who does not share his absolutist understanding of Second Amendment freedom. And it is nothing if not absolute: GOA agitates against background checks, waiting periods, and fines for straw purchases (guns purchased legally for resale on the black market).
In his crusade to rollback every gun law on the books, Pratt likes his allies unalloyed with records and habits of compromise. Many of Pratt’s current targets in the primaries enjoy high or perfect ratings from the NRA. Some of them, like Mitch McConnell, have long enjoyed “B” or higher grades from the GOA. But only perfect grades like Rand Paul’s “A+” are truly acceptable in Pratt’s purist world. Unlike the NRA’s system, GOA counts votes on any bill that tangentially touches on gun rights as a “gun vote.” Sometimes no vote is required at all to arouse Pratt’s displeasure, merely inaction. In explaining GOA’s support for Mitch McConnell’s challenger, Matt Bevin, the group cites the senator’s failure to vigorously oppose The Affordable Care Act.
"Obamacare is allowing the medical profession to use information that people give their doctor against them, to take their guns," says Tim Macy, vice chairman of GOA. "McConnell hasn’t stopped it so far, and he’s been in a position to help stop it."
For much of today’s gun movement, the NRA’s more myopic rating system has never had much credibility. To understand why, it’s necessary to go back in time to the era of GOA’s founding, and imagine that the NRA has announced plans to sell it’s D.C.-area offices, abandon politics, move to New Mexico, and re-open as a crunchy nonprofit devoted to conservation and hiking.
What sounds like a piece of alternate-history science fiction is the starting point for understanding the rise of Larry Pratt and the current configuration of forces in the gun debate.
Among the many social convulsions of the 1960s was a public opinion turn in favor of gun control. The legislative expression of this turn, the 1968 Gun Control Act, established today’s regulatory framework for firearms, including a federal licensing system for dealers. It was the first major gun law since Prohibition-era violence and the advent of the “getaway car” transformed crime and led to the 1934 National Firearms Act, which brought machine guns, short-barreled rifles, and silencers under strict government regulation. Another federal law soon followed: the National Firearms Act of 1938, which required the licensing of interstate gun dealers.
In both the thirties and 1968, the NRA either accepted or collaborated in the writing and passing of the law. For the group’s hardline members, this was one compromise too many. Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Gun Control Act deepened a longstanding fissure inside the organization that widened into a full breach five years later. In 1973, the NRA board put its finger in the air and determined that its future depended on pivoting away from guns and toward conservation and outdoor sports. Plans were put in motion to sell its D.C. headquarters, relocate to Colorado Springs, and build a “National Outdoor Center” in New Mexico, where backpacking, hiking and wilderness survival classes would be taught alongside shooting sports. To help figure out how to finance the overhaul, the NRA commissioned the liberal New York consultant Harold Oram, whose clients included Greenpeace, McGovern for President, and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Oram’s report, issued in the summer of 1976, concluded that raising the $30 million needed for the NRA’s Outdoor Center would require de-emphasizing its past opposition to gun control and avoiding all mention of gun politics in NRA publications. If it renounced its past and promised to stay out of politics, Oram advised, foundations like Rockefeller, then and now a major source of non-profit grants, could be counted on for financing.
During the years of the NRA’s slow careen left in search of Rockefeller money, Larry Pratt was making a name for himself in a movement where the Rockefeller name was synonymous with liberal Republicanism — and nearly synonymous with the Devil himself. In 1970, the 28-year-old Pratt became executive director of the American Conservative Union, founded six years prior by William F. Buckley to carry forward the flame of Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign. It was in this capacity that Pratt attended the 1972 GOP Republican Convention in Miami Beach, where he joined fellow conservatives in battles over Nixon’s reelection platform. In Miami, Pratt forged a friendship with another young religious conservative on the make, Paul Weyrich. The two men were so similar, politically and physically, that they looked like a mirror image when they were talking to each other. At the time, Weyrich was raising funds for what would soon become the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. One of the men in Weyrich’s growing network was H.L. Richardson, a frustrated NRA board member, California State Senator, and member of the far-right John Birch Society. Weyrich introduced Pratt and Richardson, who became fast friends.
In 1975, Richardson founded Gun Owners of America on the model of his first group, Gun Owners of California, established earlier that year to (successfully) oppose a state handgun ban and (less successfully) the extension of ownership waiting periods from five to 15 days. That year also saw the establishment of one of the country’s first national gun control groups, the National Council to Control Handguns. Richardson wanted a full-time lobbyist near Washington and tapped Pratt to lead the group’s Northern Virginia office. In the fight against gun control, GOA would pick up the slack created by NRA drift.
"In 1975, we were the first folks on the street looking at races and the lobbying side," says Tim Macy, GOA’s vice chairman. "There was a lot of talk about gun legislation, in California and nationally. When we started, the NRA did not have a political arm."
Pratt had grown up in suburban Indiana and was relatively new to guns when he took GOA’s helm. He’d purchased his first firearm during the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. “There were some racial difficulties,” Pratt later recalled. “I heard on the radio that the police weren’t sure they could control the rioters coming north on 16th Street, so I went out and bought a shotgun.”
In his adult arrival to the world of guns, Pratt resembled another rising star emerging from the 1960s conservative firmament, one who would go on to rival Pratt’s influence in national gun politics. In 1971, Alan Gottlieb, a 24-year-old organizer for Young Americans for Freedom (another Buckley-founded group) founded the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Gottlieb nurtured the group on two key resources: mailing lists, and seed money from William Loeb, the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader. Like GOA’s founder Richardson, Loeb sat on the NRA board. Sidelined by the liberal majority, he’d spent recent years fuming over the group’s direction and was eager to help nurture a new player.
Loeb and Richardson weren’t the only conservatives on the board, but it took a dramatic member insurgency for them to wrest power from the liberals. At the group’s 1977 annual meeting in Cincinnati, hundreds of rank-and-file from around the country staged what has become known in gun culture lore as “The Cincinnati Revolt.” During a long night of speeches and politicking, the membership voted in a new board drawn from the NRA’s fledgling lobbying division, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), and changed the by-laws in favor of strong political engagement and tighter member control. By morning, the NRA was controlled by a group of rough-edged conservatives committed to fierce political engagement. The NRA returned to Washington to find it was no longer the only gun game in town. There were now two young upstarts on the scene, Alan Gottlieb and Larry Pratt. Since Gottlieb was based in Seattle, and focused his work on direct mail, education and the courts, this left Pratt and the Gun Owners of America as the leading alternative to the NRA.
In the many legislative battle to come — handgun bans, armor-piercing bullets, background checks — the NRA would have to contend with GOA and its leader, who was neither temperamentally nor politically inclined to yield to an establishment power that had collaborated with the 1934 and 1968 gun control bills. The NRA may have undergone a radical course correction, but it was still a large institution with a deep sense of entitlement and turf.
"They’ve always wanted to be the only kid on the block," says Alan Gottlieb. "The NRA didn’t appreciate the growth of a gun rights movement, because a movement is much harder to control. What started in the mid-1970s with my group and GOA has flowered. Now there is all this pressure from the local and state grassroots level that the NRA has to deal with."
When the NRA re-launched its lobbying machine in 1977, it attempted to accommodate Pratt’s presence in D.C. by developing a good-cop, bad-cop routine.
"Where the NRA played an ‘inside game’, the GOA was about confrontational politics, more stick, less carrot," says Jeff Knox, director of the Firearms Coalition and a prominent gun journalist whose father, Neal Knox, headed the NRA’s lobbying arm between 1978 and 1982. "When dad was at ILA, he saw the GOA as an extension of his tool box. They were useful to him when he could point to a GOA mailing and tell [politicians], ‘See, we’re being reasonable, and if you don’t want us to go there, then you need to deal with us, or you’re going to have to deal with them.’ The relationship between the NRA and GOA has been a weird one over the years, at different times flourishing and failing. Now [they’re] dramatically butting heads." (The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.)
The most recent clash between GOA and the NRA occurred last winter, over the latter’s initial, qualified support for a bipartisan Senate bill that would have shored up the country’s background check system, while also relaxing restrictions on interstate gun sales. The gun community was split on the measure sponsored by Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), with even some purist leaders like Gottlieb calling the bill “more gains than anything.” But Pratt has never seen victory in anything that required giving an inch — especially an inch involving handing information to the federal government. The GOA sent out mailers claiming, “If your private gun transaction is covered by Toomey-Schumer-Manchin (and virtually all will be) … you can assume you will be part of a national gun registry.”
This was a lie. The text of the bill not only reiterated existing laws against the compiling of a national gun database, it went so far as to threaten a jail sentence of “up to 15 years” for breaking them. But the lie worked. There is a consensus that a grassroots backlash against the bill, sparked and sustained by GOA and other purist groups, forced the NRA to drop its support for the bill, helping doom it at the last hour.
Jeff Knox says the GOA played an important role, but that it was part of a swarm of limited power. “Something like 34 groups came together prior to the April vote on Manchin-Toomey. We did have an impact on NRA’s decision. But the bottom line is that all of us could swarm Congress, but if [NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris] Cox walked in and gave a wink and a nod, they’d go against us. NRA is the big dog. They are the ones with the direct, immediate clout, they have the politicians’ ears. That’s why we have to be members [of NRA] and keep them on the straight and narrow.”
According to Knox, Pratt’s biggest strength is being “right on top of what’s going on. The GOA is just faster. The NRA is hidebound and not on top of the news cycle at all. It takes them a week to respond to new information. After Newtown they waited too long, then delivered a tepid response. GOA sees the threats that others often miss.”
GOA has used similarly aggressive and dishonest tactics at the state level to defeat bills it does not like. In New Hampshire this winter, a group called Pro-Gun New Hampshire is backing a state bill that would create pathways for restoring gun rights to people disqualified by federal laws related to mental health problems. From his perch in Springfield, Pratt saw the bill as too weak, and attacked. Soon thousands of New Hampshire voters received anti-bill mailers with the words, “See a shrink, lose your guns” printed in red ink on the envelope. The letter attacked local groups supporting the bill as “anti-gun” — a funeral-serious charge in gun circles usually reserved for likes of Chuck Schumer.
Pro-Gun New Hampshire did not appreciate the epitaph, or Pratt’s meddling, which it described as either ignorant or mendacious.
"Pratt sent out this B.S. propaganda that falsely claimed the bill will disqualify gun buyers if they see a shrink," says the group’s vice president, Sam Cohen. "GOA and groups like it want to promote themselves as the premiere guardian of your rights. They feel in a competitive position with each other to be the ‘no compromise’ group and get members. It’s particularly egregious in this case because if you carefully read the law, you know they’re wrong."
In the months leading up to the 1977 “Revolt in Cincinnati,” Pratt, then 34, announced an insurgent candidacy to represent the suburbs of southern Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates. Pratt was part of a slate of conservatives seeking to knock off the moderate Republicans that dominated the local party. Typical of this old guard was five-term Republican Warren E. Barry, who supported a proposed national ban on the cheap revolvers known as “Saturday Night Specials.” In announcing his candidacy, The Washington Post described Pratt as “a Washington representative for Gun Owners of America and an Amway distributor.”
Pratt lost the local race, but could comfort himself with a growing national reputation. Early the following year, the Post featured Pratt in a piece on “The New Right Network” that gathered weekly at the Capitol Hill Club to debate strategy and hatch initiatives. Among more than a dozen names listed in the paper’s group profile, Pratt is one of the last still active in public life. Sometimes these initiatives impacted gun rights; other times, Pratt found a gun angle to justify using GOA resources. In 1979, he devised a plan, in cooperation with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which he helped found, to throw up constitutional roadblocks to D.C. statehood. “The amendment would bring in two senators who would probably be minority, and would definitely be liberal on gun control,” Pratt said.
Pratt again contested a seat in the House of Delegates in 1979. Boosted by financing from his friend Jerry Falwell, the Lynchburg evangelist, and ties to what the Post called “Joseph Coors’ Heritage Foundation,” Pratt outspent other candidates nearly two to one. He won in a local GOP tide. But his colleagues in Richmond had never seen his breed of Republican before. “Larry was part of a small group of far-right ideologues who thought it was apostasy to vote for an MLK holiday,” remembers Wiley Mitchell, Republican floor leader in the Virginia Senate from 1976 to 1988. “He was strongly opposed to women’s rights. He was against everything.”
Pratt proved a divisive and an ineffectual politician. Seven of eight bills Pratt introduced his first year were defeated, including a ban on nude images on motor vehicles. (If passed, the law would have required modifying the Virginia state seal, anticipating by decades the order by Pratt’s friend John Ashcroft to cover the breast of a statue in the Department of Justice.) His one victory concerned a housekeeping procedural change. The national media noticed him just once, when he declared a war on bongs and fought to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia in Virginia.
The bong battle failed to win him many friends. On the eve of losing his reelection bid, a Norfolk Virginian-Pilot poll ranked Pratt “the least effective member of the House of Delegates.”
Elsewhere in the country, more conservative districts than Fairfax were electing social and religious conservatives like Pratt. What’s more, GOA, which Pratt claimed at the time was approaching 100,000 members, was in a position to help them. The year Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, Pratt told reporters his PAC was spending almost $1 million annually in support of pro-gun candidates. Closer to home, Pratt’s friends were taking over the reigns of government. The August 1981 issue of Life magazine included Pratt among the ten most influential “Young Turks of the Radical Right.” The spread featured a photo of Pratt cradling his first gun, the 12 gauge purchased during the 1968 riots, like a baby.
The defining gun battle of Reagan’s first term didn’t involve gunshot, but a new breed of armor-piercing bullet. It was a fight that would pit the GOA against the NRA, and in the process illuminate the radical anti-statism at the heart of Pratt’s worldview.