An artful conspiracy theorist can easily cultivate believers.
One day, history will add to the conspiratorial log the name of Neal Knox, one of America’s more widely-read gun-magazine columnists and a veteran torchbearer of the National Rifle Association.
Knox neatly divides the world into those who support gun control and those, like him, who do not. Thus, gun-control advocates become suspects in what Knox sees as a fantastic and diabolical plot to disarm Americans.
It might be tempting merely to dismiss Knox, if he weren’t today the NRA’s most influential leader. Now one of the NRA’s top executive officers, Knox for decades has used his magazine columns to endorse — or sometimes to bury — candidates for seats on the NRA’s 76-member board of directors.
Even Knox’s rivals openly concede his gains, while fretting about his influence. “That’s always a bad situation, when you have somebody that has a group that more or less if he just raises his hand, they wait till he does and they’re gonna vote that way,” said board member Joe Foss, a past NRA president and former South Dakota governor.
Like Foss, the NRA’s current president, Thomas L. Washington, represents the NRA’s traditional wing of hunters and competition shooters.
Washington is himself an avid hunter who has long lobbied for right-to-hunt legislation in his home state of Michigan. But he is also proud of his environmental record.
Such “soft” issues, however, have little appeal for Knox. The former [Texas; original story incorrectly said Oklahoma] National Guardsman has been trying to seize power within the NRA for decades, ever since Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Approved in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the law tightened the interstate sale of firearms and banned fully automatic weapons. When it was passed, the NRA leadership endorsed the bill.
But Knox and other hardliners disagreed and have been accumulating power ever since. A key victory came in 1975, when they established the Institute for Legislative Action, a new NRA division that effectively turned the organization into the gun lobby.
Knox later became chief of the ILA, while his protégé, Tanya K. Metaksa, became its deputy director. Knox was forced to resign from that position in 1982, however, by former allies who found both his militancy and tactics too abrasive.
Ever resilient, Knox returned and, largely through his own newsletters and columns that appear in and other publications, by 1991 had managed to get 11 allies onto the NRA’s board.
Today, with strong influence over the board, Knox wants to go way beyond the NRA’s stated goals of repealing the Brady law (which requires a brief waiting period for handgun purchases) and the assault-weapons ban (on some semi-automatic weapons).
Most of the NRA’s critics have ignored the differences between leaders like Washington and Knox, but these differences are crucial at a time when an increasing number of gun rights activists are openly defending their right to armed struggle. And they are even more important when a number of armed groups are reaching out to the NRA.
One is the Michigan Militia, a group that Oklahoma bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols reportedly tried to join. Even before they did, NRA President Washington had criticized the Michigan Militia for advocating extremist views. But, as reported by ABC’s, that didn’t stop Knox’s ally Metaksa from meeting with Michigan Militia leaders in February.
Another group working to align itself with the NRA is the National Alliance, led by author William L. Pierce. The fictional diaries, which among other things show how to make a fuel-oil and fertilizer bomb, tell the story of rightist militias who overthrow a Jewish-dominated government.
What Knox and all these extremist groups today share is the belief that gun control is the result of a government-led conspiracy.
Knox continues to propagate this view, as he moves the NRA ever further from its traditional sporting and hunting roots.
Freelance journalist Smyth covers the NRA for the Village Voice.