As someone who served as a vice-president under Charlton Heston during his five-year presidency of the NRA and to have been privileged to later hold that same office, I’d like to pay tribute to an extraordinary American hero.
There have been several articles written about Heston since his passing, all moving accounts of his full life and contributions to this country. While each mentions his NRA leadership, I am personally grateful for what Charlton Heston did for the NRA, for America’s 90 million gun owners, and for yet unborn generations of Americans who will inherit freedom undiminished in no small part because of Mr. Heston’s unwavering devotion to our constitutional rights.
Heston was a leading figure for NRA years before he became president. He appeared in pro-gun advertisements and headlined various NRA events, including NRA’s 1996 Annual Banquet. An avid lifelong hunter and gun owner, and a devoted student of history, Charlton Heston understood perhaps better than most modern Americans that lawful firearm ownership is an American birthright.
He also understood that it is a civil rights issue. Heston marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, and was one of the foremost advocates of racial equality long before others took up the cause. His passion for civil rights and for human dignity was part of the foundation for his Second Amendment leadership. The NRA is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in America. Charlton Heston’s leadership of the NRA was a natural extension of his lifelong crusade to protect individual liberty and dignity.
The 1990s, and particularly Bill Clinton’s presidency, were troubled times for the NRA. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre initiated a bold and innovative strategy to advance and expand NRA’s appeal and outreach across America. Wayne made the case to his longtime friend Charlton Heston about where the organization needed to go. Heston shared Wayne’s vision and goals, and agreed to run for a seat on the NRA Board of Directors.
Heston ran a brilliant campaign, as might be expected of the former president of the powerful Screen Actors Guild. He won election to the board in 1997 and the board immediately chose him as First Vice President. The following year Heston was elected president, and he and Wayne LaPierre launched an ambitious strategy to share the message of American heritage, patriotism and constitutional freedom from sea to shining sea.
They were an unbeatable team. Charlton Heston’s booming, sonorous voice conveyed a drive and depth of conviction that spoke straight to the souls of his listeners. Wayne LaPierre’s brilliant strategy in defense of our gun rights complimented Heston’s larger than life presentation.
I was privileged to be there. As Second Vice President from 1998-2003, I shared a stage with Heston, LaPierre, and other NRA officers throughout Heston’s presidency. It was a front-row seat to historic events. Even Bill Clinton later acknowledged that the NRA, led by Heston and LaPierre, cost Al Gore the White House in 2000.
You’ve seen the pictures. Heston would hold up a handmade Brooks flintlock musket and proclaim his defiance to those who sought to ban gun ownership in America. The first time I heard him thunder, “From my cold, dead hands!” the crowd roared in acclamation, and America heard the voice of the National Rifle Association like they had never heard it before. And we all felt something new and wonderful had begun.
The numbers bore that out. With Charlton Heston leading the charge, NRA membership soared from 2.5 million when Mr. Heston took office in 1998 to well over four million members by the 2000 presidential election. In all, he served an unprecedented five years as president of the NRA, bringing exceptional public esteem to the organization.
During that time, he was a tireless campaigner for pro-Second Amendment candidates and policies. He made the case like no one ever had that the right of law-abiding, peaceable Americans to keep and bear arms is part of our Founding Fathers’ constitutional blueprint, designed to keep our land free and prosperous forever. It recognizes the sanctity of every person’s life and the right to defend themselves and those they love. It acknowledges that some things are worth fighting and even dying for. Most remarkably, the Second Amendment reflects a belief not commonly held by governments today that ordinary Americans can be trusted to do the right thing.
The title of Heston’s book “In the Arena” is, I believe, a reference to a 1910 quotation of Theodore Roosevelt: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
Like other great American leaders before him, Charlton Heston now belongs to the ages. His work is complete but ours remains undone. It’s time for us to step into the arena, to strive valiantly, to dare greatly in a worthy cause using whatever talents we’re blessed with, and to honor his memory by continuing the fight for freedom that he fought so well.
Charlton Heston would love that.