Back in 2000, actor Charlton Heston helped rally the conservative base behind the embattled National Rifle Association with a convention speech asserting that then-Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was planning to demonize NRA members as “gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, bloodthirsty maniacs.” Heston concocted a scenario in which a President Gore would dispatch fictitious agents to confiscate his guns. Holding up an antique flintlock rifle, Heston delivered his signature line: “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!”

Gore, in fact, never advocated gun confiscation, only expressing outrage at NRA marketing ploys designed to put more guns in more American hands in direct response to the April 20, 1999, slaughter of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. It happened only 10 days before the NRA’s national convention was set to open in nearby Denver, prompting panic among NRA officials as they pondered ways to spin the tragedy.

National Public Radio obtained 2½ hours of recordings from a conference call in which panicked NRA officials scrambled to devise a response. Some proposed expressions of remorse and offerings of million-dollar payouts to the victims.

Heston’s speech was part of a campaign designed to turn the tables on anyone who dared suggest that restricted sales of rapid-fire, military-style rifles might lead to fewer massacres like Columbine. The NRA made gun-control the enemy – not the crazed killers who would run rampant again and again on American campuses over the next two decades, gunning down anyone from toddlers to teachers in their path.

NRA official Kayne Robinson told her colleagues on the 1999 call: “Don’t anybody kid yourself about this great macho thing of going down there and showing our chest and showing how damn tough we are. … We are in deep [expletive] on this deal.”

Colleague Jim Land countered that if “we tuck tail and run, we’re going to be accepting responsibility for what happened out there.”

That marked a key pivot point. Leaders opted for the path of stubborn denial, morphing the cold, dead hands of 13 Columbine students into Heston’s “cold, dead hands” heroically defending gun rights.

Ironically, the leaders didn’t need Gore to suggest ways to denigrate and demonize rank-and-file NRA members because the leaders did it themselves. In the recordings, they worry about how “fruitcakes,” “wackos” and “hillbillies” in the membership might react if the Denver convention were scaled back in response to Columbine. Leaders decided to supply “talking points” so NRA donation recipients in Congress would know how to spin Columbine into a positive.

It wasn’t long before the NRA developed its mind-numbing “thoughts and prayers” go-to response for the dozens of mass gun killings that followed. Spineless congressional backers robotically recited their talking points. And the fruitcakes, wackos and hillbillies fell dutifully in line.

– St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board