Misfiring at Harlon Carter

The media and anti-gun groups fire a steady stream of misinformation.

By Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute

8/14/00 1:40 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on the NRA and pro-gun organizations.

A few days ago, the Washington Post ran a thoughtful and carefully-researched article about the internal politics of the National Rifle Association. Amazingly, the article dealt with the NRA's pro-freedom worldview in a respectful, nuanced manner, rather than with the shrill contempt which so often characterizes the old media.

The article did have some factual errors, such as mistakenly claiming that it was the 1995 Republican Congress, rather than the 1993 Democratic Congress, which was responsible for passing the (failure known as the) "Brady Bill."

A much more serious error, however, is the description of the late Harlon Carter, the leading architect of the NRA's transformation from a sportsman's club into the most powerful civil liberties organization in the history of the world. According to the Post, "Asked in 1975 if he would rather let convicted violent felons and the mentally deranged buy guns than endorse a screening process for gun sales, Carter did not hesitate to say yes. That's the 'price we pay for freedom.'"

Not really. At the 1975 congressional hearing, a congressman asked the question described by the Post, but when Carter began to answer, the congressman cut him off, saying he wanted a different witness to answer. In the official transcript, Carter's answer is "The price we pay for freedom — ".

The Post's inadvertent distortion of Carter's meaning was doubtless the product of an interview with someone from a Washington anti-gun lobby, where the politics of personal destruction have been the norm for decades.

Misrepresenting Carter's statement was pretty mild compared to other attacks that Handgun Control, Inc., launched on Carter. One fundraising letter from HCI featured a picture of Harlon Carter on the envelope. The letter screamed that Carter "has seen to it that thousands of life-loving people like you and me DIE every year — shot with a handgun."

The Handgun Control letter continued: "50 years ago, Carter shot and killed a 15-year-old boy and was convicted of murder."

The letter omitted the fact that Carter was defending his mother's ranch against a gang of intruders led by the "boy," and that the "boy" was menacing Carter with a knife. At the trial, the judge was the prosecutor's father-in-law, and he refused to let Carter introduce evidence of self-defense.

Having left out the crucial facts about Carter's innocence, the Handgun Control letter complained that the conviction "was reversed on the technical grounds that the judge had not given the jurors adequate instructions about the law of self-defense." Actually, it wasn't just the instructions that were inadequate; all the evidence about self-defense had been excluded.

Most people would think that a citizen's shooting of a criminal should be judged by whether the citizen was acting in self-defense. But Handgun Control apparently considers innocent persons who shoot criminals to be as bad as common murderers — since self-defense is only a "technicality."

This fits rather well with Mrs. Sarah Brady's standard: "To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes." (Tom Jackson, "Keeping the Battle Alive," Tampa Tribune, Oct. 21, 1993.) Al Gore claims that the NRA is against "family values" because they don't back the anti-gun proposals which he copies from HCI — the nation's leading anti-defense lobby.

What kind of family values hold that a young man shouldn't protect his mother from violent gangsters with knives?

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