James W. Porter, Jr. assumed the unpaid, but politically important post of president of the National Rifle Association Monday. While the role puts the Birmingham, Ala., attorney for the first time on a national stage, he is hardly an unknown within the gun lobby.
Nearly 20 years ago, I observed Jim Porter in action behind closed doors at an NRA board meeting in Minneapolis. He was committed, boasting to colleagues that “when you open my veins, NRA blood runs out.”
But he was also a “traditionalist” then, on the opposite side of the gun lobby’s more radical rising stars. He had little to prove: his credibility was assured by his legacy status as the son of Irvine C. Porter, who served as NRA president from 1959 to 1960.
Under his father’s leadership, the NRA was still trying to define its national role. Coming out of the violent tumult of the 1960s, NRA leaders voiced support for more gun control, not less.
“The National Rifle Association has been in support of workable, enforceable gun control legislation since its very inception in 1871,” the NRA’s then-paid Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, ret. Gen. Franklin L. Orth, wrote in American Rifleman magazine in 1968.
Porter and the NRA have been on a radical journey ever since.
“You know, the NRA was just a glorified shooting club until about 1968,” Porter said last year at the annual meeting of the New York Rifle & Pistol Association, seeming to distance himself from his father’s tenure.
In the same speech, Porter called Attorney General Eric Holder “rabidly un-American,” and Obama “a fake president.” The Alabama attorney also referred to the U.S. civil war as “the war of northern aggression,” a refrain still commonly heard in private among Southern conservatives but one rarely heard anymore on a national public stage.
If anyone wonders where Porter plans to help lead the gun lobby over the next two years, he repeated a phrase this past weekend at the NRA annual convention in Houston long used by some American conservatives. “This is not a battle about gun rights,” Porter said, “it’s a ‘Culture War.”
Back in 1994, when I heard Porter speak in Minneapolis, he seemed to associate with a different crowd. Porter supported the candidacy of Tom Washington for NRA president. Washington was not only a big-game hunter and gun rights enthusiast, he was also a conservationist who had played a lead role in helping to pass the Bottle Bill in Michigan. For more hardline NRA members, Washington’s focus on anything but gun rights was a reason to oppose him. But Porter led the effort within the NRA board to see Washington rise, as tradition, and the organization’s bylaws, both demanded.
Washington’s ascension was opposed by a faction within the NRA led by Neal Knox, who was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas where he served in the national guard. Knox was also a conspiracy theorist in a league of his own who wrote that the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy may have been staged as part of a secret plot to pass gun control laws and disarm America.
Knox was so extreme that even supporters of the opposing faction, whose most visible figurehead was the NRA Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre, anonymously told The New York Times in the 1990s that Knox was a “gun nut.” (More recently, the New York Post called LaPierre a “gun nut.”)
When the infighting first broke out, Porter denounced the “scurrilous accusations”–without legitimizing them by providing details--that Knox’s camp had spread about the NRA's then-President-elect Washington. The accusations included slurs about his weight (Washington, who later died of a heart attack while deer hunting, was obese).
Porter said he reported the gossip and infighting to his then-84-year-old grandmother, a lifelong NRA member, who had replied: “That’s not the organization I know.”
Today’s NRA is not the organization that NRA President Porter’s father, a past NRA president, would have known.
The receptionist at Porter’s Alabama law firm said he was traveling. A request for a comment was not returned.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Neal Knox as a former Oklahoma national guardsman. That is incorrect. Knox was born in Oklahoma, but served as a national guardsman in Texas, where he was raised.