In the first two episodes of “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust,” host Garrett Graff explored the legacy of Columbine and how the Second Amendment became a rallying cry for the nascent gun lobby. The third episode dives deep into the National Rifle Association, focusing on the personalities who drove its rightward shift — with dire consequences for the country.

Harlon Carter, former head of the U.S. Border Patrol, transformed the NRA from a hunting and shooting organization into a political juggernaut. In the mid-1970s, he developed the NRA’s lobbying arm, erecting a rapid-fire communications hub that was able to get mailings to members in record time, changing the face of the gun lobby. Thanks to Carter, a charismatic figure who was convicted for a fatal shooting in his youth, more Americans subscribed to the idea that gun ownership is a God-given right.

Then came Carter’s successor, superlobbyist Marion Hammer, whose three-decade influence over the Florida Legislature — legalizing shall-issue concealed carry and “stand your ground” — made the Sunshine State a laboratory for the erosion of the nation’s gun laws. As other red state legislatures followed suit, they’d soon established a national majority. 

“Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust” is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX. Listen and follow on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Garrett Graff: A note for listeners: On and across this season, there are repeated mentions of guns, gun violence, and their collective toll on our society and our psyche. Please take care while you listen.

Garrett Graff: A couple of days before Christmas in New York City in 1984, 37-year-old Bernhard Goetz was going to meet friends for a drink. He got on the subway and entered a sparsely crowded car on the number two train. After a while, Goetz noticed a group of teenagers looking in his direction. There were two on his left and two on his right. The boys were headed to an arcade, but they didn’t have any money. So one of them, smiling, asked Goetz for five dollars… 

[Bernhard Goetz: I asked him quietly. I said, “What did you say?” And he said, “Give me $5.” When I saw the smile on his face and the shine in his eyes that he was enjoying this, I knew what they were going to do.]

Garrett Graff: At the time, crime in New York was rampant and people were constantly getting mugged, often on the subway. Goetz was no tourist. His instinct told him almost immediately that these boys had no interest in his five bucks, and he was prepared for a moment like this: 

[Bernhard Goetz: I said, “I’ll give you $5.” / I just started firing. / I wanted to kill those guys. I wanted to maim those guys. I wanted to make them suffer in every way I could.]

Garrett Graff: Goetz shot each teenager one at a time with a .38 caliber gun. Then he said he stood over one boy and shot him again in the back, for good measure. 

[Bernhard Goetz: I went to him a second time and I said, “You seem to be doing all right. Here’s another.”]

Garrett Graff: Goetz then fled into the subway tunnels. He would not be seen by police for days. 

[Clip from Eyewitness News: The shooting of four would-be robbers on a #2 subway train Saturday has increased police presence in the subways and a search for a vigilante is underway.]

Garrett Graff: The boys all survived, but Darrell Cabey, who was shot in the spine, would be permanently paralyzed. While the injured teens recovered in the hospital, their past criminal records were exposed in the news. The media’s verdict quickly was clear: the boys, all of whom were Black, had posed a threat. Meanwhile, police handed out fliers featuring a sketch of the alleged shooter: a slender, blonde, white man with large wire-rimmed glasses. They also set up a tip line. But to their surprise, instead of leads they received hundreds of calls from supporters of the unknown suspect. Fellow New Yorkers who could relate to being victimized on the city streets and on the subway…

[Clip via Eyewitness News: If he was being robbed. Hey. He had to do what he had to do. Self-defense. Simple as that. / If it was self-defense I think he did the right thing. It’s about time someone stood up for himself. / If that’s the case, I think they should let the man — try him — and let him go free.]

Garrett Graff: The story gripped the city and eventually the nation. The media gave Goetz nicknames like “the Subway Vigilante” and compared him to Charles Bronson in the 1974 movie Death Wish in which Bronson’s character shoots muggers on the subway. Days later, on New Year’s Eve, Goetz turned himself in to police in New Hampshire. In a taped confession, he showed no sign of remorse. He painstakingly went through every detail about the shooting he could remember and tried to explain his actions:

[Bernhard Goetz: I was a monster. I don’t deny it. But I wasn’t a monster until several years ago in New York.]

Garrett Graff: Goetz told police he’d been mugged and beaten a few years earlier. After the attack, he applied for a permit to carry a firearm in New York and was denied. The rejection was infuriating because he felt he’d shown sufficient need for protection. (He often carried expensive equipment and large sums of cash with him for his work repairing electronics). And so he went and bought a gun anyway, and he started to carry it daily, without a license. On the recording, Goetz looks and sounds exasperated as he tries to explain himself… 

[Bernhard Goetz: And you cannot understand it because how can people like you be familiar with violence?]

Garrett Graff: It was important to Goetz to be brutally honest… even if it made him look like a cold-blooded killer. He would likely be judged by a jury of fellow New Yorkers… Average people who rode the subways every day like him… And who might understand why he had feared for his life and preemptively acted in self-defense:

[Bernhard Goetz: The city tells these people the rules are you can not carry a gun, and you cannot kill a person, but you can do anything else. And you terrorize the public. The public has to carry guns in New York.]

Garrett Graff: In many ways, the Goetz case encapsulates the gun debate of the 1980s. It was no longer just about whether Americans should be allowed to own and carry handguns. It was now also about where and when they would be allowed to use them. Goetz represented the mindset of many Americans in big cities and small, people who were sick of crime and were turning to handguns for self-defense. Goetz received financial support from the NRA, and the organization used his case to push for New York to loosen permitting laws. Richard Feldman, a young, up-and-coming NRA lobbyist, worked to support Goetz. At the time, he said, “A government that cannot protect its citizens has no right to deny them the means to protect themselves.” And he still feels similarly about guns today.

Richard Feldman: The issue is never the gun, per se. It’s always in whose hands are the guns. Being shot at is a bad thing if I’m the one being shot, and potentially it’s a good thing if I’m the one doing shooting.

Garrett Graff: Goetz was acquitted of charges of attempted murder, assault, and reckless endangerment in 1987. He was convicted only for the possession of an unlicensed handgun, and he would serve just eight months in prison. Wayne LaPierre, then the executive director of NRA’s lobbying arm, called Goetz a “political prisoner” who had “suffered enough.” In a letter to the governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, LaPierre asked for Goetz to be pardoned. After serving his short sentence, Goetz even won an award from a rifle club in 1988, for which he thanked each of his four victims. In the years following the subway shooting, firearms legislation would be relaxed on both the federal and state levels. The nation’s focus was largely on crime. This is thanks in part to the influence of a recently transformed NRA, its small army of determined lobbyists, and their forceful leader Harlon Bronson Carter.

[Clip of Harlon Carter on 60 Minutes: The gun control debate does a great disservice to the cause of law enforcement! We ought to be debating, my friends, what to do with criminals instead of what to do with the property of people who commit no crimes. The very essence of all of this is that you deprive a man of a liberty because he might abuse it. And I respectfully submit to you that if we can ever embark upon the principle that because a liberty might be abused, the government can restrict it, restrain it, or abolish it, ladies and gentlemen, you have lost everything!]

Garrett Graff: I’m Garrett Graff, and from Long Lead, PRX, and Campside Media, in collaboration with The Trace, this is season three of “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust.” Episode 3: The Hardliners.

Garrett Graff: Last episode, we talked about the 1977 Revolt in Cincinnati, the coup that transformed the leadership of the NRA and its political direction. In the wake of that revolt, a man named Harlon Carter was elected as Executive Vice President of the NRA, one of its most powerful positions. At the time, Carter was 63 years old and he’d been involved with the NRA for most of his life. He’d been a member since he was a teenager, had served on its board and had briefly served as its president. He was also the first director of its lobbying arm. In the 1950s, Carter had been head of the U.S. Border Patrol. And during his tenure, he led the largest deportation campaign in American history, an effort that, believe it or not, the Justice Department offensively named “Operation Wetback.” He was known for a no-compromise approach to lobbying. 

Richard Feldman: When you look at a picture of Harlon Carter, or if you ever saw him on TV back in those days, he kind of looked like Mr. Clean. He had a bald head, and he looked like a bulldog. 

Garrett Graff: Richard Feldman is a former NRA lobbyist. He was hired in 1984. 

Richard Feldman: He was a very, very intellectual kind of guy, who had a real sense of history and he had an aura about him. We used to talk about how Harlon could walk in a big room and you would feel him and you wanted to just turn around because you felt something walk in the room and that was Harlon. And he, more than any other person in America today turned the National Rifle Association from a relatively small sportsman’s organization into the political juggernaut that it became during the 1980s, ‘90s, and today. 

Garrett Graff: Feldman worked at the NRA during a period of change and growth. Carter scrapped the ousted leadership’s plans for a fancy Colorado headquarters and the 30,000-acre gun range, and instead turned the organization from marksmanship to politics. He redirected its resources towards member recruitment and lobbying in Washington, D.C., and state capitals.

Richard Feldman: There was a lot of money available to sportsmen’s organizations, conservation. And if the main reason you own guns were hunting, you might very well think that it was in NRA’s benefit to buy more land, to have more opportunities for hunting. But getting involved in something like politics seemed dirty to a lot of those people at the time. So this was the fight that Harlon and others took on.

Garrett Graff: NRA membership fees doubled from $10 in 1976 (the year before the Cincinnati Revolt) to $20 in 1986. Perks included subscriptions to several publications including American Rifleman Magazine. They also offered discounts for ammunition and gun ranges, and insurance for accidental death or dismemberment. As well as a different kind of insurance: that the NRA would guarantee the protection of your right to bear arms through its Institute for Legislative Action (or ILA). 

[NRA ad: Preserve your heritage of freedom. Join the National Rifle Association.]

Richard Feldman: The NRA was just beginning to feel its own strength. Its membership was about two and a half million at that point and the Institute for Legislative Action was created so that it could be nimble and turn on a dime.

Garrett Graff: ILA was founded in 1975 and originally headed by Carter. He’d had big dreams for the institute. He claimed his main priority was working with lawmakers to ensure that firearms legislation would never impose on hunters and competitive shooting. He wanted a modern office with a large staff and lots of typewriters, all capable of reaching millions of Americans at the push of a button, disseminating his and the NRA’s views on guns. He wanted political influence not just in Washington, D.C., but also in every state capitol across the country. Carter’s ambitions would ultimately be realized. During his tenure as EVP, NRA membership tripled. By the late 1980s, ILA had 50 employees. And they had something that Feldman says very few interest groups had at the time.

Richard Feldman: The whole fifth floor of the NRA building was this giant computer with all these mag tapes, the stuff that basically our cell phones have more computing power than the fifth floor had back then. But we had in those data banks, those two and a half million people. So when we wanted to endorse a candidate, whether it was for the U.S. Senate or it was for a local judgeship position in New York state or a state Senate race in Vermont. Um, we were able to go to our database and send out a letter, or if the timing was critical, send out a mailgram, something that doesn’t even exist today. And 24 hours later, you would get an action alert or a political alert talking about the election and why it was important to get out and vote and who we were supporting. And it was certainly strong enough to matter then and today, in a close race.

Garrett Graff: They’d mail out constant bulletins, press releases, and letters from officials to keep members informed about the status of nearly every single proposed gun regulation and the lawmakers behind them. The NRA would urge dozens of members to appear at public hearings and make their voice heard. And to get out and vote for “the good guy.” The NRA boasted that it could flood Congress with a half-million letters from members overnight. Feldman would often appear on TV to debate the gun issue with gun control proponents, and he was effective. He remembers one particular scandal in 1985 — Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York at the time, had passed a law to mandate seat belt use in cars, and Cuomo told the L.A. Times that the law’s strongest opposition had come from quote “NRA hunters who drink beer, don’t vote, and lie to their wives about where they were all weekend.” Feldman couldn’t pass that up. He made a huge fuss. 

Richard Feldman: I held news conferences in Buffalo, Albany, and New York City blasting him. God, we raised more money over that… It may well have destroyed his national ambitions for president. 

Garrett Graff: The NRA was done playing defense. It was going on the offensive… Fighting in its view, the good fight. Against elitist anti-gun politicians. Against Communists. Against criminals. But first and foremost, against gun control.  

Richard Feldman: I think that was Harlon’s big contribution of pulling the NRA out from the 1950s in a kind of Leave It to Beaver world, uh, and into the rough-and-tumble of the politics of the, uh, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and making it uh, a real force to be reckoned with.

Garrett Graff: Carter subscribed to an emerging legal interpretation of the Second Amendment that was gaining popularity at the time. He believed, like many NRA members did, that individuals had the God-given right to bear arms, not just in the service of the military, but also in everyday civilian life. At the time, NRA members were mostly middle-class, educated professionals. Many of them grew up shooting and hunting… But they weren’t just hunters, sportsmen and veterans anymore. Many were increasingly relying upon guns for self defense. 

Richard Feldman: People were feeling threatened. Uh, there was rising crime. Whether they really were threatened or they’re feeling it, that’s what politics is all about. It’s your perception of the world around you that you respond to, not the reality of the world around you.

Garrett Graff: As crime continued to rise in the 1970s and ‘80s, gun violence and handguns had once again become a central focus of the gun debate. Many states were implementing more laws to curb the violence in major cities. But the NRA was right there. NRA leaders were especially against any attempt to register guns or gun owners. Registration, they said, was the first step to government confiscation. Like what happened in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. It was a sentiment — and comparison — that hit home in the wake of Vietnam and amid the Cold War. 

[Clip from PBS Firing Line: Funding for Firing Line…]

Garrett Graff: Here’s Carter discussing gun regulations on PBS’s Firing Line in 1980. Host William F. Buckley asks him about a recent state law that restricted carrying handguns:

[William Buckley in clip from PBS Firing Line, continued: Are you for or against that provision in the Massachusetts law that says you can have a handgun at home, you can have a handgun in the office, but you can’t carry it between home and office?

Harlon Carter: I think that that is an unreasonable burden upon people who would carry it out of their homes for legitimate and proper purposes.]

[Clip from CBS News: Good Evening, the death of a man who sang and played the guitar overshadows the news / former Beatle John Lennon…]

Garrett Graff: When John Lennon was shot and killed in 1980, Carter wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper claiming that no gun law could have prevented his death. After all, Lennon was killed in New York City, which had some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. In Carter’s view, there was no law that could prevent a motivated criminal from getting their hands on a weapon. And to an extent that was true — the patchwork of gun laws state-to-state and city-to-town has always meant that a gun was available somewhere if you wanted one, either in a nearby jurisdiction or on the local black market. Carter believed that the real problem was not guns, but crime. (It’s an argument we still hear echoes of today — “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”) And the solution was not more legislation — there was already enough of that on the federal and state levels. To Carter, the solution was simple: More guns.

[Harlon Carter: The point is that when someone, when a shopkeeper has a gun, it isn’t that he seeks to shoot somebody. He seeks instead to have something there so that he will avoid confrontations. Uh, the criminal community is not seeking confrontations out of which they may or may not get shot. They will stay away if they have an opportunity to do so and if they know what the situation is.]

Garrett Graff: Carter believed crime was simply a sad fact of life… He would famously say guns falling into the wrong hands is the “price we pay for freedom.”

Harlon Carter: The price of those lives I put up against my right to the presumption of innocence, my right against self incrimination under the fifth amendment, the right of due process under the fifth amendment that the government can’t seize my property without due process. And the right I have in law enforcement that my house be secure against no-knock searches and intrusions by policemen who are seeking a gun that I have there. Those things are worth all the lives you will ever pay for. 

Garrett Graff: Carter’s passion for gun rights wasn’t just about American values and democracy. He admittedly had a very personal interest in the matter — he was a competitive handgun shooter. By the time of his death, he had 44 national shooting records and in 1977 would be named Outstanding American Handgunner of the Year. During testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 1975, he said the following: “I do not believe a man is a future criminal just because he owns, or desires to own, a firearm. Let me put it in personal terms because to me it is a very personal issue. I own a handgun, several of them. To me that is a valuable right. I’ve never abused that freedom. I’ve never robbed or murdered anybody. So why should I have to give up my gun? How does my gun relate to the crime problem?” But Carter had a secret. He’d had experience with guns beyond competitive shooting. That’s after the break.

Garrett Graff: Guns are a staple of American music — often romanticizing firearms in odes to freedom, hunting, and country life, like Blake Shelton’s “Grandaddy’s Gun” — but you don’t hear many songs that take on the NRA directly. One notable exception is a song by the southern rock group Drive-by Truckers on their 2016 album American Band. The album grapples with the darker chapters of the nation’s history, and one song, “Ramon Casiano,” tells the tragic story of a 15-year-old Mexican-American boy from Laredo, Texas:

[Clip from the Drive-by Truckers’ “Ramon Casiano”: It all started with the border / And that’s still where it is today / Someone killed Ramon Casiano / And the killer got away]

Garrett Graff: That “killer who got away” is the NRA’s own Harlon Carter. It was a chapter of his life that had remained largely unknown through his rise to the top of the national gun rights organization. Then in 1981, the Laredo Times reported that when Carter was 17, he had shot and killed Casiano. Here’s what happened, according to multiple newspaper accounts about the incident. On March 3, 1931, in Laredo, Texas, Casiano and his friends were walking home after they’d gone swimming when Carter stopped them. He had a shotgun, and he demanded they follow him back to his house. Carter suspected the boys had stolen from his family. Some reports say it was a cow, others say it was a car. Either way, Carter was adamant. The boys refused and Casiano pulled out a small knife, which his sister said he usually used for planting and pulling carrots. That’s when Carter said, “You think I won’t use this?” and shot him in the chest. Casiano’s friend later testified that as he lay dying he reached his hand out to Carter and said, “You’re my friend.” Carter pushed his hand away and kicked him. Years later, Casiano’s sister told the Laredo Times that her family visited her brother’s grave every Sunday for years. And her mother was never the same — she wore mourning clothes until she died. Carter was convicted of murder and sentenced to three years in prison. But his conviction was later overturned after he appealed, because the jury was not properly instructed about self defense. Carter would go on to join the Border Patrol soon after, and changed the spelling of his first name from H-A-R-L-A-N to H-A-R-L-O-N. Turns out though, he didn’t have to hide this secret. It appeared to be of little consequence after the story broke in the 1980s. Carter admitted he regretted the incident but he told The New York Times that he had nothing to hide. His reputation and his legacy would remain intact. And the NRA had more influence than ever. Then-President Reagan was a life member of the NRA. He’d written a letter to Harlon Carter in 1980 asking for the organization’s support during his presidential campaign. His plea was successful — he became the first presidential candidate to receive the NRA’s official endorsement. And in return, he would remain loyal to its cause throughout his time in the White House. Reagan would not support gun regulations even after he was shot in the chest by John Hinckley Jr., just two months after his inauguration. Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady, was also shot. He survived but was paralyzed. Two others, a Secret Service agent and D.C. police officer, were also wounded. Nevertheless, Reagan spoke at the NRA’s annual convention in 1983.

[Clip of President Reagan at NRA convention: I’m honored to belong to any organization that’s been around longer than I have. Not too long ago, I had a very memorable visit from your officials. They walked into the Oval Office with some members of the F troop of the Texas army.  And when I saw how those fellows were dressed and what they were packing. I didn’t know whether to stretch out my hand or make a run for it through the Rose Garden.]

Garrett Graff: With a friend in the White House, the NRA embarked on a major project in 1986. Its lobbyists, including Feldman, worked closely for years with two congressmen to craft a bipartisan bill that would weaken the 1968 Gun Control Act, which many gun owners felt was an example of government overreach. The bill was called the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act or FOPA. FOPA would make it easier to buy, sell, and transport guns across state lines. Gun-regulation advocates and influential law enforcement groups opposed FOPA. They dubbed it the “cop-killer bill” and believed it would only make it easier for criminals to access handguns blamed for killing hundreds of police officers. Representative William Hughes, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced an amendment to FOPA in support of law enforcement. It would exempt handguns from the bill and keep existing prohibitions intact. Once again, the NRA fought back. It took out newspaper ads to increase awareness of the bill and garner support. One full-page ad said: the “real police officers” support FOPA. Still, despite the NRA’s effort, more than 200 representatives supported the Hughes amendment.

[Archival clip from Congress, Congressman 3: What the Hughes Amendment would do would be to keep the law as is in regard the interstate sale of handguns. Since 1968, we’ve had that prohibition in the law. I have heard no solid, substantive reason as to why this law should be changed.

Bill McCollum:  I happen to believe that it is absolutely essential for the future protection of society against the criminal that we have on the books the present laws that exist. 

Congressman 2: I would urge all of my colleagues to recognize this is the key vote for law enforcement. We have got to go back to some reasonable controls.]

Garrett Graff: Hughes said the fight over his amendment was one of the most intense political battles of his career. But, in the end, he succeeded — preserving the handgun ban, as well as a ban on the future production of machine guns for civilian sale. The final vote on FOPA was contentious and rather chaotic. There was enough debate over the Hughes amendment that they ran out of time to consider any other changes before it was time to vote.

[Archival clip from the FOPA Hughes Amendment vote: All in favor of the Volmer substitute as amended indicate by saying aye. (Aye.) All opposed indicate by saying nay. (No.)]

Garrett Graff: The bill passed. Reagan signed it into law. It was a major win for the NRA. Here’s Feldman again.

Richard Feldman: And it was the first step towards passing pro-gun legislation, uh, in this country. 

Garrett Graff: But working at the federal level was difficult and frustrating. Congress was often gridlocked and it could take years to get anything done. So the NRA turned its focus to more achievable goals. Carter wanted to win the hearts and minds of average Americans. 

[Clip of Harlon Carter: I prefer to think of education. I prefer to think of national acceptability. I prefer to think in terms of some kind of an accord.]

Garrett Graff: And the NRA would also try to roll back restrictive gun laws state by state and nationalize new pro-gun policies. Robert Spitzer, the historian we heard from last episode, says this was a smart move because frankly, people don’t take much notice of state-level politics.

Robert Spitzer: Many state governments are very conservative, especially sparsely populated conservative states in the Midwest and the South. And, if you think about the government and how Americans think about the government, you know about your local government. Is the snow plowed? Is the trash picked up every week? What are the zoning laws? Can I build an addition to my house? And of course, everybody gets tons of information about the national government, what’s going on in Washington, D.C., because it generates so much news. State governments receive far less attention by comparison. That is to say, it’s an ideal place for a group like the NRA to try and promote its cause without receiving a whole lot of attention. Precisely because their policy objectives are often at odds with what most Americans support.

Garrett Graff: The first state they planned to tackle was Florida. Florida in the 1980s seemed the perfect petri dish. It had some of the most relaxed gun laws in the country, and crime was high. It was dealing with civil unrest and instability. In 1980, Miami saw the worst riots in its history after a Black insurance salesman was beaten to death by police officers during a traffic stop. 

[Clip via WTVJ: The death toll now stands at 11 with more than 120 persons injured in the riots, looting and fires of last night and today. Affected areas are still reporting sniper attacks. And from almost any point in Dade County smoke from burning buildings can easily be seen. A curfew has been ordered for tonight.]

Garrett Graff: That spring, the Mariel Boatlift was also underway — the mass emigration of thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States. And many Americans feared that there were violent criminals among them. Plus, the drug trade was booming — so much so that Miami Vice became one of the defining TV shows of the decade. So Florida became essentially a test kitchen for the NRA. There, they could pilot new ideas and state laws and if they passed, other gun-friendly states would almost certainly follow. They would need someone local. And not just anyone, they needed someone kind of like Carter, iron-willed and uncompromising. So they turned to a Tallahassee lobbyist named Marion Hammer.

Mike Spies: When she steps in the room, everybody knows, you know, she’s got her pantsuit on. And notoriously has the sort of pageboy haircut,  wears a dark shade of lipstick, carries a laser-guided pistol in her purse.

Garrett Graff: This is Mike Spies. He’s the senior writer for The Trace who we heard from last episode. In 2018, Mike wrote a profile of Marion Hammer for The Trace and the New Yorker, the first in-depth examination of how she changed our country.

Mike Spies: I don’t know if you’ve ever been around somebody that wants you to fear them. It’s a very particular kind of person. Most people are not that way, but she is. You know, she wants you to feel that when she’s around.

[Clip of Marion Hammer at the 1996 NRA convention: I may be only four foot eleven. But when I stand up for NRA, stand up for our Constitution, and stand up for the Second Amendment, I feel ten feet tall, because I’m standing on the high moral ground of freedom.]

Garrett Graff: Mike first came across Hammer’s name when he was researching a strange Florida law.

Mike Spies: The Pop Tart Gun Law, in which a child was suspended from school for I guess, chewing a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot other kids with it.

Garrett Graff: The breakfast pastry incident occurred in 2013 in Maryland but made waves among gun proponents in Florida, too. Mike thought that the bill seemed like an overreaction. So he called the Florida lawmaker who had introduced the bill to learn more about it.  

Mike Spies: And I asked him why this law needed to exist. And he said, because Miss Marion told me to. 

Garrett Graff: (Marion Hammer)

Mike Spies: And she was outraged and decided that it was necessary to get a law passed in the state of Florida that would provide legal protections to children who not only chewed pastries into the shapes of guns, but also like any number of other things that involved like pretend shooting, she wanted to make sure that those children had the right to do that and would not be penalized for it.

Garrett Graff: So Mike decided to do some more digging into Hammer and her work with the NRA. He learned that Hammer was an award-winning competitive shooter and had been shooting since she was a girl. She often entered her cats into cutest kitten contests. Her office was full of eagle paraphernalia. And she was the head of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a local lobbying nonprofit that received financial support from the NRA. Over time, she had grown into one of the most powerful figures in Florida — one lawmakers crossed at their peril. She exerted the NRA’s influence far and wide in the state. Mike came across another case that Hammer had been involved with in 2016. It was a lawsuit against a gun range brought by one of Florida’s water districts. The gun range had allegedly violated an agreement to prevent lead shot from polluting the local water supply. And the water district wanted to stop the pollution. But then Hammer stepped in, and the lawsuit was quickly dropped.

Mike Spies: And I thought, well, okay, well, this is really, you know, this is like power broker stuff. She’s stronger than the lawmakers are, but she’s an unelected lobbyist. Like, how is that possible, and what does that look like, and how does that work?

Garrett Graff: The answer was simple: Hammer says jump. And Florida lawmakers say how high? 

Mike Spies: Basically, they only existed to carry her water because as one of them said, as a lobbyist, she could not literally file the bills.  And, by the way, if she said no to something, then, she also had veto power.

Garrett Graff: Mike was floored. He knew the NRA was influential, but this? This was something else.

Mike Spies:  I think the popular perception, including mine, was that this was an all powerful organization, but she was the one who most matched that perception, by far. And, and proudly so.  She was the sort of like awesomely powerful-Oz type figure, aAnd was incredibly successful doing her job. I mean, it was just, year in and year out, anything Marion wants to happen, happened.

Garrett Graff: And in the 1980s, what Hammer and the NRA wanted was to make it easier for law-abiding gun owners to carry their guns in public. While today, it’s quite normal in some parts of the country for someone to be strapped at a supermarket, that wasn’t always the case.

Mike Spies:  For most of American history, people did not think it was a great idea to make it easy for citizens to carry concealed handguns into a variety of public spaces. Historically, the goal was to make it as difficult as possible for citizens to kill each other.

Garrett Graff: At the time, gun-owners in Florida had to get a permit issued by law enforcement if they wanted to carry concealed weapons outside of their home. Applicants had to demonstrate a justifiable need for the permit and provide credible character references. Law enforcement would review your application and, if you met the requirements, the existing policy promised only that local officials “may” issue a permit. There was discretion built into the system.

Mike Spies: And they would talk to the different people in your life and your family, friends about, you know, like what you are like, what do you know, do you have anger management issues, all the things that might be relevant and might make a law enforcement official stop somebody from being able to carry a gun wherever they wanted to go. That was all part of the process.

Garrett Graff: Hammer and the NRA felt that this was an infringement on the right of Americans to protect themselves, their families, and their property. This is Hammer speaking about that right on PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1987.

[Clip of Marion Hammer on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour]: Law-abiding firearms owners are very responsible people. And all they want to do is be able to protect themselves against the criminal element that is running wild in this state and in this country. And you cannot deny people an effective means to defend themselves. Otherwise, you run the risk of violating two constitutional protections, not only your right of self defense, but your right to keep and bear arms.

Garrett Graff: And amid all that Florida unrest — the riots, the refugees, the drugs and the crime — Hammer and the NRA saw a major opportunity. In the ‘80s, the NRA ran newspaper ads across the country. The ads showed graphic depictions of robbers and rapists, and they posed questions like “Should you shoot a rapist before he cuts your throat?” Urging readers to “Defend your right to defend yourself.” The ads were reminiscent of a harrowing experience Hammer had often recounted in the media.

[Clip from Dan Rather: Marion Hammer says she was walking to her car after a long day at the office. When she was accosted by a car full of men. But she had a surprise for them. 

Marion Hammer: I stepped behind, uh, a big column. And reached in my purse and pulled out my gun. And I stepped out and I drew the gun up through the headlights of the car. And I aimed at the driver. And somebody in the car screamed, “The bitch got a gun.”]

Garrett Graff: The men drove away, and Hammer believes she escaped possible injury — or worse — only because she was carrying a weapon. She once said “An armed citizenry is the best deterrent to crime we have in the country today.” She lobbied state legislators for years to change the permitting law. And in 1987, she finally succeeded, making a permit to carry virtually undeniable.

[Clip from PBS NewsHour in 1987: Tomorrow, sweeping new state laws take effect that will make it significantly easier for many people in Florida to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons.]

Garrett Graff: The new laws established minimal requirements statewide for concealed carry permits, overriding stricter local standards, and weakening the ability of county and local governments to determine who received permits and how. And within months, issued permits soared from roughly 9,000 to nearly 25,000.

Mike Spies: It revolutionized the permit process in the state of Florida. And then after Florida amended its law, it became like a domino effect that just went around the country until nearly all states had basically the same version of Florida’s permit law. Really in every way she, in a very short period of time, changed the way we interact with guns and people who carry them every day. And it was really the first example of, um, the NRA pursuing that state-level strategy through Marion, and they sort of discovered very early on that Marion was uniquely effective. She seemed to have a taste for blood.

Garrett Graff: This would be the first of many firsts to come for Hammer, including notably: She would be the first woman to serve as the president of the NRA.

[Clip of Marion Hammer at the 1996 NRA convention: I pledge to you to dedicate my term of office to two demanding missions. One is building an NRA bridge to America’s youth. The other is being fiscally farsighted to provide for bold new programs that will teach America’s children values that will last a lifetime. It will be an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children.]

Garrett Graff: And after Harlon Carter transformed the organization in the 1980s, it was Hammer who would help lead and shape the NRA in the 1990s as the tide in America began to turn — as the public, who had seen guns as the answer, instead became concerned that guns were the problem, and the Clinton administration launched a new era of federal gun control. That’s next time on “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust.”

[Archival audio of Bill Clinton: We have all been sobered by what we have been through in these school shootings.

Sescily: say stop the violence. say stop the violence! Say put the guns down—

Sarah Brady: We must either change the minds of these lawmakers or for God’s sake in November, let’s change the law makers!]

Richard Feldman: When the ban passed the house, the CEO at the time of Colt got up from the meeting and said, “I’m flying back to Hartford because I think our company is going to be out of business.”

Cameron McWhirter: The assault weapons ban is still exalted by some elements of the gun control community to this day as if it was some great success. But it turned this gun into this political symbol, that if you are an advocate of the second amendment you had to own.

[Archival clip of Bill Clinton: This is too important an issue to be decided by strong-arm lobbying tactics in Washington. The heart and soul of America is on the line.]Garrett Graff: “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust” is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX. This series is hosted and reported by me, Garrett Graff. It was created by myself and executive producer John Patrick Pullen of Long Lead. Jennifer Mascia of The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that covers guns in America, is my co-reporter and a contributing producer for this season. The show is written by Emily Martinez. Aleah Papes is the associate producer and a contributing writer as well. Matthew Shaer and Emily Martinez also served as executive producers on this season. Our theme song was composed by Netta Hadari. Sound design by Claire Mullen. Additional engineering by Yi-Wen Lai-Tremewan. Music by Blue Dot Sessions and APM. This series was recorded by Joe Egan at Egan Media Productions. Fact-checking by Emily Barone and Sarah Baum. Archival research assisted by Will DiGravio. Audience development by Heather Muse. Cover art by Long Lead’s creative director, Sarah Rogers. Special thanks to Lindsey Kilbride, Ashleyanne Krigbaum, and Jennifer Bassett who consulted on the podcast. The song “Ramon Casiano” is by The Drive-By Truckers on their 2016 album American Band, from ATO Records. It’s written by Mike Cooley. Courtesy of ATO Records and Hipnosis Songs. Stay up to date on this podcast and learn more about Long Lead’s award-winning journalism by subscribing to our newsletter, at If you like Long Shadow, spread the word, and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts — it helps others find the show. Thanks for listening.