Harlon Carter

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Harlon Bronson Carter (August 10, 1913 – November 19, 1991) was an American leader of the National Rifle Association, Carter was an advocate for gun rights in the United States. Carter's 1977 election as NRA Executive Vice President marked a turning point for the organization.[1] During his tenure, from 1977 to 1985, he shifted the organization's focus from promoting marksmanship and sports shooting towards advocacy for less restrictive gun laws. Under Carter's leadership, the NRA became more vehement and less compromising on gun rights issues.[2] It also tripled its membership and gained considerable political influence.[3][4]


Born in Granbury, Texas, Carter graduated from the University of Texas and from Emory University School of Law.[3] In 1936, Carter began a career with the United States Border Patrol,[5] where his father had also worked. Carter rose through the ranks and commanded the entire border patrol from 1950 through 1957. From 1961 to 1970, Carter directed the Southwestern region of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He retired from government service in 1970.[3]

Carter first joined the National Board of the NRA in 1951, and served as the organization's president from 1965-1967. In 1975, Carter became director of the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. During the 1960s and 1970s, NRA leaders debated the organization's mission. Many of the organization's leaders believed that the NRA should focus on its traditional mission of promoting marksmanship and shooting sports. Carter, on the other hand, led a faction that wanted to see the NRA focus on advocating against gun control legislation.[6]

The NRA leadership was ambivalent about the Gun Control Act of 1968, the first gun control legislation since the 1930s. Franklin Orth, the group's Executive Vice President at the time of the act's passage, supported some parts of law, including limits on mail-order gun purchases and bans of Saturday night specials, inexpensive, often low-quality handguns, while opposing other provisions as "unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens".[7][8] In contrast, Carter believed that no gun control legislation could be acceptable. He wrote to the NRA membership: "We can win it on a simple concept – No compromise. No gun legislation."[9][10] Carter opposed background checks for gun purchasers, saying that the use of guns by violent criminals and the mentally ill is the "price we pay for freedom".[11]

In 1976, the NRA leadership fired seventy-four employees, most of them supporters of Carter. Carter resigned in protest. However, in 1977, at the NRA's annual meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, Carter and other activists succeeded in changing the organization's bylaws and voting out much of the leadership. Carter replaced Maxwell Rich as Executive Vice President, responsible for the NRA's operations.[10]

Carter remained in this position until 1985. Under Carter's leadership, the NRA's membership tripled to over three million. The organization's budget and political influence also increased.[3]

In 1981, newspaper reporters learned that Carter had been convicted of murder without malice aforethought fifty years earlier in Laredo, Texas, following the death of 15-year-old Ramón Casiano.[5] The then 17-year-old Carter had believed that Casiano had information about the theft of his family's car, and, carrying a shotgun, asked Casiano to return to the Carter home to submit to questioning. When Casiano refused, and then brandished a knife, Carter fatally shot him.[5] The conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Appeals, which found that the judge in the case had issued incorrect jury instructions regarding laws related to self-defense.[5] In 1981, when newspaper reporters learned of the conviction, Carter initially denied any knowledge of the incident but later acknowledged that he had been responsible for the shooting.[3]

Carter died of lung cancer in 1991 at his home in Green Valley, Arizona.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

The album American Band by the Drive-By Truckers features a song, "Ramon Casiano", about the shooting of Casiano, and Carter's subsequent career.[12]