How the Modern NRA Was Born at the Border

Still from The Rifleman. (Field of Vision).

In my new documentary, The Rifleman, I use archival footage to tell the story of Harlon Carter (1913–1991), who led the National Rifle Association (NRA) from 1977 until 1985, during a period when it transformed from principally a sporting organization into a radical right political bloc. When he was seventeen, Carter, who grew up in the Texas borderlands, was convicted of murdering a thirteen-year-old, Ramón Casiano, after Casiano was supposedly seen on the Carters’ property. This kind of white nationalist violence would be a prominent feature of the rest of Carter’s life. After his murder conviction was vacated by the Texas Court of Appeals, Carter would join the U.S. Border Patrol, eventually becoming its head. In that role, he ran Operation Wetback (1954), which made a spectacle of deporting undocumented Mexican farm workers.

The Rifleman places the NRA in the broader context of how gun ownership has, since early in the nation’s founding, been central to enforcing a white nationalist vision of the United States.

In making The Rifleman, I was interested in using Carter’s life to tell the story of the NRA beyond the limited context of the current debate over gun control, and instead place it in the broader context of how gun ownership has, since early in the nation’s founding, been central to enforcing a white nationalist vision of the United States. This continues the work of the films I have been making for the last eight or so years, which all explore how white supremacy operates within the mainstream, whether it’s through the proliferation of Confederate monuments (Graven Image, 2017) or the rise of the Tea Party (Town Hall, 2013, codirected with Jamila Wignot).

I’m an archival researcher by trade, through which I found my way into directing. And so my filmmaking process always begins with trying to find as much primary source material as I can. In this film, that was a challenge because the NRA’s archives are sealed and inaccessible to researchers. Telling this story through Carter’s life, though material of him was scarce, allowed for a broader commentary on the NRA: Operation Wetback was primarily a media operation, and Carter was the person who really turned the NRA into a savvy media-facing organization. There’s something about the way, then, that white supremacy operated in these instances as an open secret that’s really insidious. Carter and the NRA weren’t even trying to hide it.

To delve more into the history of Carter, the NRA, guns, the Second Amendment, and the connection of all of these to white supremacy, I talked with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, whose book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (2018) helped shaped my thinking when I was making The Rifleman. Her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States also shaped another recent film, Raoul Peck’s HBO miniseries Exterminate All the Brutes.

—Sierra Pettengill

Sierra Pettengill: Roxanne, thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. My film, The Rifleman, focuses on a particular midcentury moment in the history of the NRA and of U.S. immigration enforcement. But how far back does this go? How deep are guns and white supremacy in the history of the United States?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, the Springfield Armory that George Washington orders created to make arms for the War of Independence means that gun manufacture is among the first U.S. industries. And despite industrialization and then globalization, the gun industry has remained heavily reliant on domestic manufacturing.

The gun as a technology is deeply tied to the history of U.S. expansion and warfare. A lot of guns are created specifically to serve the needs of particular U.S. wars. A whole bunch of new guns are created for or popularized by the Civil War, including the six shooters—you know, the Jesse James cowboy six shooter. And then the Winchester rifle was created for conquering the West by slaughtering Native Americans.

A key part of the story of America’s love affair with the gun is also how a romanticized fantasy of the American hunter gets invented—you know, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, all that. It’s completely fake. These were all commercial hunters. They didn’t even use the meat. It was for the furs. It was a huge fur industry. And it was all commercial. And the fur industry becomes a way, in part, to sell guns to everyone. It’s an incredible amount of violence but it’s all treated as something that is rather banal at the same time.

Along those lines, something I really appreciate about your film is how it shows that Harlon Carter was just a very bland person. Yes, a teenage murderer. But he’s not some kind of colorful creature. He did study law, you know. He got a law degree at Emory University. He’s a very educated man. He was no border ruffian.

SP: Yes, I think his bureaucratic anonymity was part of his power. And his innate sense of entitlement. Here’s a guy who was raised on the border, and who murders Ramón because Carter’s mom hears that someone saw some Mexican kids looking at their car. And that’s enough. That’s all it takes. There’s such a clear sense of him feeling some entitlement to the borderlands. And he gets away with it. I was stunned to find how heavily that story was covered in the border press at the time. It was front-page headline news for the duration of the trial, in bilingual newspapers. You know, it wasn’t a small story, I think in part because Carter’s father worked in the Border Patrol—which later also helps Carter get a job there. He’s born to this kind of racist border enforcement—the murder he commits is really him performing what he understands as his duty as a white man.

“Operation Wetback was all a big show to make it seem as if they had everything under control. Nothing actually changed because they needed the workers. But the more precarious they were, the more that growers and the mining companies could exploit them.”

RDO: And then Operation Wetback just furthers that, and also highlights the midcentury hypocrisy around immigration. John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants (1964), which he writes while he’s a senator, is written soon after Operation Wetback. And Kennedy barely mentions Mexico or the border in his book. It’s especially stunning since Operation Wetback drew so much publicity. I am old enough to remember seeing it on television as a teenager. That was its whole purpose because nothing actually changed. It couldn’t, because, you know, they needed the workers. But the more precarious they were, the more that growers and the mining companies could exploit them because, if they said anything, they knew they would be deported. In her book Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (2010), Kelly Lytle Hernández shows how Operation Wetback was all a big show to make it seem as if they had everything under control, and nothing changed afterward. And Harlan Carter was the circus master who created all the pomp and ceremony. I mean, they had big film crews queued up to film the boats and the trains and airplanes. Some of that footage is in your film.

Carter’s modus operandi—from Operation Wetback through his time running the NRA—was always about openly advertising white supremacy, and that’s really always been true of white nationalists. It remains true. Just think about the sieges and stormings of capitols all over the country this past year. If people don’t see that this is openly about white supremacy, it’s just that they don’t want to see it. I don’t know how people were really so surprised by the January 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., after what happened in Michigan. In Michigan they went inside the building. They trashed it and held the place, and they had guns. They didn’t take guns into the federal capitol—I mean, not visibly, anyway. But they had all kinds of other weapons. And they revealed themselves, but people don’t want to believe it. Or people see it but want to act as though white nationalism is just blue-collar people, but when you look at who has been arrested for the attack on the Capitol, it’s business owners, white-collar workers, Olympians—just really a broad cross-section of the white population. Certainly a lot of police and former military. It would be interesting to find out if there were border guards among them. I expect there were.

SP: I think you’re probably right. It’s certainly a very permeable border between white nationalist militia members and military veterans.

I was hoping we could talk about your insight, which was a revelation for me, that the Second Amendment is really understood by many Americans as a religious covenant linked to white nationalism, and the idea that God has ordained this country for whites and therefore licenses white nationalist’s violence. It’s such an important reframing as a response to people who are really stuck on technical points of trying to reform the Second Amendment by arguing about, for example, what the founders had in mind with the word militia, whether they meant individuals or small groups, or whether they were talking about the Army. But you just dispense with all that as missing the point.

“The Second Amendment is understood by many Americans as a religious covenant linked to white nationalism, and the idea that God has ordained this country for whites and therefore licenses white nationalist violence.”

RDO: Loaded came out three years ago, and I’ve spoken about it to many audiences, and there’s always a cluster of gun control activists. They are often reformists who think it is possible to fix gun violence by improving laws around gun ownership. Many are survivors of gun violence and relatives of survivors. They want to think something can be done legislatively, and I have to tell them that it’s not going to happen, that it would take a revolutionary change much deeper than that, a shift in the public consciousness about how we understand U.S. history.

That’s not pessimism. It’s just reality. And part of why it’s reality is because of the degree to which U.S. culture is still evangelical culture, and another term for white nationalism is Christian nationalism. And this is very deep. The 1619 Project is very astute in many ways to shift the founding away from the Puritans—but at the same time, it’s not wrong to say, as many conservatives do, that the founding ideology of this country came from the Puritans. It’s just that conservatives misunderstand the Puritans: they were fanatics! If you think they’re fanatics now on the Supreme Court and in the anti-abortion movement, they’re nothing compared to the fanaticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And it’s from the Puritans that we get this idea of the covenant between God and the whites who wished to make this continent theirs. That sense of covenant carries right through to the genocide of Native Americans in the nineteenth century, where you see people doing these massacres on the frontier, and then afterward having weeks of frenzied revivals with religious purging, and handling snakes and speaking in tongues.

The way that this manifests in the present day around gun rights is that the Constitution is not seen as a document that, as liberals see it, is permeable and changeable. Rather it is worshipped as the embodiment of the covenant—and so the Constitution for them is the direct word of God giving instructions. And the Second Amendment in particular has become even more obsessively covenantized because of the efforts of the NRA, particular under the leadership of Carter and then Wayne LaPierre.

But it’s the whole Constitution. I call it the cult of the covenant. And the general public—as well as the intelligentsia and the liberal political class—accepts this just as much, this sense that the Constitution is a sacred document, even if they’re not into the literal interpretation of every word of it. But Christian nationalists do believe that every word is literally the word of God coming through. And that’s really all you need to know to solve the riddle of why evangelicals embraced Donald Trump. Because they believe that anyone can be a vessel for God, that He works in strange ways, and that He works through sometimes very horrible, flawed people.

This is really something we can’t legislate our way out of.

The only hope is to figure out how to reckon with this founding ideology of people who believed as a matter of faith that this land belonged to them. Across the country, they left what I call their bloody footprints. They were the ones who took the land, killed the Indians, enslaved. They were dominant, and it was—it is—a very masculine dominance. But that doesn’t mean it’s just men. The majority of white women voted for Donald Trump—twice. More the second time than the first time.

SP: I’m working on another film now that’s about the U.S. military’s riot training programs in the late 1960s. And as part of that I have been watching a lot of footage of white women training themselves for protection. I think you found that something like 60 percent of gun owners claim self-protection as their motivation for having guns. And a big part of that is the idea of needing to defend white womanhood. That of course has been the justification for lots of racialized violence throughout this nation’s history—it was a driving factor in recruitment for the KKK and sparked many lynchings. But then in the late 1960s into the ’70s, the NRA begins campaigning on this idea that civil rights and Black Power uprisings in U.S. cities pose a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of white women. I think they understood it as a way to cleave some people from the feminist project, to lean into this sort of forced victimization of insisting that women had to choose between self-protection—against a racialized other—and interracial feminist solidarity.

RDO: Yes. And certainly another way that the NRA has waged a campaign to win supporters has been through the ROTC, which is not only on college campuses but also in public schools. The NRA collaborates with the Army to provide the ROTC with gun resources. It provides the targets, the technical equipment, sometimes the space to shoot if the school doesn’t have space for a range.

“The Parkland shooter was in the school’s Junior ROTC. They taught him to shoot and how to kill. When he was captured, he was wearing a shirt with the Junior ROTC logo.”

I learned about this in some depth after the Parkland, Florida, massacre in 2018. It was a month after Loaded came out, so of course it wasn’t in the book, but I was touring with the book, and everyone wanted to talk about that. The survivors immediately organized beautifully, and they were embraced by the nation—but I was shocked because they kept referring to the ROTC, and making it clear that they weren’t against guns or the Second Amendment. They even had a military ceremony for one of the young men, who had been in the school’s Junior ROTC. The Army organized a ceremony, a full military ceremony, turning the flag over to the parents and so forth. This inspired me to look into the Junior ROTC and to learn about how widespread it is. It’s in many public schools. It cost the school district very little because the Army heavily subsidizes it.

What of course was never mentioned during the solemn military funeral for one of the victims was that the kid who did the killing—this nineteen-year-old kid, Nikolas Cruz—who was kicked out as a student because he was violent, was also in the school’s Junior ROTC. They taught him to shoot. They taught him on all these weapons how to shoot and how to kill. When he was captured, he was wearing a shirt with the Junior ROTC logo.

But somehow no one seemed to make this connection between Cruz’s violence and what he had been learning in his Junior ROTC training. I remember seeing one of the survivors, David Hogg, on Real Time with Bill Maher and he was making a point that the Second Amendment had to be respected. So that’s also an interesting aspect of this worship of the Second Amendment. That it’s always seen as just these outliers of extremely violent men. Rather than it being that this young man seems to have begun to dabble with white nationalism.

I should add that since then David and I have become friends. He’s a student at Harvard now, and was taking a course from Walter Johnson, and he came up to Walter and said, “Have you read this book, Loaded?” And of course, Walter had blurbed it! Anyway, Walter put David in touch with me right away and his perspective has really changed since being on Maher’s show. When I talk about the covenant, this is part of it too, how it’s just so natural to think this way, even for people who are trying to stop gun violence.

SP: This discussion about the ROTC reminds me of an NRA promotional video from the 1950s where this clean-cut white guy in a military uniform describes the NRA as “a nonprofit corporation chartered by Congress for the purpose of educating the public in marksmanship.” At the time when I first saw it, it just went right by me that he was in military uniform. But there’s always this both/and quality with the NRA where on the one hand it’s aligning itself with organized military functions and the police, and the state monopoly on violence, while on the other hand it is defending the right of the individual to take up arms against a perceived—likely nonexistent for the majority of white people—oppressive state. It’s an astonishing contortion of logic that it’s both celebrating these state forces and also calling for people to arm themselves against those same forces.

“There’s this both/and quality with the NRA where on the one hand it aligns itself with organized military functions, the police, and the state monopoly on violence, while on the other hand it defends the right of the individual to take up arms against a perceived oppressive state.”

RDO: That an ambiguity that’s baked in to the Second Amendment, really. The enforcement of white nationalism has always involved a lot of gray area and give and take between state and extra-state forces.

People get mixed up with the terminology of militia because there were the state militias, which became the National Guard, which were already provided for in the Constitution itself, and for this reason are quite evidently different from the militias referenced by the Second Amendment. State militias were provided for. The earliest militias in the Colonies were tasked with ethnically cleansing Native people, and when Native people had been expelled from the thirteen colonies, those militias were immediately put to use as slave patrols. Some people resisted—it was a kind of dirty work that wasn’t yet fully enshrined as part of the covenant. They killed Indians and took land, sure. But a lot of them resented the wealthy planters. But they forced them. Virginia actually made a law that they had to do it. And in a meaningful sense, its these militias that became the police. The behavior of police today comes from these slave patrols and funneled through the Second Amendment.

But you know, there would not be a Second Amendment unless it was for something different than that, and something personal. Because it’s a bill of individual rights. And so the Second Amendment is about the right but also the obligation of settlers to own guns and to take those guns out into the frontier to kill Native people. It’s an extra-state mechanism for fulfilling a need of the state. But then this also becomes part of the official role of the Armed Forces, many battalions of which have their origins in pursuing genocide against Native people, and enforcing white nationalist border policies and territorial expansion.

”The NRA simply revived something that had waned. Slave patrols and the KKK weren’t needed because the Jim Crow state had taken on that role of racial enforcer. But as that began to break down with civil rights, the NRA handed to the descendants of the white settler population this tool for their empowerment.”

SP: I think that was maybe the most shocking thing I learned from Loaded, about how participation in militias and slave patrols was often mandatory, that owning a gun was mandatory—because you were required to do your part in this white nationalist project of defending from the Native population the land that had been stolen from them and made into private property.

RDO: Yes. I think what the NRA—and Carter specifically—did was to simply revive something that had waned, because it was for a moment no longer needed. Slave patrols were not needed. The KKK wasn’t needed because the Jim Crow state had taken on that role of racial enforcer. But as that began to break down with civil rights, Carter handed to the descendants of the white settler population this tool for their empowerment, the new NRA. He’s such an important figure, and so little remembered. We have to strive to make him infamous, the way your film does.

This interview first appeared in the Boston Review.