As an actor, Charlton Heston appeared in some of the most notable films of his time. But he may best be remembered as the most visible president in the National Rifle Association's history, guiding the gun lobbying group through a five-year period that saw gun rights take center stage in Washington, D.C. Along the way, his statements were responsible for igniting a phrase that would become a rallying cry for gun owners: “You can have my guns when you take them from my cold, dead hands.”
Surprisingly, the man who hoisted a rifle above his head at the 2000 NRA Convention in defiance of the perceived anti-gun policies of Democrat presidential nominee Al Gore was once a staunch supporter of gun control legislation.
Heston's Support for Gun Control
By the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Charlton Heston had become a household name, starring as Moses in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments and as Judah Ben Hur in 1959's Ben Hur.
Heston campaigned for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and became critical of lax gun laws in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination. He joined fellow Hollywood stars Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, and James Stewart in support of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the most restrictive piece of gun legislation in more than 30 years.
Appearing on ABC's The Joey Bishop Show two weeks after U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Heston read from a prepared statement: “This bill is no mystery. Let's be clear about it. Its purpose is simple and direct. It is not to deprive the sportsman of his hunting gun, the marksman of his target rifle, nor would it deny to any responsible citizen his constitutional right to own a firearm. It is to prevent the murder of Americans.”
Later that year, actor-producer Tom Laughlin, chairman of the anti-gun group Ten Thousand Americans for Responsible Gun Control lamented in an edition of Film & Television Daily that Hollywood stars had fallen from the gun control bandwagon, but listed Heston among a handful of diehard supporters who he said would stand by his side.
Heston Changes Teams in the Gun Rights Debate
Exactly when Heston changed his views on gun ownership is hard to pin down. In interviews after being elected president of the NRA, he was vague about his support of the 1968 Gun Control Act, saying only that he had made some “political mistakes.”
Heston's support for Republican politicians can be dated back as far as the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. The two men shared many broad similarities: Hollywood A-Listers who supported Democrat Party policies early in their careers only to become stalwarts of the conservative movement. Reagan would later appoint Heston to co-chair a task force on arts and humanities.
Over the next two decades, Heston became increasingly vocal in his support of conservative policies, in general, and on the Second Amendment, in particular. In 1997, Heston was elected to the NRA's Board of Directors. One year later, he was elected president of the organization.
Heston was vocally opposed to virtually any proposed measure of restricting gun ownership, from a mandatory five-day waiting period on handgun purchases to a limit of one gun purchase a month to mandatory trigger locks and the 1994 ban on assault weapons.
“Teddy Roosevelt hunted in the last century with a semiautomatic rifle,” Heston once said in regards to proposals to ban semiautomatic firearms. “Most deer guns are semi-automatic. It's become a demonized phrase. The media distorts that and the public ill understands it.”
In 1997, he lambasted the National Press Club for the media's role in the Assault Weapons Ban, saying reporters need to do their homework on semiautomatic weapons. In a speech to the club, he said: “For too long, you have swallowed manufactured statistics and fabricated technical support from anti-gun organizations that wouldn't know a semi-auto from a sharp stick. And it shows. You fall for it every time.”
'From My Cold, Dead Hands'
During the height of the 2000 election season, Heston delivered a rousing speech at the NRA Convention in which he closed by invoking an old Second Amendment battle cry as he raised a vintage 1874 buffalo rifle over his head: “So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, (presidential candidate) Mr. (Al) Gore: 'From my cold, dead hands.'”
The “cold, dead hands” saying did not originate with Heston. It had been around since the 1970s when it was used as a slogan for literature and bumper stickers by gun rights activists. The slogan didn't even originate with the NRA; it was first used by the Washington-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
But Heston's usage of those five words in 2000 made them iconic. Gun owners across the nation began using the slogan as a rallying cry, saying, “You can have my guns when you take them from my cold, dead hands.” Heston is often incorrectly attributed with coining the phrase. When he resigned from the NRA presidency in 2003 due to his declining health, he again raised the rifle over his head and repeated, “From my cold, dead hands.”
The Death of an Icon
Heston was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998, an illness he defeated. But a diagnosis of Alzheimer's in 2003 would prove too much to overcome. He stepped down from his position as president of the NRA and died five years later, at the age of 84. At his death, he had appeared in more than 100 films. He and his wife, Lydia Clark, had been married 64 years.
But Heston's lasting legacy might be his five-year stint as president of the NRA. With the peak of his Hollywood career well behind him, Heston's work with the NRA and his fierce pro-gun rights rhetoric earned him legendary status with a whole new generation.