Well before he became a mass murderer, Timothy McVeigh was a boy who liked guns. He would shoot with his grandfather as a youngster and joined the National Rifle Association in the mid 80’s when he got his hunting license. Later, he joined the Army, where he had access to many more weapons. Those who served with him described him as obsessed with guns – this from a group with a generally higher interest in guns than most of the population. McVeigh had begun collecting guns by then and, reportedly, was subsequently in the habit of sleeping with one. He stashed them about, wherever he lived and smuggled them on base while serving. A potential love interest dropped him because she found his all-consuming focus on guns tiresome. Guns were his passion, and he told fellow soldiers that he was concerned that the government would take them away.
After leaving the Army, McVeigh continued to work with guns – as a security guard and, then, selling them on the gun show circuit. He became active in gun-rights advocacy, sharing reading materials with those he knew, mixing with ideological extremists, and writing letters to the editor. He sent Rep. John LaFlance of his home state of New York a letter in an envelope stamped with the advertising slogan: “I am the NRA.” That was in 1992; later, he would disavow the group because he thought it hadn’t done enough to stop gun legislation that passed soon after.
In 1989, a man named Patrick Purdy had turned an AK-47 on schoolchildren at Cleveland Elementary in Stockton, CA. He killed five of them – all under the age of ten – and wounded thirty-two others. Purdy’s gun was a Chinese make, and President George H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order banning the import of assault weapons from China thereafter. Five years later, President Clinton would sign another Executive Order limiting imports of guns and ammunition from China. By then, Congress had responded to public safety concerns by mandating background checks through the Brady Act (1993) and passing the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994). The NRA was unable to stop passage of these bills, succeeding only in getting a ten-year expiration inserted in the prohibition legislation.
McVeigh was already riled then by the disastrous enforcement actions in Ruby Ridge, ID (1992) and Waco, TX (1994), which he saw not simply as excessive enforcement leading to an inexcusable loss of lives. His rants against government tyranny weren’t about the 4th Amendment or Due Process. His concern was the threat to gun sales and possession. The assault weapons ban, he told his comrades, was the last straw. It was time to “take the fight to the enemy” with a retaliatory strike against ATF agents and others engaged in gun law enforcement. He saw himself as a crusader for the sacrosanct ownership of guns.
Of course McVeigh had a weapon on him as he fled the scene of the bombing. It was not then legal to carry a handgun on you concealed, which prompted his arrest when a patrolman pulled him over for a motor vehicle violation. “My gun is loaded,” he warned the officer. “So is mine,” Trooper Charlie Hanger responded. In the end, the gun regulation did get McVeigh. He missed the effective date of legislation authorizing concealed carry by just a few months.
The NRA that he thought was too ineffective had been working for some time to get state laws passed allowing carrying handguns in public. In the 90’s and first decade of the 21st century, it successfully pushed concealed carry legislation. Since then, the NRA agenda has included the ability to carry a weapon openly and eliminating licensing and permit requirements. Twenty-three years after the bombing, citizens around the country travel in public spaces free to carry guns where McVeigh could not. Far from eliminating gun ownership – thanks largely to NRA lobbying – governments at the state and federal levels have made it more permissible to introduce weapons into public spaces.
McVeigh didn’t live to see the expiration of the assault weapon ban, which has reintroduced sales of guns like the AR-15 that Nikolas Cruz used for his shooting spree two months ago at a high school in Parkland, FL. McVeigh owned an AR-15 too. NRA lobbying efforts have thus far blocked another ban on such guns – despite mass shootings in Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, and any number of other places over the years. Instead of the gun-free society that McVeigh feared, our country is awash in handguns, rifles, and variants of deadly weapons. He didn’t need to martyr himself; the cause has been ascendant.