Arms and the Man

Mar 31, 1999 at 4:00 am
It all started with an 11-year-old girl in a red jumpsuit. She sang a patriotic anthem, karaoke-style, her blond locks bobbing, sequins sparkling and go-go boots shuffling.

After the tiny diva warbled her last refrain blessing the U.S.A., an invocation was given and the Pledge of Allegiance recited. The audience then exploded into applause over a call to arms by Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association executive vice president, who is most noted for referring to federal agents as "jackbooted thugs." The grand finale came when NRA president Charlton Heston took centerstage.

With the TV cameras rolling, the 75-year-old Hollywood film star solemnly mouthed the Missouri state motto: Salus populi suprema lex esto -- "The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law." He then read a prepared statement advocating that voters approve Proposition B to ensure their right to defend themselves against criminal attackers.

After his brief speech, Heston and his entourage darted out of the hotel conference room by a side door without taking any questions from the press.

When I tried to pursue Heston to ask a few questions, two of his bodyguards intervened. One of them put me in a headlock while the other attempted to pry a tape recorder from my left hand. The incident lasted long enough for Heston and his party to depart. The bodyguards were off-duty St. Louis police officers providing security -- gratis -- for Heston and the NRA.

While the encounter transpired, "Col." John Moore, leader of a St. Louis-area militia, stood nearby. In 1995, Moore told the RFT that several local police officers were members of his militia group, the First Missouri Volunteers. In addition, he said, the lawyer for the militia represented the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA).

Sgt. John Johnson, president of SLPOA, says that about a dozen members of the association attended the NRA rally. "We were asked to be honorary bodyguards for Mr. Heston," says Johnson. "We were introduced at the presentation as backers of Proposition B." Johnson denies any knowledge of the local militia organization or any connection to the group, either through himself or through any member of the SLPOA.

Nevertheless, the SLPOA members at the rally were rubbing shoulders with militia leader Moore.

From the vantage point of the armpit of an off-duty cop, it became clear who is behind the reins of the Prop B bandwagon: the NRA, the militia and members of the SLPOA. Another insight occurred as I felt increasing pressure on my vocal cords: It was evident that these particular Prop B proponents value their Second Amendment right to bear arms over others' First Amendment right of free speech.

Edward L. Dowd, U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, does not agree that the views of Johnson and his comrades in the SLPOA are representative of the majority of the police department. "I deal with St. Louis police officers every day. I'm related to St. Louis police officers. I don't know any of them that are in favor of Proposition B. The only ones who are in favor of Proposition B are on the executive board. The average police officer on the street is out making arrests and does not want people carrying concealed weapons."

In an interview before Heston's appearance, Johnson denied responsibility for a misleading billboard advertising campaign. He blamed Missourians Against Crime (MAC), the NRA-backed organization leading the charge for passage of Prop B, for the false wording on the billboards. MAC paid for the ad displays. In each of the ads, a larger-than-life image of a uniformed police officer is juxtaposed with this message: "1,325 St. Louis police officers say 'right-to-carry works!'" In fact, only the executive board of the police organization voted to endorse the issue. The rank-and-file were never asked for their opinion.

Safir Ahmed contributed information for this piece.

-- C.D. Stelzer