Pictures of liberals holding rifles and code phrases like “Idaho’s unique lifestyle” have long provided the cover that Democrats needed to compete for rural votes. Idaho’s four-term U.S. Senator Frank Church (1924-1984) was no exception. While firmly antiwar in the 1960s and 70s, he publicly opposed federal gun control as well. In 1965, as Congress debated early versions of the Gun Control Act of 1968, Church collected 60,000 Idaho signatures opposing a provision floated by Senator Tom Dodd that would have required registration of long guns. Church ceremoniously delivered the petitions to Dodd’s subcommittee.
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Despite his record, in August 1979, as Church prepared for a challenge from Steve Symms, the likely Republican candidate, a spokesman for a “New Right,” pro-Second Amendment group, explained to Time why Church was not to be trusted: “There’s no question that Steve Symms would be a better Senator on our issue,” said Alan Gottlieb of the Citizens’ Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “Church votes the way he does because he’d be tarred and feathered if he didn’t.”Political writer Larrey Anderson, an early Church afficionado who went on to work for Church’s 1968 opponent George Hansen and became a sharp critic, argued more recently along the same lines as Gottlieb:
The one bone Church tossed (and tossed and tossed) to Idaho’s conservative voters was his support for the Second Amendment. This was a political contrivance that Church perfected. He mentioned his opposition to gun control in every speech I ever heard him give (in Idaho). It is a ruse still used by “moderate” politicians in conservative states. These otherwise die-hard liberals flaunt their NRA ratings at every opportunity. This is a fact that NRA members (or at least conservatives who belong to the NRA) need to take into consideration when the NRA endorses progressive candidates who pick the 2nd Amendment as their one “bona fide” conservative credential.
Garry Wenske, a longtime Church aide and executive director of the Frank Church Institute at Boise State, said that Church never sought to “placate the NRA.”
“First, the NRA was a far different organization then,” Wenske said. “It was mostly concerned with representing hunters. It was true that Church opposed gun legislation in representing his constituents. It would have been almost impossible to get elected Statewide in Idaho otherwise.”
Mark K. Benenson, a New York attorney and lifetime member of the NRA, offered a different assessment of Church and the polarizing gun debate in The Christian Science Monitor in April 1980:
Thus an attack on Senator Church in the August 20 Time magazine, by Alan Gottlieb of the Citizens’ Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, was grossly unfair. This committee is not an essentially hobby-oriented organization like NRA, which got into politics in self-defense. Instead, it uses the firearms control debate to cover the promulgation of a forcefully conservative political philosophy. Mr. Gottlieb, one of the hardest-working people of the New Right, said: “there’s no question that Steve Symms would be a better Senator on our issue. Church votes the way he does because he’d be tarred and feathered if he didn’t.”
But given the internecine politics of the National Rifle Association, there is probably no way that it can or will support Church over Symms. Indeed, since it professes to care only about candidates’ attitudes on gun control, perhaps it should not choose between them. But Frank Church, and American sportsmen, will be greatly served if next fall the NRA will at least make it entirely clear to Idaho’s ranchers and hunters that in its eyes, he is as firm a keeper of the Second Amendment flame as Steve Symms or even Jim McClure.
Todd Shallat contributed to this report.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.