On this horrible day, it’s worth remembering that Harlon Carter, the man who turned the National Rifle Association into a right-wing terrorist organization under his leadership in the 1970s, personally murdered a 15 year old Mexican-American kid named Ramon Casiano in 1931 by shooting him in the chest.
In 1931, on the Laredo, Texas side of the arid U.S.-Mexico border, a teenage boy named Harlon Carter came home from school to find his mother upset. Three Hispanic boys had been loitering in front of the house. The family’s car had been stolen a few weeks before, and she thought these boys might know something about it. Racial tensions ran high in this part of the country. The newly-minted Border Patrol was operating in what historian Kelly Lytle Hernández’s Migra! refers to as “a sanctuary of violence.” A few years earlier, the Border Patrol — Carter’s father was an officer — had determined that Laredo was mostly inhabited by Mexican immigrants and had undertaken a “full-scale house cleaning.”
The elder Carter was at work and likely wouldn’t be home for hours, so the son picked up his shotgun and walked out the door. It didn’t take him long to find the boys, who were between the ages of 15 and 12, at a swimming hole nearby. He demanded they come home with him. When they asked why, he wouldn’t say. Fifteen year-old Ramón Casiano responded, “Hell, no, we won’t go to your house and you can’t make us.’’
Carter and Casiano started swearing at each other. Casiano pulled out a knife and asked if he wanted to fight. Carter lifted his shotgun to Ramón’s chest. According to testimony from the time, Ramon told him not to do it, and pushed the shotgun aside. Then he took a step back and laughed. Annoyed by Ramón’s lack of fear, Carter asked if he thought he wasn’t going to shoot. Then he did. Casiano lay dying on the ground with a two-inch shotgun wound in his chest.
In many ways, you couldn’t script a better a origin myth for the modern NRA. The scene had everything that would come to define the organization: home and family, a fervent sense of self-protection, vigilantism, and standing your ground. For the NRA’s critics, it exemplifies the association’s tacit approval of race-based violence and white impunity.
Carter was arrested, tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to three years. But when he had only served two, his conviction was overturned by a higher court that ruled that the “trial judge’s jury instructions had been incomplete.” The judge, the higher court said, hadn’t adequately explained the definition of self-defense.
Rather than steering clear of Mexicans and guns after his murder conviction, he doubled down. Harlon Bronson Carter would go on to become first the head of U.S. Border Patrol, serve on President Truman’s commission on migratory labor, and an Olympic committee. But it was his nine years as the head of the National Rifle Association — overseeing the organization’s radical transformation from marksmanship organization to one of the most powerful political groups in the country — where Carter truly made his mark.
Given it was 1931 in south Texas, it’s kind of amazing Carter was convicted at all. Of course this did not change his ways and he’s been culpable for many thousands of deaths, often more white people killing people of color, his favorite style of murder. As for his time as one of the NRA’s leaders:
Carter’s tenure was marked by categorical opposition to gun control. When asked if he would “rather allow those convicted violent felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics people to have guns, rather than to have the screening process,” he replied that this was the “price we pay for freedom.” He advocated for children having the right to possess small pistols, citing a story of a boy who had successfully defended himself from “four bushy guys.” The American Rifleman, the NRA’s magazine, became the voice against gun control. In the years he was in charge, NRA membership tripled.
In 1981, reporters at the Laredo Times broke the story about Carter shooting Ramón Casiano. Carter denied it, saying it wasn’t him, pointing out that the person who had been convicted had spelled his name “Harlan.” Then he told the New York Times he had ‘’nothing to hide’’ and was ‘’not going to rehash that case or any other that does not relate to the National Rifle Association at this time.’’ Later, when the evidence proved to be irrefutable, he changed his tune: “I continue to regret the incident deeply as would anyone where a fatality is involved.’’
Carter remained at the helm of the NRA for four years after the revelation. Two days after Carter died in 1991, Wayne LaPierre, the association’s current head eulogized him, saying he “was our champion and fiercest warrior.”
See also the song about this on the latest Drive-By Truckers album, which is great.