Charlton Heston's Unexpected Opinion On Gun Control In The '60s

Charlton Heston was known not only as a beloved and accomplished actor, winning an Oscar for his leading role in "Ben-Hur" and shining in "The Ten Commandments" and "Planet of the Apes," but also as a political activist.

In the decades before his 2008 death, Heston was a well-known conservative voice, primarily pushing for gun rights. He served as president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003 (via Britannica). "From my cold, dead hands," he famously declared at the 2000 NRA convention to wild cheers, lifting up an historic rifle (via YouTube). That was the only way those who "would take freedom away," like "Mr. [Al] Gore," the Democratic nominee for president, would get Heston's guns. The actor also campaigned hard for Republican candidates, traveling around states and districts to draw excited crowds and fundraise (via the Chicago Tribune). However, early in his career Heston was a Democrat fighting for liberal causes, including for one of the strictest gun control bills the United States had ever seen.

Charlton Heston, Liberal

In the 1960s, Charlton Heston was an advocate for civil rights, walking with other liberal actors like Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando behind Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1963 March on Washington (via The Boston Globe). He led the movement in Hollywood to put an end to racial discrimination, according to Variety. He also campaigned for liberal Democrats like John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, his brother Robert, Dr. King, and Malcolm X were all assassinated in the span of five years, spurring the Gun Control Act of 1968. The manufacture and corporate sale of guns would from thereafter require a federal license, transporting guns across state lines was banned, and felons and minors would be denied purchase (via the U.S. Department of Justice).

Heston was a strong supporter of the bill, according to Slate. Alongside Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Kirk Douglas, he urged Congress to act (via ThoughtCo.). "This bill is no mystery," Heston said on late night television at the time. "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."

Congress passed the bill (which the NRA called "reasonable," according to Time) and Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. But Heston's long transition was soon underway.

The transformation of Charlton Heston

In a 2017 interview posted by Viewpoints Radio, biographer Marc Eliot marks the beginning of a change in Heston's politics when the actor visited soldiers in Vietnam and grew disgusted with the anti-war protests of the late '60s. He disliked how some protesters turned against the soldiers themselves. Heston once said the Democrats had simply drifted too far left, and he later felt "foolish" for pushing for the 1968 bill (via CNN). According to the Saturday Evening Post, in 1972 Heston supported Richard Nixon, viewed by some as a moderate Republican, for president. It was during the Ronald Reagan era of the 1980s, however, that his conservatism fully developed and his party affiliation officially changed (via Variety). Reagan and Heston were in fact good friends, Reagan having been an actor before entering the political arena.

In addition to opposing gun control, Heston also joined the American Right's battle against political correctness. He said his work protecting the Second Amendment had made him believe that "a cultural war is raging across our land," restricting what he could say and think. "I marched for civil rights with Dr. King in 1963, and long before Hollywood found it acceptable," he said in a 1999 speech, preserved on American Rhetoric. "But when I told an audience last year that white pride is just as valid as black pride or red pride or anyone else's pride, they called me a racist."