Gun Rights Champion Neal Knox Dies

By Gun Week staff

Neal Knox, a champion of the firearm civil rights movement for more than 30 years, and the first editor of Gun Week when it began rolling off the presses in 1966, died Jan. 17 at his home in Virginia, ending a year-long battle with colon cancer. He was 69.

The end came quickly, but not before Knox was able to write a gallant and touching farewell letter to his friends and supporters that quickly spread across the Internet within hours of his passing. (See that letter below.)

Knox is being remembered by friends and colleagues—including those with whom he occasionally disagreed—as a man whose dedication to the Second Amendment was beyond question, and who was the "conscience of the gun rights movement." Many considered him a giant among gun rights activists, and credit him with having been largely responsible for creating a grassroots movement in defense of the right to keep and bear arms that became the "gun lobby." Indeed, in his frequent appearances, Knox always opened his remarks with the greeting, "Hello, gun lobby!"

Born Clifford Neal Knox on June 20, 1936 in Rush Springs, OK, he grew up primarily in Texas, graduating from high school in Vernon. He attended Abilene Christian College and spent eight years in the Texas National Guard. For a time, he worked in insurance and the oil business, and became a reporter for The Vernon Daily Record and, later, a general assignment reporter, assistant city editor and gun columnist for The Wichita Falls Times and Record News. He also began a career as a freelance writer for several firearms publications. He became active in competitive shooting, and won a national title in benchrest competition.

From Wichita Falls, he moved to Sidney, OH, when Gun Week was founded under Publisher J. Oliver Amos and Sidney Printing & Publishing. In 1968, Knox left Gun Week to become editor of Handloader magazine and help create Rifle magazine in Prescott, AZ. He was also an accomplished pilot, holding instrument and multi-engine ratings.

But far beyond being a firearms journalist and newsman, Knox recognized early on the importance of delivering information on gun legislation to the shooting public. It was, perhaps, this philosophy that propelled Knox to become, as his longtime friend and business associate Bob Hodgdon of Shawnee Mission, KS, observed, "One of the earliest, and best known" gun rights activists in the nation.

Knox eventually rose to the office of First Vice President of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 1996.
Hodgdon, whose family owns and operates Hodgdon Powder and Pyrodex, served with Knox on the NRA board of directors in the 1990s.

"He invited me to run," Hodgdon recalled, "and helped get me nominated."

Hodgdon served two terms on the NRA board with Knox, but their relationship went far deeper. Knox was one of the original stockholders and co-owners of the patent on Pyrodex, the black powder substitute, with the late Dave Wolfe and Pyrodex inventor Dan Pawlak. Hodgdon recalled that Knox was also one of the more prolific and knowledgeable technical writers when it came to the subject of handloading.

Knox’s dedication to gun rights eventually led him to the NRA, and he was instrumental in the creation of the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), the association’s powerful lobbying arm. Knox became executive director of ILA under the late Harlon Carter in 1978 after selling his interests in Rifle and Handloader and moving his family to the Washington, DC, area.

NRA Secretary E. James Land, who worked under Knox as director of NRA Field Services at the time, told Gun Week that Knox "was very instrumental in making (ILA) as politically active as it is today . . . a lot of the things he did there have endured."

Land said that on Sunday morning, Jan. 16, the day before Knox passed away, "We asked the congregation of our church, the Asbury United Methodist Church in Oaksville, VA, to pray for him and his family."

"He was a man of conviction, and a patriot," Land said.

NRA First Vice President Sandy Froman told Gun Week, "Today, the family of Neal Knox is in my personal prayers as NRA members extend their sympathy to the family of our former board member and officer."

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, recalled, "I met Neal Knox shortly after I started with the Citizens Committee, in about 1974. Neal flew into town on his private plane to meet with me at the Citizens Committee offices to offer his help and assistance for our work. At that time, he joined the CCRKBA’s national advisory council, which was prior to Neal’s becoming executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.

"There’s no doubt in my mind," Gottlieb continued, "that Neal’s legacy to the gun rights movement are the number of people that he got involved as leaders of national and grassroots groups from coast to coast, a legacy that continues to live on.

"Neal was a front line fighter for the gun rights movement and when you’re sitting in a foxhole on the front line, there’s never enough elbow room," Gottlieb observed.

Knox was a frequent panelist at the annual Gun Rights Policy Conferences. Perhaps his last truly "public appearance" was at the 2004 event in Arlington, VA, at the end of last September. At that time, Knox gave the audience some savvy political advice: "If gunowners refuse to vote for anyone except purists, we’re going to have precious few times to vote and unless we vote with those who vote with us, we’re going to see our political clout disappear. We must not allow that to happen."

At the conference, Knox was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Gottlieb and SAF President Joseph P. Tartaro and CCRKBA Executive Director Joe Waldron.

One of the people Knox had worked with most closely over many years was Tanya Metaksa, whom he chose first as NRA-ILA’s director of state and local affairs, later his deputy, and who became executive director of ILA herself from 1994-1997, a period in which she frequently consulted with Knox whether he was on or off the NRA board.

"We have lost the most indefatigable fighter for Second Amendment rights in the 20th century," Metaksa told Gun Week. "More than anyone else, he didn’t give up. We lost a great friend, a fearless leader and a kind man."

Attorney David Gross, a former NRA director who served with Knox on the NRA board during the 1990s, praised Knox’s grassroots organizational skills.

"I’ve known him since 1984," Gross recalled. "He was going around the country organizing the grassroots and that was always his focus, getting the job done on the ground where it counted."

Gross credited Knox’s grassroots organizing for giving birth to the activism that eventually led to passage of right-to-carry laws in dozens of states.

"Neal believed in democracy," Gross reflected, "which meant that the ideas demand work. It flowed up; it didn’t come down from ‘central control,’ it was what the people wanted. . . . He organized grassroots so maybe NRA could learn something from its members."

Career Highs, Lows
Knox’s rise to the position of an elder statesman in the gun rights movement was not without controversy. He was one of the key activists involved in the famous "Cincinnati Revolt" at the NRA convention in that city in May 1977. By that time, Knox was editor of Rifle and Handloader magazines and was living in Arizona.

The "revolt" consisted of more than 1,000 members, many wearing orange caps, who descended on Cincinnati to stop what they felt was an erosion of gun rights. NRA Director Budd Schroeder of Lancaster, NY, told Gun Week, "I was one of the guys in orange hats. That’s when I found out that here was a guy who knew what to do and how to get the job done.

"We’re gonna miss him," Schroeder said. "He was kind of like the conscience of the gun movement. He did his job, he did it well and nobody could ever fault his dedication. . . . Even with the disagreement within NRA, he weathered it and he stood fast with class. No one ever disputed the fact that he was pro-gun."

In 1977, Knox was selected as the "most recognizable spokesman" for the Federation for the NRA (see Hindsight on Page 15) to submit 15 bylaw amendments that led to a significant change in management at NRA, including the election directly by the members present at the meeting of Carter as executive vice president. Within months, Knox was heading ILA under Carter, where he stayed for four years, a period during which no federal gun laws were passed.

In spring 1982, Carter dismissed Knox two weeks after the annual members’ meeting in Philadelphia. Two years after that, Knox was expelled from the NRA board of directors in a bitter dispute over NRA policy. In 1985, Knox ran for the office of executive vice president to succeed the retiring Carter, but lost that election at the Seattle members’ meeting to G. Ray Arnett.

But Knox, who had founded the Firearms Coalition in 1984 and served as its chairman, came back. In 1991, he was re-elected to the NRA board, starting what would be a renewed effort to reshape the association. During successive elections, Knox helped bring many new faces to the board. Many of those people are still on the board today, including Sandra Froman, soon to become only the second woman president in the NRA’s history.

Knox served on the NRA board from 1991 to 2000. He was NRA Second Vice President in 1994-95, and First Vice President from 1995 through early 1996, losing a close election in Seattle to Charlton Heston who had just been elected to a term on the board at the members meeting two days earlier.

During his board service, Knox served on the following committees: Range Development, Silhouette, Committee on Elections, Legislative Policy, Grassroots Development, Recreational Shooting, Finance, Membership and Site Selection. He also served on the NRA Foundation board of trustees.

His Legacy
Knox was remembered by his friends, associates and sometime-adversaries as news of his death spread through the firearms community.

"Neal Knox was the most sincere and dedicated gun rights defender I’ve ever known," said Sue King of Houston, TX. "We frequently disagreed vehemently on policies but I never, ever doubted his belief. We were better for his presence."

King was one of many NRA directors whom Knox originally helped bring to the board in the early 1990s. Another was Don Henry, a minister in Salem, OR, who told Gun Week, "I was a good friend of Neal’s because I was one of his most tolerated critics, and he always listened. . . . He was the voice to be reckoned with in the gun rights issue, probably for decades. He had a very unique gift of treating his adversaries as friends; very little bitterness about him, which was remarkable."

Another Knox ally from that period, retired police Sgt. Jim Ramm of New Albany, OH, remarked, "Neal was a real mentor, excellent at encouraging people. He had good ideas. He was a team player (and) he was always looking at the folks in the trenches and wanted to know how he could help them do their job, instead of the other way around. He was always willing to make a phone call."

Former NRA Director Irv Benzion remembered that he, Henry and Knox had once spent all night together laying the groundwork for a project that was to become the NRA’s National Firearms Museum.

"He was influential in making a number of needed changes in the NRA and that legacy still exists," Benzion said. "He was a wonderful speaker and motivator. And his ability to motivate people, to get them involved in the cause and look at their own input and see value in it was just wonderful."

Maybe Schroeder summed it up best when he noted, "His legacy, I guess, would be ‘Never quit.’ If you believe in something as fervently as he did, you’ve got to keep fighting for it and never let the enemy take advantage."

Knox is survived by his wife, Jay Janen Knox (Shirley) and his four children: Christopher; Shan; Jeffrey and Stacey, and seven grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Firearms Coalition Neal Knox Memorial Fund, Box 3313, Manassas, VA 20108. Tax-deductible donations also may be made to Academics for the Second Amendment Neal Knox Memorial Fund, or in his name to the Rainbow Children’s Home, P.O. Box 9, Gainesville, VA 20156, a charity he had supported.

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