The NRA, and American gun owners, lost a loyal friend on April 16, 2011, when former U.S. Rep. Harold L. Volkmer died in his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday, and was pleased to read the hundreds of cards he had received from grateful gun owners.
He had lived in their service, and he died in their service. Soon after the January meeting of the NRA Board of Directors, he was hospitalized for months with life-threatening pneumonia. That didn’t stop him from chairing a meeting of the NRA Nominating Committee by telephone from his bed, or continuing his work as a trustee of the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund. He had completed his last recommendation to the other trustees on the day he passed on.
After serving his community and his country as a prosecutor, soldier and state legislator, Rep. Volkmer was elected in 1976 to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for twenty years. His dedication to protecting the rights of gun owners was so strong that, upon his passing, it was the first thing mentioned in stories from anti-gun media outlets like the New York Times and National Public Radio. The Washington Post described Volkmer as the “voice of gun owners.”
Rep. Volkmer’s greatest service to gun owners was 25 years ago, when he pushed the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 through the U.S. House. FOPA was a response to waves of abuses of firearm owners, collectors, and dealers under the original Gun Control Act of 1968.
FOPA was drafted to end BATF abuses, and to make numerous other amendments favoring gun owners. This was a huge legislative undertaking, especially since the leadership of the U.S. House at the time was strongly opposed to the proposal. Speaker Tip O’Neill and key Judiciary Committee members, Chairman Peter Rodino and Subcommittee Chairman William Hughes, actively worked to defeat the bill—Rodino proclaimed it “dead on arrival”—and prevented it from moving to the House floor.
To get around them, Rep. Volkmer filed a discharge petition, which requires the signatures of a majority of the entire House. In the 25 years before, only seven petitions had succeeded. Rep. Volkmer worked at rounding up signatures and rallying members to revolt against their own leadership, and after months of work got the necessary 218 signatures.
The leadership fought back by reporting out a rival bill that was greatly watered down. When the two bills came up for a vote, Rep. Volkmer led the floor fight for gun owners. When the dust settled, his bill had been substituted for the leadership bill, and passed by a huge margin – 292 to 130. Even more impressive, he had won over a majority of his fellow Democrats, 131 of whom defied their leadership and voted for his bill.
Rep. Volkmer’s passing, coming within weeks of the death of FOPA’s Senate sponsor, James A. McClure, provides a somber memorial for the 25th anniversary of the the landmark legislation they both championed, and which will always be known to their friends as the McClure-Volkmer Act.
After leaving Congress, Rep. Volkmer was elected to the NRA Board of Directors, where he served for twelve years before being elected to NRA’s Executive Council. When he passed on, he was chairman of our Nominating Committee. He had previously served as vice chairman of the Legislative Policy Committee and Hearings Committee, and as chairman of the NRA Civil Rights Legal Defense Fund.
Harold Volkmer was a leader of the movement for firearm rights and a hero to gun owners everywhere. He was also a personal friend to many in the movement, and a devoted husband to his wife Dian, who was always at his side during NRA Board meetings. Condolences should be sent to:
2107 Crescent Drive
Hannibal, MO 63401