SI Vault
Gary Smith
August 07, 1989
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August 07, 1989

Top Gun


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Oh, yes, I could hear the hounds a-barkin'. The moment I picked up the newspaper that morning and read about that crumbum with the semiautomatic rifle shooting up children on a school yard, I knew what was coming. All those spooks who want to disarm the country, this was just what they were waiting for. All the antigun crowd, all the media, listen to 'em now, quacking like ducks—sometimes it's like backing into a buzz saw and trying to figure out which tooth got you. Well, I'll tell you something right now—they can lock me up, they can hang me, but Ol' Joe is never going to give up his guns.

Guess I've got myself in the middle of another war, being president of the National Rifle Association. Well, that's nothing new for Ol' Joe. Knocked 26 Japs out of the sky in World War II, top Marine ace of all time. Got into politics after that, was governor of South Dakota for four years, then ran for the House of Representatives against George McGovern and lost, which shows you what kind of politician Ol' Joe was. Then was commissioner of the American Football League for its first six years, back when the NFL and us were like two cats tied by the tails and tossed over a clothesline—yep, same time as I was host of The American Sportsman on ABC-TV. So don't worry, I can handle all this yak-yak-yak that I'm getting now. You're talking to a fella who's been shot down four times, crash-landed nine or 10 more, lived through malaria, arsenic poisoning, hepatitis, arrhythmia and an infection in the lining of my heart that felt like somebody was jabbing an ice pick in my chest—got a pacemaker in there to kick-start that baby now. A guy knocked me down 11 times in a boxing match once, and I ended up lying there wondering why somebody was breathing in my ear, then realized my nose was so broken and turned sideways that it was me breathing in my ear! Stay down? Never! Ol' Joe's like a mushroom in spring, he keeps popping up: Here I am!

See, you can't just sit by the side of the road and bark at the moon, that's my philosophy. Get on the pot or get off it—no shagging balls when OF Joe's around. This is not a comme ci, comme ça world, my friend; it's black and white. Gray is a color for people who've never been in a battle where the alligators eat you. That crumbum Patrick Purdy should've never been on that school yard in the first place—do you realize he was arrested for seven felonies that were reduced to misdemeanors by our criminal justice system? Lock 'em up in the Bastille, throw away the key and slip their food under the door, that's how you treat cuckoos like that! Why are we letting these bozos roam our streets? You better believe if they try to break into my house, we've got fireworks ready, they're gonna get the reception they deserve! Why are we penalizing honest people with all this antigun hokum, penalizing us characters who like to go hunting ducks or plinking at the shooting range? We have to fight! Because if you let 'em take away one gun, they'll take away all guns—don't ever kid yourself!

I love guns. All guns are good guns. I also happen to be one of those birds who believe that if you come to accept the Lord Jesus Christ, you'll go to heaven. Yes sir, I'm a born-again Christian, international chairman of Campus Crusade for Christ, and that, of course, is in perfect harmony with being president of the NRA. Who do you think was the first hunter? God was. How else do you think Adam and Eve got those skins? And if you don't believe everything in the Good Book, lean your head sideways and watch the sawdust pour right out of your ear! Well, that's enough from Ol' Joe for now. Any questions?

In May 1943, at the age of 28, Joe Foss stepped to the podium before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He had just equaled Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record by downing 26 enemy planes, 23 of them coming in one 34-day binge of blood and guts in the clouds over Guadalcanal. The congressional Medal of Honor was around his neck, the Distinguished Flying Cross on his chest, the scent of the kill still on his flesh. Reflexively, everyone in the ballroom stood to cheer for the new American hero.

He spoke for a few minutes, then the press asked him questions. What kind of fellow does it take, Captain Foss, to zigzag at 200 mph, alone, 10,000 feet above the ocean, a couple of Zeros on his tail shredding the sky with bullets? Explain to us, sir, what goes through a man's mind when he has just turned a Japanese aircraft into a ball of flame and metal fragments? Tell us, Captain Foss, what it's like to be a hero?

Joe would grin and say things like, Well, when you get yourself a Zero, boys, your hair stands up on its toes and your mouth goes dry and you get this crazy urge to stand up in the cockpit and holler, but you can't because the durn thing's like being strapped into an armpit. So you watch that baby's motor fall off in a crazy, lopsided whirl and the pilot pops out of his cockpit like a pea pressed from a pod, and the air fills up with dust and little pieces like somebody just emptied a big vacuum-cleaner bag in the sky. And the reporters would scribble and smile and leap to their feet to cheer again when he was finished.

Now it is March 1989, and Joe Foss, 73, steps before the National Press Club a second time. The world has changed, the war is on American streets. It has been two months since that gunman, Patrick Purdy, killed five children and wounded 29 others with an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle on a school playground in Stockton, Calif.; two months of a nationwide outcry demanding that lawmakers stand up to the NRA's awesome lobbying muscle (box, page 66) and enact stricter gun-control laws. Foss is the president of a 2.85-million member organization under siege—a job that pays him nothing—a man who gives 100 speeches a year, half of them for guns, the other half for Jesus.

Forty-six years have passed since the hero's last appearance before the National Press Club—years that brought a daughter with cerebral palsy, a son with polio, two other sons dead at birth, a wife dead of diabetes—but those shoulders, they're still wide and square enough to darken a doorway, and they're still rocking with each long stride, like a battleship in ornery seas. This time no one stands. This time no hands turn red from clapping. Any questions? asks Joe Foss.

Oh yes, sir, they have questions: What possible reason can there be for the average citizen to use armor-piercing bullets? Are deer wearing steel jackets? Has the NRA lost touch with public sentiment? Have you ever hunted with an AK-47, General Foss? When more people are accidentally killing themselves—and their relatives and friends—than are protecting themselves from assault or home invasion, how can your organization in good conscience go around frightening people into thinking they need guns for safety? Isn't the NRA distorting the meaning of the Second Amendment: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed"? Even in a free society, aren't there always some conditions on freedom, so that one man's right to possess an AK-47 for target shooting doesn't infringe upon another man's right not to take a bullet in the skull?

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