ATLANTA (AP) – Retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, the Marine at the center of the Iran-Contra affair three decades ago, was named president Monday of the National Rifle Association, giving it star power as it faces a powerful backlash over the massacres in Florida and Las Vegas.
North's appointment was ripped by gun-control advocates who called his appointment symptomatic of an NRA tone-deaf given his role in the arms-trafficking scandal that engulfed the White House in the Reagan administration. Conservatives and gun-rights supporters hailed him as a patriot who will vigorously battle efforts to restrict access to firearms.
North, 74, will be the biggest celebrity to lead the 5-million-member gun lobby since Hollywood leading man Charlton Heston, who famously declared in 2000 that his guns would have to be taken "from my cold, dead hands."
"Oliver North is a legendary warrior for American freedom, a gifted communicator and skilled leader," NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said.
Momentum for gun control has been building since the mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall that killed 58 people and the Feb. 14 rampage at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 dead.
"The election of Oliver North is the clearest sign yet that the NRA is floundering in the face of plummeting popularity, scrutiny into its Russia ties, and state lawmakers who are defying the gun lobby left and right," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg. "The NRA doesn't need a new leader_it needs an entirely new direction."
North was picked by the NRA's board of directors, which elects a president every two years, and is expected to assume office within the next several weeks. He succeeds Pete Brownell, who did not seek a second term.
LaPierre remains as vice president and chief executive, running the powerful group's day-to-day operations. North will lead the board, and NRA observers say they anticipate he will take on a more public role in the style of Heston, a fiery presence who used his acting background to energize members.
North was a military aide to the National Security Council during the Reagan administration in the 1980s when he emerged into the spotlight for his role in arranging the secret sale of weapons to Iran and the diversion of the proceeds to the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
He was convicted in 1989 of obstructing Congress during its investigation, destroying government documents and accepting an illegal gratuity. Those convictions were overturned in 1991.
With his crisp military bearing and teary-eyed testimony before Congress, North came to be regarded as an earnest American patriot by many on the right, and he went on to run for office, write several books and serve as a commentator on Fox News.