At a time when the anti-gun movement was making strides, legendary actor Charlton Heston almost singlehandedly impacted America’s gun rights with his vintage buffalo rifle and five words.
Charlton Heston’s public support for the Second Amendment is well known. In 1998, Heston was elected as the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The iconic actor, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments, asserted that the Constitution’s Second Amendment — which refers to the ”right of the people to keep and bear arms” — was the ”most vital” of all the amendments.
“It is America’s first freedom, the one that protects all the others,” Heston said of the Second Amendment. “Among freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of redress of grievances, it is the first among equals. It alone offers the absolute capacity to live without fear. The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows rights to exist at all.”
In the 1990s, the anti-gun lobby was making strides with its Assault Weapons Ban, which was enacted in 1994. The ten-year ban expired in 2004, and many say attempts to make it federal law again failed due to what Charlton Heston did in May 2000.
That’s when the Ben Hur star delivered a rousing discourse at the NRA Convention that is now known as the “From My Cold, Dead Hands” speech, in which Heston targeted Al Gore, who as vice-president was running for the Oval Office as an anti-gun candidate.
“Every time our country stands in the path of danger, an instinct seems to summon her finest first — those who truly understand her,” Heston declared at the NRA Convention. “When freedom shivers in the cold shadow of true peril, it’s always the patriots who first hear the call. When ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument, that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty. That’s why those five words issue an irresistible call to us all, and we muster,” he continued.
“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed — and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’” Heston proclaimed while holding up his vintage buffalo rifle.
According to reports, Heston’s usage of those five words in 2000 made them iconic. Gun owners across the nation began using the slogan as a rallying cry, saying, “You can have my guns when you take them from my cold, dead hands.” Since 2004, anti-gun activists in Congress have made repeated failed attempts to enact a new Assault Weapons Ban.
Charlton Heston was also a huge supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “[Heston] flew to Oklahoma City in May 1961, when there was a real danger of violence against black students who were attempting to integrate the Anna Maude Cafeteria, and marched holding a sign that said, ‘All Men Are Created Equal.'”
“Heston was sincerely committed to Martin Luther King’s movement. His presence at an event would make a huge difference,” said historian Phillip Dray. “To have celebrities come to less well-known places startled people; it helped make a demonstration a news story.”
In August 1963, when he attended the March on Washington where King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech, Heston appeared on a TV roundtable. “Up until very recently, like most Americans, I expressed my support of civil rights largely by talking about it at cocktail parties, I’m afraid,” the Planet of the Apes star said. “But again, like many Americans this summer, I could no longer pay only lip service to a cause that was so urgently right, and in a time that is so urgently now.”
Heston’s magic on the silver screen is most remembered by his two Biblical roles: playing Moses in the Ten Commandments and Judea Ben Hur in the film Ben Hur, which won 11 Academy Awards, a record at the time including those for best picture, best director and, for Mr. Heston, best actor. The Ten Commandments remains one of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation.
At the time of his death in 2008, 84-year-old Charlton Heston had appeared in more than 100 films and was married for over 64 years to his wife, Lydia Clark. Heston is remembered as a true patriotic American and one of Hollywood’s best-loved leading actors, who is sorely missed by all.