Sitting across from him in the Hayden Panera Bread on Prairie Avenue, watching him smile and sip his coffee as he tells his genial backstory in a friendly, mild-mannered voice, it’s easy to forget that Dwight Van Horn is one of the most powerful people you’ll likely ever meet.
Signing on to the Trenton Police Department in New Jersey, joining the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, spending more than two decades in the service of others through law enforcement: He draws strength from his life experience. But that’s not the special power he holds.
Living each day in unyielding support of our Second Amendment right to bear arms — particularly in a media environment that increasingly challenges that position with every click and tweet and headline — takes unblinking fortitude that has galvanized his grit. But that’s not the special power he holds, either.
While Van Horn wears his confidence comfortably, the most powerful weapon in the Hayden resident’s arsenal is one he usually conceals and seldom unholsters: his position on the National Rifle Association’s Board of Directors.
Earlier this month, the NRA announced the preliminary results of its mail-ballot elections. For the eighth consecutive election spanning back to 1998, members have chosen Van Horn as one of 76 voices to guide the nonprofit organization of more than five million members nationwide. Helping keep vigil over the Second Amendment is a responsibility he holds with solemn care.
“It’s one of our founding freedoms,” he says, “and it was being sat upon, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to sit back and watch it happen, so I got involved.”
His draw to the organization didn’t begin in the heat of constitutional debate but under more immediate circumstances in 1976.
“I was involved in an officer-involved shooting,” he recalls. “Afterward, I realized my skills were lacking, so I started practicing more. I had some friends who were shooting competitively, so I started shooting competitively with them.”
After a few years, he found himself attending an NRA-sponsored, members-only match. Signing up for the NRA was the only way he could register for the event.
After 40 years in the organization, he remembers with fondness his first annual meeting in Philadelphia as a board member in 1998.
“I had no idea what to expect,” he says. “You’re with a bunch of like-minded people. You’re with a group of people that are pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun. They’re shooters. They’re hunters. They’re gun collectors. They’re very friendly, and they look after you right away.”
Van Horn adds that his personal history helped ease the transition of his newfound responsibilities.
“When I joined (the Board of Directors),” he says, “I was the 16th cop on the board that year. So that brotherhood extended to me. It carried over.”
That brotherhood helped him integrate into new roles and responsibilities. During his eight three-year terms on the Board of Directors, Van Horn has sat on committees that oversee scholarships, military and veteran affairs, memberships, and public affairs. Today, he sits on the association’s Executive Committee, helps oversee the group’s role in law enforcement, match competition rules, and sits on the Board of Trustees for the NRA’s Whittington Center, an outdoor recreation facility outside Raton, N.M., that aims to preserve the heritage of hunters and shooters.
Still, Van Horn downplays the extent to which his position can reach.
“Generally, the Board of Directors have an advisory role,” he says. “We come in after the fact. We don’t have direct supervision over anybody, but everything that anybody in the NRA does is subject to review by the Board of Directors.”
While Van Horn participates in larger NRA gatherings, including this September’s board meeting in Anchorage, he feels his most important accomplishments live and breathe in the interactions and involvement with both local NRA members and the community as a whole.
“What’s been the most rewarding for me,” he admits, “is working with the local members and the local clubs … That’s one of the things you should do as a board member: When people reach out to you, you should help them.”
That outreach includes cultivating an entirely new generation of enthusiasts through high school clubs, local youth competitions, and firearm safety education. It also includes networking with organizations with the NRA, including their political wing, the Institute for Legislative Action, and the Civil Rights Defense Fund, a committee that springs to action when alerted of a potential threat to an individual member’s or small organization’s Second Amendment rights.
“I don’t know where they get these people, but Holy Christmas, they’re sharp,” Van Horn says. “They stick around. They’re really dedicated to what they’re doing. When the leaning left come up with some of these (gun control) notions, these guys are on it, like right now. They’ve got good answers for it. I hate to use the term, but we’re really progressive in that respect.”
Van Horn added that same sentiment could extend to most everybody he’s come in contact with at the NRA annual meetings.
“We have people who’ve been with the NRA for 30 years,” he says. “They love their job. They love what they do. They love the NRA. We’re just very, very fortunate that we attract people like that.”
This year, for family reasons, Van Horn will be skipping the NRA’s annual convention in Indianapolis later this month. The four-day event is essentially the Super Bowl for gun enthusiasts. This year’s festivities include symposiums, concerts, auctions, an expo filled with firearm dealers and hunting vendors, and special speakers, including President Donald Trump.
“Usually, when we get a pro-gun president,” Van Horn observes, “whether it was George Bush or this time with Donald Trump, our membership goes down, because people feel safe … They think everything is fine, and they forget to re-enroll their memberships. With this president, we’ve actually seen an increase in membership during the two-and-a-half years he’s been president because people like what he has to say.”
While Van Horn’s motivations have evolved from the trap and skeet years of his membership’s infancy into a more constitutionally-charged resolve, the man who has lived the past 18 years in North Idaho boils the political divide over guns down into a clear, practical solution.
“The people who make restrictive gun laws,” he says, “don’t know [expletive] from shinola about guns, and they don’t bother to go looking for people who know about guns.”
His commitment to the Second Amendment is also what drives his motivation to continue in his role on the Board of Directors. The beginning of his eighth term next week will likely not be his last.
“As long as I feel I can do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll keep going,” he says. “And I still have that desire. I enjoy it.”
When asked how the NRA will continue its membership drive, Van Horn reflected not on his political stances but on his time on the firing range, where competitive shooting is still in his heart.
“Anybody who I’ve ever introduced to guns before, if they pull the trigger a few times and they hit the paper once in a while, they’re hooked,” he says. “I swear, sometimes it’s the people who do the worst the first time they go out get hooked quicker … If you’re a looney-left Democrat and you’ve never fired a gun before, come out here to the range. See the people. See who’s there. See if there are these Fudds they would like you to think all NRA members are. There’s doctors there. There’s lawyers there. There’s dentists there. There’s builders there. Lots of different backgrounds are out there shooting. We’re just normal people who like to do something that you don’t. Instead of slam-dunking us through the goalpost of life, come out and see what’s going on for yourself. Talk to these people. They’re not going to bite you. We’re just normal folks. We’re Americans.”