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Sarah gets her gun

And a ricochet to history.


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IN NLR: Sarah Palin speaks to a GOP fund-raiser in NLR.
  • IN NLR: Sarah Palin speaks to a GOP fund-raiser in NLR.

Sarah Palin has another gun—a Henry Big Boy .44 Magnum lever-action rifle, stamped with a unique serial number: PALIN-001. Engraved with the words, “Presented to Sarah Palin, February 16, 2010, Arkansas Republican Party,” the rifle was a gift to the former Alaska governor, who headlined a Republican Party fundraiser last week at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

Palin made note of the gift in the opening lines of her speech. “I scored a .44 Magnum. It's beautiful, and I thank you,” she told the crowd, as if the people of Arkansas themselves had bored the barrel, carved the stock and engraved the brass receiver.

The man responsible for the donated rifle was a New Jerseyite, Anthony Imperato, president of Henry Repeating Arms Company in Bayonne (his family once operated an arms company in Jacksonville). He presented the one-of-a-kind gun to Palin in a backstage ceremony before her speech.

There was at least one other gun in the building that night. On one of the silent-auction tables flanking the speaker's dais, past a photo of Ronald Reagan and a photo of Palin framed together and titled “Voices of Conservatism,” was another Henry rifle. It was exactly like Palin's but with its own distinct serial number: GOP-001.

Backstage before the speech, Imperato stood at a waist-high cocktail table in the windowless VIP area, waiting for his chance to present the rifle to Palin. Asked why he was donating the guns, Imperato said, “I'm just a nice guy.”

An event volunteer, Patrick Rhodes, stepped in to steer Imperato's answer. “If I could put words in your mouth, ‘What better way to emphasize our support of the Second Amendment?' ”

Between the two of them, they went on to link Palin to Abraham Lincoln, “who was a Republican” and who also owned a Henry rifle (serial number 006).

Here, the genealogy gets tricky. Leave aside the differences between the Republican Party of Lincoln's day and the modern Republican Party and stick with the Henry rifle.

Imperato, and the company's Web site, say that Benjamin Tyler Henry invented his eponymous firearm, the first practical lever-action repeating rifle, in 1860. This is true. The mistake is to infer a direct lineage between the 19th century inventor and the 21st century gun maker.

Henry Repeating Arms only started business in 1996. Imperato agreed that there was no specific family connection back to the rifle maker of the 1860s. “It was a name that was laying there dormant,” Imperato said of the Henry name. “We didn't have to purchase it. We just trademarked the name because nobody had the rights to it.”

Firearms historian Tim Garrett put it more bluntly in an e-mail: “The only relation that current Henry brand rifles have to the originals is their name and the shiny brass finish.”

When companies engage in this sort of historical elision, it's called branding; when political parties do it, it's called revisionist history. When individuals do it, it's called wishful thinking. The idea is to associate a noble pedigree, omitting references to contradictions and gaps in the record.

Palin's speech Tuesday night was an exercise in wishful thinking. She cited Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan as her political ancestors, and constructed a personal narrative that glossed over her abbreviated governorship and yet still put her in the camp of the “real, hard-working Americans.” If anyone can appreciate Henry Repeating Arms' linkage with a noble past for current gain, it's Palin.

The gift was a double-barreled success in that way. Henry now can claim both Palin and Lincoln as part of its heritage. Palin was provided a rifle with both stopping power and a link to Honest Abe, even if the route there was not exactly straight shooting.


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