According to recently unearthed court records, Bob Dowlut—who for 30 years has been the architect of the National Rifle Association's legal and cultural agenda—was sentenced to life in an Indiana prison for murdering a single mother with the same gun he'd allegedly used that day to rob and shoot a shopkeeper.

"[T]hose who argue that a significant share of serious violence is perpetrated by previously nonviolent 'average Joes' are clinging to a myth," Dowlut—the NRA's general counsel—once wrote in a law journal, citing another author's assertion that "the 'average' gun owner and the 'average' criminal are worlds apart in background, social outlooks, and economic circumstances." But Dowlut's own criminal past raises questions about his qualifications to speak for those law-abiding "average Joes."

Using more than 2,000 pages of testimony—including behind-doors discussions that were never revealed to the jury that convicted Dowlut—Mother Jones' Dave Gilson tells in a mesmerizing longread how the then-Army private with a juvenile gun-crime record confessed to police and led them to a cemetery plot where he had buried the alleged murder weapon: a .45 Webley pistol.

Dowlut was already well-known to police in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, having escaped jail time after a juvie judge gave him a pass for robbing a local museum of several guns and using them to hold up a restaurant for $135. So when the mother of Dowlut's longtime girlfriend ended up shot twice in the heart and he was caught in a lie about his whereabouts that night, he explained how he'd come to kill her after trying to rob a store and shooting its proprietor in the stomach.

But after serving half a decade in prison, and despite solid forensic evidence matching Dowlut's dug-up pistol to the murder, the Indiana Supreme Court found that police had overzealously violated his constitutional rights in obtaining that confession—they reportedly denied him a lawyer despite multiple requests—and his conviction was overturned. Prosecutors gave up on trying the case again when much of their evidence was tossed out with the confession.

Dowlut went on to reinvent himself as an attorney and went straight to work for the NRA shortly after law school, just as the organization turned from its sporting roots to a more radical agenda:

Dowlut joined the organization just as it was being reborn. In what became known as the Cincinnati Revolt, hardliners had overthrown the NRA's moderate leadership and installed Harlon Carter as executive vice president in 1977. Under Carter, the NRA adopted uncompromising rhetoric and an aggressive political strategy that turned it into one of the nation's most powerful interest groups. Carter also envisioned recruiting "young men and women—lawyers, constitutional scholars, writers, historians, professors—who some day will be old and gray and wise, widely published and highly respected. It will be those individuals—in the future—who will provide the means to save the Second Amendment."

And that's just what Dowlut has become, shifting over the past three decades from defending gun rights to advancing an agenda of exceptional rights for gun owners and militias, one that overturns even the most popular, minimal limits on the purchase, possession, carry, and use of firearms.

As Gilson points out, it's unclear whether Dowlut ever told anyone at the gun group, including close friend and frontman Wayne LaPierre, about his criminal past. Ironically, his and the NRA's rhetoric of demonizing criminals as "not like us" and praising "good guys with guns" is precisely the kind of Manichaean outlook that once led cops to violate his civil rights as a murder suspect. Then again, maybe the cops and the NRA were right. Maybe Dowlut's not a good guy with a gun, but just another criminal lowlife.