Not-So-Good Guys with Guns: On the Origins of the NRA
Guns Don't Kill People, Horseless Carriages Kill People
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the public face of the National Rifle Association was the gun-loving hobbyist who collected, restored, lovingly oiled, and would not shut up about his beautiful guns. Multiply him by a couple of thousand, and you have a pretty clear picture of what the organization looked like at first. Rather than insisting that every man, woman, and child (yes, child!) should own a gun—as it would nearly a century later—the NRA of our great-great-grandparents wanted to make sure that people who owned guns knew how to use them.
The NRA was established in 1871 in the aftermath of the Civil War, when technological innovation—particularly breech-loading guns and metal cartridge ammunition—allowed shooters, for the very first time, to aim and actually hit a desired target. American men needed to be trained to use the new technology, and the founders, Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate, set out to improve American marksmanship. They envisioned the National Guard running a get-better-at-shooting association but realized that private enterprise could support the effort more quickly.
Still, those early years involved lots and lots of government assistance. Church and Wingate gratefully accepted New York’s offer to host shooting contests at its rifle range at a place called Creedmoor, in Queens in New York City, now the site of a psychiatric hospital for severely mentally ill patients. Once New York withdrew its support—the state’s optimistic governor, Alonzo Cornell, believed that “there will be no war in my time or in the time of my children”—the federal government aided the NRA by giving away hundreds of thousands of surplus guns to its clubs at no cost and partnered with the association on marksmanship training and competitions.
These recreational gun enthusiasts did not see the Second Amendment as the bedrock of the entire American experiment, as their successors do. The NRA of your grandparents’ childhood privately urged its members to oppose many gun restrictions, but it publicly sought to present itself as a willing partner in limiting crimes through firearm regulation. While it would shed this compromising attitude in the years ahead, its messaging to its members has been remarkably consistent from the very beginning, even though it did not initially cite the Second Amendment.
In 1911, the NRA opined on a state regulation in New York that required police licenses for firearms. Writing in its magazine to members, the lobby complained that additional licensing and other restrictions “make it very difficult for an honest man and a good citizen to obtain them,” arguing that “such laws have the effect of arming the bad man and disarming the good one.” Sound familiar?
In the 1920s, just as automobiles began to populate our streets, the NRA weighed in on another growing phenomenon: criminals with guns using cars to commit crimes and then quickly flee the scene. An article published in the organization’s magazine, American Rifleman, argued that cars were to blame for increasing rates of gun violence. “It’s the automobile that’s making the going tough for the police—not the one-hand gun.” These examples demonstrate the early use of two modern-day NRA tactics: insist that gun regulations will disarm only law-abiding individuals to the advantage of criminals, and then blame anything but the prevalence of guns for the violence, no matter how ridiculous the argument. In the 1920s, it was the car. Today it’s video games and Ritalin.
Nevertheless, this younger NRA did wear a far gentler and more agreeable face in public than it does today. When three-time sportshooting Olympic gold medalist Karl T. Frederick appeared before Congress to testify about the 1934 National Firearms Act, a measure that severely restricted access to machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, he bragged about how the NRA was already working to make it harder for Americans to purchase firearms.In the 1920s, it was the car. Today it’s video games and Ritalin.
He said, “I have been giving this subject of firearms regulations study and consideration over a period of 15 years, and my suggestions . . . have resulted in the adoption in many States of regulatory provisions.” Some of those provisions—adopted at the time in Washington, DC, and in several states—now read like a gun-safety advocate’s agenda. Gun dealers could be licensed only at the discretion of police; they were required to keep detailed records of all transactions and provide, within hours of the purchase, a buyer’s personal information to the authorities.
Frederick did not enthusiastically support the 1934 federal law; he told Congress that states would probably be best equipped to implement these regulations. But he did offer lawmakers constructive criticism for how to improve the federal bill, and he endorsed the general notion of gun safety.
“I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns,” Frederick said. “I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The NRA head reviewed the bill with lawmakers almost line by line, and when a representative asked him if the proposed law “interferes in any way with the right of a person to keep and bear arms” or violates any part of the Constitution, he responded, “I have not given it any study from that point of view.” NRA executive vice president Milton Reckford was even more direct about the need to restrict the ownership of certain kinds of firearms, telling Congress, “We believe that the machine gun, submachine gun, sawed-off shotgun, and dangerous and deadly weapons could all be included in any kind of a bill, and no matter how drastic, we will support it.”
However, the NRA’s public remarks bore little resemblance to the way it portrayed the bill to its members. It wouldn’t discover the power of Second Amendment fundamentalism until the 1970s, but its antipathy to most gun restrictions was never too far below the surface. In a May 1934 publication, the organization warned that the National Firearms Act’s “viciousness lies in the opportunity for disarmament by subterfuge” and ran editorials with titles like “Keep Those Letters and Telegrams Coming,” urging its 80,000 or so members to “communicate [their opposition] at once by telegram and special-delivery letter with both their Representatives and their Senators in Washington.” So many members responded that Assistant Attorney General Joseph Keenan claimed that lawmakers felt “emasculated” by the reaction.
This innovation, the direct-contact campaign, would prove pivotal to the lobby’s power over lawmakers. Around the same time, the NRA also transformed its recreational rifle clubs into political organizations to oppose gun restrictions, seeking to maximize public pressure.
Despite the NRA’s opposition, the measure passed. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the question of the law’s constitutionality, which the lobby never questioned. The Supreme Court upheld the National Firearms Act, agreeing unanimously with the argument that the Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms “is not one which may be utilized for private purposes, but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided for by law and intended for the protection of the state.” That view held for 69 years, until the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the NRA operated as a quasi-governmental organization, and the federal government avoided any new gun restrictions. The lobby hired a former senior manager from the Internal Revenue Service, Franklin L. Orth, to represent its interests, organized government-sponsored national shooting matches, and helped run a federal program to promote firearm safety and training. Still, warnings about disarmament were never off the agenda.
In an April 1948 editorial published in the American Rifleman, the organization argued, “The pattern of Communist action is now well established. . . . [In Communist states], all shooting clubs were closed by legal decree. All privately-owned small arms were taken into ‘safekeeping’ by the police. . . . All patriotic citizens had been disarmed when the arms registration lists were seized by Hitler’s Fifth Column. . . . How can anyone, squarely facing the contemporary record, seek or support laws which would require American citizens to register their privately owned firearms with any municipal, state, or federal agency?”
The NRA would soon have to put the power of that argument to the test.
On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy using a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle he purchased for $19.95 through an ad in American Rifleman. The killing shocked the nation. It also spurred Congress to consider legislation banning mail-order firearms, which were easy to acquire and, as a result, were frequently used in crime. The NRA facilitated these purchases through its network of publications, but few know that it actually helped develop the ammunition that ultimately killed the president.If the NRA felt any guilt for allowing Oswald to easily arm himself, it did not show it.
After World War II, as the United States began arming anti-Communist groups in Greece, it worked with the NRA to design and manufacture ammunition that would improve the accuracy of certain rifles. That ammunition eventually made its way into the U.S. domestic market and into the barrel of the Oswald gun. When Orth learned of the connection, he allegedly told a Senate staffer, “Please don’t tell anybody because we don’t want to be hung with having been involved in producing the ammunition that killed the President.”
If the NRA felt any guilt for allowing Oswald to easily arm himself, it did not show it. For several years, the lobby urged its members to oppose multiple bills that sought to severely restrict the interstate sale of firearms. The NRA argued that such limits would ban “the private ownership of all guns,” and that lie successfully held off multiple federal gun restrictions.
I should note here that the politics of gun control in the 1960s cannot be divorced from the racism that pervaded American society. Many white leaders felt threatened by the social-justice movements of the era and sought to use gun restrictions as a way to prevent African Americans from acquiring firearms. For some white leaders, the justification for gun restrictions sounded like this quote from Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley: “You’ve got people out there, especially the nonwhites, are buying guns right and left. You got guns and rifles and pistols and everything else,” Daley said. “There’s no registration. There isn’t a damn thing.”
But soon, several high-profile gun deaths proved that the power of the NRA and its members to defeat restrictive laws was not without limit.
First, Martin Luther King was gunned down in a Memphis, Tennessee, hotel in April 1968. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was killed with a .22 handgun in Los Angeles, California.
Thirteen days after that, on June 19, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law a bill to ban the interstate sale and shipment of handguns. He later expanded the ban to include rifles and shotguns and instituted prohibitions against most felons and people who were found to be mentally incompetent from purchasing firearms. Caving to public pressure, the NRA generally supported the Gun Control Act of 1968. “The measure as a whole appears to be one that sportsmen of America can live with,” the leadership said at the time.
That statement did not sit well with a small group of extremists inside the organization, and it would prove pivotal in transforming the NRA.
On May 21, 1977, a stout, bald man named Harlon Bronson Carter wrested control of the NRA from the so-called old guard that had supported the 1968 law. Carter’s gripe? The old leaders did not do enough to defend the Second Amendment. They had failed to stop the Gun Control Act of 1968. In 1975 in the NRA Fact Book on Firearms Control, they had written that the Second Amendment is “of limited practical utility” as an argument against gun restrictions. They were planning to move the NRA headquarters from Washington, DC, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to focus more on sport shooting and hunting. They had even fired Carter and 84 other staff members in preparation for that move out west.
The disgruntled former employees soon formed the Federation of the NRA with the goal of ousting the old NRA leaders and taking over. At the organization’s annual convention a year later, the group succeeded. The old guard, who, in the view of Carter, had not worked hard enough to defeat gun regulations, was out.
The fundamentalists, known as the new guard, quickly established defense of the Second Amendment as a guiding principle for the NRA and greatly increased funding to the organization’s lobbying arm. The NRA as we know it today was born.
From Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns. Used with permission of The New Press. Copyright 2019 by Igor Volsky.
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