Once Upon a Time, the NRA Stood Up to the Gun Industry

Frank Smyth on a Saner Time for American Debate Over Gun Registration

During the presidential election of 1936, which would end in an overwhelming victory for the incumbent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, an unsigned editorial appeared in the NRA organ, the American Rifleman, that is worth quoting at length: 

This is a political year. Before many moons, life-long friends will have “fallen out” over the relative merits of one party and another or the relative value of this candidate as compared with that candidate. Just why men who can intelligently discuss every other problem in the world become such unreasonable, unreasoning “die-hards” about politics is one of the unexplained mysteries of mankind. […]

Take an active interest in politics this year, Mr. Shooter. The Nation needs your intelligence, your patriotism, and your sportsmanship. In many local elections you can wield an amazing influence for good. But keep your political interest and activity on a high plane of honest, frank discussion; and remember that there is neither rhyme nor reason in splitting open a good rifle club over a bum political argument. 

*

During Roosevelt’s second term, a new bill, the Federal Firearms Act, was introduced by Senator Royal Copeland, Democrat from New York. The bill proposed extending the 1934 law to establish a federal licensing regime for firearms dealers and to record their sales while barring sales to “prohibited” individuals including convicted felons.

The NRA supported the legislation, noting that it would “not in any way impinge upon” owners of pistols or revolvers. Additionally, the organization supported legislation to restrict a new, “‘freak’ class of weapon” called the Magnum revolver. 

The NRA’s position was articulated in 1937 by C. B. Lister in the American Rifleman. (The NRA still awards a trophy in his name, honoring him for his leadership in “building the NRA to an organization of national stature.”) In his article about the “freak” Magnum revolver, Lister seems to foreshadow the views of many gun reform advocates today: 

In view of the fact that the Magnum is, from the standpoint of the sportsman, definitely in the “freak” class of weapon, and inasmuch as the hunting of big game with a one-hand gun is definitely not within the capabilities of the average shooter, who has difficulty enough aligning his sights and securing hits with the rifle, it seems most probable that Congress will feel that legislation is desirable which will have the practical effect of restricting sale of the Magnum to Police Departments. 

The Magnum, in Lister’s opinion, was a “freak” weapon because the charge in the round was more powerful than that used in other handguns. Making an argument that would cause today’s NRA leaders to cringe, Lister concluded that such weapons should be restricted not just to the police, but only to those police “especially trained in the use of these weapons.”

The American Rifleman ran an unsigned editorial on the page next to Lister’s signed article that made the same point: “Inasmuch as the gun performs no practical function for the sportsman which cannot be [performed] as well or better by arms of standard type, it is impossible to defend the Magnum against legislation which would have the practical effect of limiting its sale to agents of the Federal, State, and local police.” 

These signed and unsigned editorials represent a part of the NRA’s history that its modern leaders would prefer to forget, besides also marking a time when the NRA was willing to stand up to the gun industry. The American Rifleman pieces about the “freak” Magnum apparently prompted swift pushback from the legendary gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson, which pioneered the Magnum revolver.

An unsigned editorial in a subsequent issue of the magazine noted that “one of the ‘daddies’ of the S. & W. Magnum, and some of the other members of the clan,” protested the earlier editorial. But the NRA under Reckord and even Lister held its ground despite Smith & Wesson’s efforts to compel them to see the company’s Magnum as just another firearm that should be available to not only law enforcement but also civilians. 

“Think! Decide whether a Nation disarmed by its politicians can hope to maintain that democracy for which its sons die!”

At the same time, Reckord and Lister remained adamantly opposed to any federal registration of firearms as a condition of purchasing a gun, saying that it would be both impractical and ineffective, in addition to imposing a burden on law-abiding gun owners. “We believe a murderer should be tried and convicted for murder, and sent to the electric chair. We think it is folly to provide legal machinery whereby a murderer may be tried for possessing an unregistered gun, given a light sentence, and a little later returned to society,” noted Lister in the American Rifleman in January 1938.

Yet in this same piece Lister wrote, “In opposing such a law we do not, however, say that nothing can be done about the use of firearms by criminals,” arguing that the Copeland Bill, instead of requiring individuals to register their firearms, “strikes directly at the criminal use of firearms” instead of “the honest citizen’s possession of a gun.” 

The NRA led by Reckord and Lister had used this same logic to help pass the nation’s first major federal gun law in 1934, and continued the same logic to pass the second, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. This act required licensing all manufacturers and dealers involved in the interstate commerce of firearms. But unlike the 1934 law, this second law was “deficient in a number of respects” and was “further crippled” by weak law enforcement.

The 1938 law prohibited licensed firearms dealers from transferring a weapon if they had “reasonable cause to believe” that the buyer was a convicted felon or a fugitive, but it did not require dealers to verify the person was neither convicted nor under indictment. It marked the first of what both proponents and opponents of gun control would claim were a series of ineffective gun laws. 

*

In 1940 Nazi Germany ended the “phony war” that had broken out the previous year by launching simultaneous blitzkrieg raids across Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. In France, Allied forces retreated to the beaches around the city of Dunkirk, on the North Sea near the mouth of the English Channel. Surrounded by German forces on land, including panzers, the troops were rescued by sea on a quickly assembled, motley fleet including hundreds of small fishing and pleasure boats of all kinds. 

The Dunkirk evacuation was hailed by British prime minister Winston Churchill as a “miracle of deliverance.” The publicity surrounding the effort spurred Americans of all kinds to collect and ship weapons to the United Kingdom’s police and domestic Home Guard. The NRA bundled packages gathered by hundreds of affiliated local gun clubs, sending more than 7,000 small arms along with working binoculars, stopwatches, and vintage military helmets.

Their goal was “to rearm the police and Home Guard.” Churchill later praised the volunteer American arms effort. The National Rifle Association of America, following principles established at its beginning and articulated by cofounder Church, had come to the aid of a civilian militia force, beginning to collect and ship arms across the Atlantic 18 months before the Japanese attack in the Pacific brought America into World War II. In a history with many honorable hours, this was one of the NRA’s finest. 

After Pearl Harbor, Reckord took a leave of absence from his post as executive vice president to organize the training of new recruits at home, and then, at the ripe age of 64, he headed overseas to become the provost marshal general for Europe. Back at NRA headquarters in Washington, in an old mansion near Embassy Row that the NRA had purchased in 1939 after renting a series of offices, C. B. Lister “worked unceasingly to carry out” NRA programs in support of the war effort. These included development of pistol and shotgun training manuals for armed guards protecting industrial plants vital to military production. 

After V-J Day, officers, board directors, staff, and local members of the NRA who had served overseas slowly filtered back. “At least three prominent members—Brig. Gen. Merritt A. Edson and Col. 

D. M. Shoup of the United States Marine Corps and Comdr. John D. Bulkeley of the Navy—wore the star-studded, pale-blue ribbon of the Congressional Medal of Honor,” the nation’s highest military decoration. General Reckord was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal with a bronze oak leaf cluster for the “operating efficiency” he brought to training enlisted men and the Bronze Star Medal for his “effective supervision” of enemy prisoners.

Among his duties as the U.S. military police commander for Europe, he personally led an investigation that broke up a cigarette-smuggling ring and indicted 200 men, including two officers.

Upon his return to Washington, Reckord, whose personal integrity was well known within the NRA, resumed his duties as the NRA’s chief executive. Lister remained editor of the American Rifleman. The NRA received a congratulatory letter from President Harry S Truman: 

The tradition of the citizen soldiery is firmly, and properly, imbedded in our national ideals. Initiative, discipline, and skill in the use of small arms are essentials for the development of the finished citizen soldier . . . I hope that the splendid program which the National Rifle Association has followed during the past three-quarters of a century will be continued. It is a program that is good for a free America. 

*

Over time the focus of C. B. Lister’s column shifted. He penned one piece after another warning of the dangers of communism. These columns often contained a further warning that a disarmed population was the key step in the ascent of a totalitarian regime. 

“Listen, America!” wrote Lister in a column in March 1944, even before the war ended. “Think! Decide whether a Nation disarmed by its politicians can hope to maintain that democracy for which its sons die!” Two years later, in another column, Lister wrote: “Whenever objections are raised to the Gestapo idea of police registration or privately-owned firearms the proponents of registration have a stock reply which runs like this—Why should an honest citizen object to registering his guns? . . . Confiscation of arms owned by individuals of the opposing parties is always the essential step in the imposition of the will and government of the minority by the majority.” 

Lister was challenged in a letter to the editor by a reader, a lawyer, who said, “There is nothing in the history of our country to indicate that registration would lead to confiscation.” Lister replied not with evidence but with a series of rhetorical questions: Who had expected that “a toothbrush mustached Austrian corporal would one day become master of Germany and near master of Europe?” Who among those wearing “rosy-tinted spectacles” had expected to be “smashed to bits by Jap bombs at Pearl Harbor!”? 

By 1947 Lister was escalating his warnings about communists. Until they were strong enough to take power, he said, “they [would] resort to every form of trickery, subterfuge, and lying that will enable them to advance the cause. All this is in the record. It is widely known.” A year later he became the first in the NRA since the 1922 unsigned editorial in Arms and the Man to tie proposals for firearms registration with totalitarianism, reminding American Rifleman readers that “it was the police state which set Mussolini and Hitler into power” and concluding, “General firearms registration fits perfectly into the established pattern of Communist action and is at the same time the typical example of police state psychology.” 

The board elected Lister to take over as executive vice president from Milton Reckord in 1949. Over the next 17 months, he ran both the NRA and the American Rifleman. But by then, Lister may have already been suffering the effects of the brain cancer that would take his life in 1951. Certainly what he wrote is congruent with the paranoid backdrop of the McCarthy era. Lister’s editorials took on an ever more alarmist tone. He connected “the Communist and the criminal,” saying that both “prefer dealing with a disarmed citizenry”—presaging another cardinal star in the worldview of today’s NRA.

In March 1951, three months before he died, Lister complained that “carefully planted and skillfully nurtured communist propaganda” had “resulted in the complete disbanding of the world’s greatest armed force.” But with Lister’s death, the alarmist tone of the editorials ceased, and his apocalyptic language would not be revived in The Rifleman till many years later. 

Also in 1949, the National Rifle Association of America elected the first woman to its Board of Directors—23 years before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., would do so, and 36 years before most Fortune 500 companies. Alice H. Bull, from Washington State, was “a tough athlete, with lots of broken bones and screws in her body not related to shooting sports.” Born in 1910, she got her first gun, a .22-caliber rifle, not long after her seventh birthday. She was captain of the women’s rifle team at the University of Washington, where she earned a business degree. Bull first competed in the NRA’s National Rifle Matches at Camp Perry in 1935. 

For decades, Alice Bull was the sole female competitor at these events. “She often said her greatest pre-war distinction was to place 33rd out of 1,400 of the nation’s best competitors in the President’s Hundred-Rifle Match in which the top 100 finishers were honored with a parade through the camp,” her son later recalled. “She was the only woman in that parade until the mid-1960s.” 

The NRA was also a pioneer in the promotion of wildlife conservation as part of its effort to preserve lands for hunting and recreational shooting.

Bull appreciated the workings of firearms. “I like mechanical things. A finely made gun is like a well-made micrometer. It is a very fine piece of machinery and beautiful to look at. I don’t love it because it goes boom.” 

Beginning in the postwar period, too, the NRA worked closely with the Boy Scouts and also established junior clubs in association with the Future Farmers of America, 4-H Clubs, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and at high schools and colleges. More than a decade before the establishment of Earth Day, the NRA was also a pioneer in the promotion of wildlife conservation as part of its effort to preserve lands for hunting and recreational shooting. The Association worked closely with local affiliate gun clubs to advocate for access to lands with fowl and game.

The NRA developed guidelines on how to approach landowners as well as on the responsibilities of “the hunter.” On private land, the hunter should first ask permission. Once given access, “[t]he sportsman-hunter will always take great care not to break down fences, trample crops or injure stock. He will be careful to leave all gates as he found them and refrain from shooting near any houses or other buildings.” He “leaves his hunting and camping grounds, if possible, in better condition than he found them.” 

As always, the NRA excelled in advocating for firearm safety. “Not a day passes but that more and more State Conservation and Education Departments, National institutions and organizations look toward the National Rifle Association for adequate instruction in safety education with firearms,” noted the NRA’s new executive director, a war hero recently retired from the Marine Corps, Major General Merritt A. Edson. 

Born in 1897, Edson joined the Vermont National Guard and was deployed, like General Reckord, in Texas along the border during the Mexican Expedition. He later enlisted in the Marines and by the late 1920s was a captain deployed on a Navy cruiser docked in Nicaragua. It was there that Edson—nicknamed “Red Mike” for his red beard—led a detachment of 56 of his own hand-picked, specially trained Marines in expeditionary duty ashore. Captain Edson received the Navy Cross for “his exhibition of coolness, intrepidity, and dash,” which “so inspired his men.” 

After being promoted to colonel, Edson commanded Marine combat battalions in World War II. He led one of two Marine Raider battalions that took the Pacific island of Tulagi from dug-in Japanese troops, and he was awarded his second Navy Cross for his leadership of the assault. And in the Battle of Guadalcanal, Edson, who was by then 45, helped give the United States its first major victory against imperial Japan.

Ordered to defend an airfield from a position later dubbed “Edson’s Ridge,” Colonel Edson led about 800 Marines over two days as they repelled repeated assaults by more than 2,500 Japanese troops. A Marine citation would later describe Edson as being “all over the place, encouraging, cajoling, and correcting as he continually exposed himself to enemy fire.” 

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Excerpted from The NRA: The Unauthorized History. Copyright © 2020 by Frank Smyth. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

Frank Smyth
Frank Smyth
Frank Smyth is an independent, award-winning investigative journalist specializing in armed conflicts, organized crime and human rights overseas, and on the gun movement and its influence at home. He is a former arms trafficking investigator for Human Rights Watch breaking the role of France in arming Rwanda before its genocide. Smyth is a global authority on journalist security and press freedom having testified to Congress and member states of several multilateral organizations.





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