For nearly a century after its founding in 1871, the National Rifle Association was among America’s foremost pro-gun-control organizations. It was not until 1977 that the NRA Americans know today emerged—after libertarians who thought owning a gun was the epitome of freedom emerged after staging a hostile leadership coup and fomented widespread distrust against government, if not armed insurrection.
In the years since, the organization that once encouraged better markmanship and reasonable gun-control laws has given way to an advocacy organization and political force that saw more guns as the answer to society’s worst violence, whether arming commercial-airline pilots after 9/11 or teachers after the Newtown massacre, while opposing new restrictions on gun usage.
It is hard to believe, but the NRA was committed to gun-control laws for most of the 20th century—helping, until the 1980s, to write most of the federal laws restricting gun use.
“Historically, the leadership of the NRA was more open-minded about gun control than someone familiar with the modern NRA might imagine,” writes Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment scholar at the UCLA School of Law, in his 2011 book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “The Second Amendment was not nearly as central to the NRA’s identity for most of the organization’s history.”
Once Upon a Time …
The NRA was founded in 1871 by two Yankee Civil War veterans, including an ex-New York Times reporter, who felt that the war had dragged on because more urban Northerners could not shoot as well as rural Southerners. The NRA’s motto and focus was not fighting for constitutional rights to own and use guns, but “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation,” which was displayed in its national headquarters.
The NRA’s first president was a Northern Army general, Ambrose Burnside. He was chosen to reflect this civilian-militia mission, as envisioned in the Second Amendment, which reads: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
The understanding of the amendment at the time focused on having a prepared citizenry to assist in domestic military matters, such as repelling raids on federal arsenals like 1786’s Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts or the British burning of Washington in the War of 1812. Its focus was not asserting individual gun rights, as today, but a ready citizenry prepared by target shooting. The NRA accepted $25,000 ($500,000 today) from New York State to buy a firing range. For decades, the U.S. military gave surplus guns to the NRA and sponsored shooting contests.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA’s leaders helped write and lobby for the first federal gun-control laws—the very kinds of laws that the modern NRA labels as the height of tyranny. The 18th Amendment, outlawing alcohol, became law in 1920 and was soon followed by the emergence of big-city gangsters who outgunned the police by killing rivals with sawed-off shotguns and machine guns—today called automatic weapons.
In the early 1920s, the National Revolver Association—the NRA’s handgun-training counterpart—proposed model legislation for states that included requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon, adding five years to a prison sentence if a gun was used in a crime, and banning noncitizens from buying a handgun. It also proposed that gun dealers turn over sales records to police and a one-day waiting period between buying a gun and getting it—two provisions that the NRA opposes today.
Nine states adopted these laws: West Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Oregon, California, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Connecticut. Meanwhile, the American Bar Association had been working to create uniform state laws and built upon the proposal, but made the waiting period two days. Nine more states adopted it: Alabama, Arkansas, Maryland, Montana, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
State gun-control laws were not controversial—they were the norm. Within a generation of the country’s founding, many states passed laws banning any citizen from carrying a concealed gun. The cowboy towns that Hollywood lionized as the “Wild West” actually required all guns be turned in to sheriffs while people were within local city limits. In 1911, New York state required handgun owners to get a permit, following an attempted assassination on New York City’s mayor. (Between 1865 and 1901, three presidents were killed by handguns: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley.) But these laws were not seen as effective against the Depression’s most violent gangsters.
Guns & Gangsters
In 1929, Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre saw men disguised as Chicago police kill seven rivals with machine guns. Bonnie and Clyde’s gun-crime spree from 1932-34 was a national sensation. John Dillinger robbed 10 banks in 1933, firing a machine gun as he sped away. That same year, new president Franklin D. Roosevelt made fighting crime and gun control part of his New Deal. The NRA helped him draft the first federal gun controls: 1934’s National Firearms Act and 1938’s Gun Control Act.
These federal firearms laws imposed high taxes and registration requirements on certain classes of weapons—those used in gang violence, like machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and silencers—making it all but impossible for average people to own them. Gun makers and sellers had to register with the federal government, and certain classes of people—notably convicted felons—were barred from gun ownership. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld these laws in 1939.
The NRA president at the time, Karl T. Frederick, a 1920 Olympic gold-medal winner for marksmanship who became a lawyer, praised the new state gun controls in Congress. “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” he testified before the 1938 law was passed. “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
The legal doctrine of gun rights balanced by gun controls held for nearly a half-century.
In November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy with an Italian military-surplus rifle that Oswald had bought from a mail-order ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine. In congressional hearings that soon followed, NRA Executive Vice President Frankin Orth supported a ban in mail-order sales, saying, “We do think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”
But no new federal gun-control laws came until 1968. The assassinations of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were the tipping point, coming after several summers of race-related riots in American cities. The nation’s white political elite feared that violence was too prevalent and there were too many people—especially urban black nationalists—with access to guns. In May 1967, two dozen Black Panther Party members walked into the California Statehouse carrying rifles to protest a gun-control bill, prompting then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to comment, “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
The Gun Control Act of 1968 reauthorized and deepened the FDR-era gun-control laws. It added a minimum age for gun buyers, required that guns have serial numbers and expanded people barred from owning guns from felons to also include the mentally ill and drug addicts. Only federally licensed dealers and collectors could ship guns over state lines. People buying certain kinds of bullets had to show I.D. But the most stringent proposals—a national registry of all guns (which some states had in colonial times) and mandatory licenses for all gun carriers—were not in the act. The NRA blocked these measures. Still, the NRA’s Orth told American Rifleman magazine that while part of the law “appears unduly restrictive, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
The Paranoid Libertarians’ Hostile Takeover
Perhaps the sportsmen of America could abide by the new law, but within the NRA’s broad membership were key factions that resented the new federal law. Thoughout the 1960s, there were a few articles in American Rifleman saying the NRA was waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that the Second Amendment included the right to own a gun, Joan Burbick recounts in her 2006 book, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture & American Democracy. But in the mid-1960s, the Black Panthers were better known than the NRA for expressing that view of the Second Amendment.
By 1968, however, Burbick notes that the NRA’s magazine’s most assertive editorials began saying that the problem was fighting crime and not guns—which we hear today. The 1968 law ordered the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives to enforce the new gun laws. In 1971, ATF raided the house of a lifetime NRA member who was suspected of having a large illegal-arms cache and shot and killed him.
That prompted “the ardent reactionary William Loeb,” then editor of New Hampshire’s influential Manchester Union Leader newspaper, to call the federal agents “Treasury Gestapo,” Burbick writes, even though later evidence confirmed the weapons cache. Loeb and other white libertarians with podiums started to assert that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to guns—like the Black Panthers. But, of course, they were seeking to keep America’s white gun owners fully armed.
A split started to widen inside the NRA. Gun dealers thought they were being harassed. Rural states felt they were being unduly punished for urban America’s problems. In 1975, the NRA created a new lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), under Harlon B. Carter, a tough- minded former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol who shared the libertarian goal of expanding gun owners’ rights. Burdick writes that “by 1976, the political rhetoric had gained momentum and the bicentennial year brought out a new NRA campaign ‘designed to enroll defenders of the right to keep and bear arms’ in numbers equal to ‘the ranks of the patriots who fought in the American Revolution.’ ”
Looking back, the seeds of a hostile internal takeover were everywhere.
Harlon Carter wasn’t just another hard-headed Texan who grew up in a small town that was once home to frontiersman Davy Crockett. He was an earlier era’s version of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who claims to have shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense in February 2012. According to Carol Vinzant’s 2005 book, Lawyers, Guns, and Money: One Man’s Battle With The Gun Industry, a 17-year-old Carter found and confronted a Mexican teenager who he believed helped steal his family’s car. When the 15-year-old pulled a knife, Carter shot and killed him. His conviction was overturned when an appeals court said the jury should have considered a self-defense argument.
In November 1976, the NRA’s old-guard Board of Directors fired Carter and 80 other employees associated with the more expansive view of the Second Amendment and implicit distrust of any government firearm regulation. For months, the Carter cadre secretly plotted their revenge and hijacked the NRA’s annual meeting in Cincinatti in May 1977. The meeting had been moved from Washington to protest its new gun-control law. Winkler writes in Gunfight that Carter’s top deputy, Neal Knox, was even more extreme than he—wanting to roll back all existing gun laws, including bans on machine guns, and saying the federal government had killed Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy as “part of a plot to advance gun control.”
Using the NRA’s parliamentary rules, the rebels interrupted the agenda from the floor and revised how the Board of Directors was chosen, recommitted the NRA to fighting gun control and restored the lobbying ILA. Harlon Carter became the NRA’s new executive director. He canceled a planned move of its national headquarters from Washington to Colorado Springs, Colo. And he changed the organization’s motto on its D.C. headquarters, selectively editing the Second Amendment to reflect a noncompromising militancy, “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”
After Carter was re-elected to lead the NRA in 1981, The New York Times reported on Carter’s teenage vigilante killing—and how he changed his first name’s spelling from Harlan to Harlon to hide it. At first, Carter claimed the shooting was by someone else—and then recanted but refused to discuss it. Winkler writes, “the hard-liners in the NRA loved it. Who better to lead them than a man who really understood the value of a gun for self-protection?”
After the coup, the NRA ramped up donations to congressional campaigns. Burbank writes that in 1977, new articles on the Second Amendment appeared in American Rifleman, “rewriting American history to legitimize the armed citizen unregulated except by his own ability to buy a gun at whatever price he could afford.” That revisionist perspective was endorsed by a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee chaired by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch in 1982, when staffers wrote a report concluding it had discovered “long lost proof” of an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms. (See “Orrin Hatch Remembers,” p. 17)
The NRA’s fabricated but escalating view of the Second Amendment was ridiculed by former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger—a conservative appointed by President Richard Nixon—in a PBS Newshour interview in 1991, where he called it “one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word ‘fraud’—on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Burger would not have imagined that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008—13 years after he died—led by libertarian activist Justice Antonin Scalia—would enshrine that “fraud” into the highest echelon of American law by decreeing that the Second Amendment included the right to own a gun for self-protection in one’s home.
Editor’s note: This article appeared on AlterNet.com on Jan. 13, 2013. It is the first in a series of reports on the emerging gun-control debate that can be read at AlterNet.com. Additional sources for this story include reporting by the New Yorker’s Jill LePore and Jeffrey Toobin, The New York Review of Books’ Garry Wills, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), and Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger in Parade magazine.
Senator Hatch Remembers
Toward the end of 2011, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and other NRA officers met with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in his office on Capitol Hill. The NRA published a Dec. 15, 2011, recap of the meeting, touting the senator’s pro-gun leadership since his election in 1976. The article described Hatch’s 1982 committee report “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms”—which he prepared as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution—a “seminal work” earning him the moniker of “Mr. Constitution” in the Senate.
Hatch’s report strongly influenced the gun debate of the time, concluding that “it is thus inescapable that the history, concept and wording of the Second Amendment ... indicates that what is protected is an individual right of a private citizen to own and carry firearms in a peaceful manner.”
In the online article, published in its entirety at NRAILA.org, the NRA’s LaPierre asked Hatch what his goals had been when he set out to write his 1982 report.
“There were really two goals, I suppose. First, we wanted a definitive account of the history of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. For decades—maybe even longer—people had tried to pretend that the Second Amendment was somehow ambiguous, that the intent of the Framers, when it comes to this one amendment, was simply unknowable. Of course, it should be noted that most of the people making this argument tended to believe that the meaning of the entire Constitution changes over time. But with the Second Amendment, they’d been more than willing to simply read it out of the Constitution entirely.
“Our second goal with the report was to change the dialogue on gun rights. Instead of arguing how far the government could go to keep people from buying guns, we wanted to get people thinking about doing more to facilitate lawful, reasonable gun ownership. I think we were successful on that count as well, though it took a number of years for the debate to be where it is now.” (Source: NRAILA.org)
The Racist Origin of U.S. Gun Control Laws
One Utah gun-rights leader dishes on the impetus for gun control, while another says self-defense is a creator-given right.
Gun Ownership Is a Civil Right
Charles Hardy, Policy director of Gun Owners of Utah, an independent gun-rights organization.
What’s the secret history of gun-control?
Until 1968, we didn’t have a lot of new gun laws on the books in this country. We still had a lot of the old laws on the books that were kind of the result of the old Jim Crow laws in the South. A great essay on this is “The Racist Roots of Gun Control” by Clayton Cramer. If you … look at the origins of why we have gun control, it originated with the slave codes—making sure the slaves were disarmed and not able rise up in rebellion. It grew into making sure that freed blacks stayed disarmed. Cramer argues that gun control has this very ugly and dubious history and really ought to be viewed in the same suspect class of legislation as if someone were to come along and say, “We need illiteracy tests for voting—we want voters to be informed.”
How did such racist fears spark gun-control laws in the ’60s?
A group of them carried their guns peaceably, but intimidatingly, into the California state Capitol. It was this terror at seeing these racial minorities visibly armed that really propelled California down their current road of very strict gun control. It was Gov. Ronald Reagan who signed those first bills into law.
In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, we got the Gun Control Act of 1968. I think it became obvious that—between that and what happened in California with the Black Panthers—guns were going to be a political issue. So the NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action, separate from their charitable wing that does training and education.
Was the NRA America’s only gun-rights group?
Up through the ’90s, this word “compromise” got thrown around. And what compromise really meant was not what you normally think of—each side gives up a little bit, and they both get something they want. People who wanted to attack gun ownership asked for the sun, the moon and the stars, then backed off and were happy if all they got were the moon and the stars, and then came back the next year asking for the sun again. It wasn’t really compromise—it was perpetual, incremental losses.
That was really the turning point that resulted in the sea change politically. It energized the grass-roots gun owners into what I think is appropriately termed a modern civil-rights movement—this is one of our civil rights, and we’re not going to let it be incrementally taken from us any further.
In ’94, if you were a gun owner and you were looking to a group to help give voice to your views, your only choice was the NRA. As the independent groups sprung up, there became an alternative. The NRA had no choice but to respond to the fact that there was a demand among the grass-roots gun owners for a more principled stand. I suspect that’s what has pulled them over into being more of a defender of this civil liberty.
Does race still enter into the equation?
Self-defense Is the Air I Breathe
Why belong to the NRA?
What perks does the NRA give members?
How do you read the Second Amendment?
You can interpret the Second Amendment any way you want, but the right of lawful self-defense, the right to keep and bear arms, is always going to be there inherently. It is one of those creator-given rights, much like the right to breathe air—that’s not enumerated, but no one would doubt that we have that right. The Bill of Rights just lists some specific ones that already existed. The right to keep and bear arms is definitely self-defense, and it can be everything from the individual, all the way up to and including to protect the liberty of this land.