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January 23, 2013 News » Cover Story


The surprising unknown history of the NRA

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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?
The NRA sprung up in the wake of the Civil War and was a marksmanship, safety and training organization. The NRA remains the pre-eminent safety, training and hunting-ethics organization—probably in the world.

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?
California had very loose, open laws. Anybody could carry a gun down the street as long as they weren’t threatening people with it. This was all well and good until the Black Panthers decided to carry guns and keep an eye on the police and make sure they weren’t violating the civil rights of blacks during the mid- and late-’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?
The NRA was right there in the thick of it, helping to write what they deemed to be good gun-control for a number of years. I think the real tipping point was probably the 1994 ban on certain gun models and magazines that held more than 10 rounds. That’s when there was a real break, when you saw other organizations come on the scene—the Gun Owners of America, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership—along with a host of independent, state-level organizations.

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?
It is a fascinating history. We talk so much about rednecks and white guys who want to go hunting, and the reality is, so much of gun control, and what we think of as proper gun laws, all spring out of these very ugly race relations that are an unfortunate part of our country’s history. Until we understand [that history], I don’t think we’re very well-equipped to deal with [gun control] appropriately or to even understand why [laws] were crafted the way they were. You start to realize that it was a matter of enforcement—how do I keep certain people disarmed, while not bothering the people who, politically, we can’t bother and don’t want to bother.

Self-defense Is the Air I Breathe
Clark Aposhian, Certified NRA instructor and chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, a grass-roots organization dedicated to preserving the Second Amendment.

Why belong to the NRA?
You belong to a nationwide organization that represents the same values, for the most part, that you do. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the nation’s capital. It carries with it the power—some will say respect, some will say just flat-out power—because of its huge membership. It owes everything to its members. Without its membership, it wouldn’t carry the same weight.

What perks does the NRA give members?
We don’t have anything like [discounts on purchasing guns] that really stands out. There are magazine subscriptions, and you can get life insurance and firearm insurance through the NRA. You don’t have to be a member to become an NRA instructor, [but] you get a slight discount on instructor dues and fees if you are a member. That’s about it ... I don’t hold my NRA membership as highly valued as I do my Utah Shooting Sports Council membership

How do you read the Second Amendment?
It’s flat-out self-defense. And when I say “self,” I’m including my own self, my family, my neighborhood, my community, for my state and for my country. Much has been said about the Second Amendment only being there for the militia to defend against tyranny and defend the people of the state from the state. That is absolutely a component.

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.

Rachel Piper

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