What, the NRA Didn't Always Oppose Gun Control?

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Adam Winkler is Professor of Law at UCLA and the author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America" (W.W. Norton 2011).

Despite several high-profile mass shootings over the past year, including one targeting an elected official, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the prospects for new federal gun control laws are dim.  One reason is undoubtedly the National Rifle Association.  Often called the most powerful interest group in Washington, the NRA is typically dead-set against any new restrictions on guns and portrays any potential new law as evidence of the government¹s unrelenting hostililty to gun owners' rights.

Yet,the NRA, wasn¹t always the hardline opponent of gun control we know today.  In fact, there was once a time when the NRA drafted and promoted restrictive gun control laws.

When William C. Church and George W. Wingate founded the NRA in 1871, it wasn't to lobby against gun control and fight for the Second Amendment.  Church, a former reporter for a newspaper not exactly known for its support of gun rights, the New York Times, said the goal was to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis."

North and Wingate had fought for the North in the Civil War and were convinced that the war lasted so long because Union soldiers were poor marksmen in comparison to those of the Confederacy.  If they could train Americans to shoot better, the two men believed the American military would be a more effective fighting force.  A reflection of their military orientation, they selected as the first president of the NRA General Ambrose Burnside, the Civil War leader whose remarkably thick facial hair gave rise to the term "sideburns."

Although the NRA today is notorious for its anti-government rhetoric—Wayne LaPierre, the current executive vice president, once called federal law enforcement agents "a jack-booted group of fascists" in a mass mailing to members—the young organization grew thanks to government subsidies.  In 1872, the New York Assembly gave the group $25,000 to purchase land on Long Island for a rifle range.  Later, the U.S. Army began donating to NRA-affiliated clubs surplus firearms and ammunition and lent soldiers to help run NRA-sponsored shooting competitions.  After World War I, the military sold 200,000 decommissioned rifles at cost exclusively to NRA members.

The leadership of the early NRA often supported gun control.  In the 1920s and 1930s, as the legal movement for uniformity of state laws blossomed, Karl T. Frederick, a former Olympic gold medalist and the NRA's president, helped write model gun control legislation for states to adopt.  The Uniform Firearms Act required anyone wanting to carry a concealed weapon to first obtain a permit, which would only be available to "suitable" people with "proper reason for carrying;" imposed a waiting period on the delivery of handguns; and required gun dealers to disclose to police records of handgun sales.  The modern NRA is strongly opposed to every single one of those measures.

The NRA has long been a powerful influence group and the Uniform Firearms Act, which Frederick claimed was "sponsored" by the gun rights group, was adopted in state after state.

In the 1930s, when Congress was considering the first major federal gun control law, the National Firearms Act of 1934, which restricted access to machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, Frederick testified in support of the law.  When asked if the legislation might run afoul of the Second Amendment, Frederick's answer was, to contemporary ears, astonishing:  "I have not given it any study from that point of view."

Protection for guns "lies in an enlightened public sentiment and in intelligent legislative action," Frederick argued elsewhere.  "It is not to be found in the Constitution."

Indeed, one can read through decades of mid-century issues of American Rifleman, the NRA's signature publication, and find nary a mention of the Second Amendment.

After World War II, the NRA membership grew as hunting and recreational shooting became popular sports with veterans.  Although the NRA was becoming increasingly active politically, the organization¹s core commitments were reflected in the motto displayed next to the main entrance to the organization's Washington, D.C. headquarters:  "Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation."

In the 1960s and '70s, the membership of the NRA began to change as hunting's popularity decreased and crime rates in America's cities rose dramatically.  More members were buying guns, especially handguns, for personal protection.  Maxwell Rich, the NRA's executive vice president, didn't understand the significance of this change.  He devised a plan to retreat from lobbying and move the headquarters to Colorado Springs to reemphasize outdoorsmen activities.

Rich's plan sparked outrage among a group of dissident NRA members who thought the NRA needed to do more lobbying, not less.  When Washington, D.C.'s city council passed a law in 1976 banning ordinary people from owning handguns and effectively outlawing the use of long guns for self-defense, some thought the handwriting was on the wall:  the government was eventually going to ban all civilians from having guns.

Harlon Carter, who ran the Institute for Legislative Action, the nascent lobbying arm of the NRA, thought Rich's plan was foolish.  Carter subscribed to what he termed the "Potato Chip" theory of gun control:  lawmakers take "a little nibble first, and I'll bet you can't eat just one."  Yet despite the new threats to gun owners, the NRA leadership treated the ILA as an unwanted stepchild with a skimpy budget and numerous restrictions on its operation. When Carter objected to Rich's plan to move to Colorado Springs, Rich fired him and scores of other employees thought to be aligned with Carter.

On May 21, 1977, Carter sought his revenge. At the annual meeting of the NRA membership, Carter and his allies executed a carefully thought-out plan to manipulate the voting rules and oust Rich and his supporters on the board of directors. The contentious meeting lasted until four in the morning and when the sun rose, Harlon Carter was the new executive vice president of the NRA.

Under Carter's leadership, the NRA adopted a new, hardline approach to gun control and made political advocacy the heart of the organization.  The focus of Carter's NRA attitude was reflected in the new motto displayed near the doorway of the D.C. headquarters:  "The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed."

Fundraising and membership skyrocketed, with the new NRA especially appealing to white conservatives from the South and the West who saw gun measures like those adopted in Washington, D.C., as a reflection of a dangerous Great Society philosophy.  Gun control was another example of a big government solution to the nation's problems, enacted without sufficient regard to the values and traditions of rural America.

Opponents of gun control became an important part of the emerging New Right coalition, which would eventually propel Ronald Reagan to the White House.  Not only would Reagan be the first presidential candidate endorsed by the NRA in over a century, he would frequently proclaim proudly his membership in the organization.

The marriage was, however, really only one of convenience.  As governor of California, Reagan had strongly supported restrictive new gun laws and, after leaving office, would endorse more.  Yet, as president, Reagan understood the political potency of the gun issue and the NRA was willing to align itself with the popular president so long as he didn't promote gun control during his time in the Oval Office.

Ever since, the NRA has been one of the most powerful political organizations in Washington.  Its strength is often mistakenly tied to the money it receives from gun manufacturers.  Yet the NRA's influence is due to democracy:  many people feel very passionately about protecting gun rights and are willing to elevate that issue over all others when they vote.  When politicians take on the NRA, they face an electoral backlash—as Bill Clinton found out when his support of new gun control laws in 1993 helped propel the Republicans to win a majority in Congress for the first time.

In recognition of the NRA's power, Barack Obama has mostly steered clear of gun control.  In his first two years of office, he actually loosened the nation's gun laws.  The Brady Center, the nation's leading gun control advocacy group, gave Obama an "F" rating.

Today, you can easily find evidence of the NRA's transformation in the American Rifleman magazine.  Open it up and you're sure to find the Second Amendment mentioned on nearly every other page.

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