Time’s Up! A Short History of the NRA

by Jack R. Johnson


The words National Rifle Association (NRA) are now synonymous with inflexibility on any suggestion of reasonable gun laws—but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the early NRA helped to craft some of the most important gun control legislation ever passed in this country.

In its inception the NRA had little or nothing to do with so-called ‘gun rights’ and was far more concerned with using rifles and pistols well. The organization was birthed by two Civil War Union veterans, Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate, who were dismayed by the poor training and marksmanship of fresh Union troops. They formed the National Rifle Association in 1871 and its primary goal was to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.”  They wanted to improve the marksmanship of urban northerners which they believed was inferior to the marksmanship of their rural southern counterparts, and which they suspected helped to prolong the Civil War.

Their motto during this time was a simple enumeration of this goal: “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” No concern about the Second Amendment, or access to weapons.

When prohibition kicked in during the late 1920s, crime escalated throughout the country and one of the main problems was easy access to dangerous weapons like machine guns, capable of spewing multiple rounds per second, or sawed-off shotguns.

The NRA assisted Franklin Delano Roosevelt in drafting the 1934 National Firearms Act, and the 1938 Gun Control Act, the first federal gun control laws that regulated, banned and taxed machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and silencers. Gun sellers and owners were required to register with the federal government, and felons were banned from owning weapons. Karl T. Frederick, the president of the NRA, testified before Congress stating, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

Throughout the New Deal years, and for a long time thereafter, the NRA stood alongside politicians who favored tight Federal regulations on weapons.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald using an Italian military surplus rifle purchased from a NRA mail-order advertisement, NRA Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth immediately supported a ban on such sales. According to Time Magazine, at a congressional hearing Orth said, in part, “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.” Even as late as 1967, the NRA supported a ban on carrying loaded weapons in public as enacted by California’s Mulford Act. One should note that this support may have had as much to do with the Black Panthers impromptu march on the State Capitol to protest gun control legislation on May 2, 1967, as any sense of civic duty, but to be sure, there were no loud calls of Second Amendment disenfranchisement, or overreaching by the nanny state.

Even the Gun Control Act of 1968, which updated the original law passed by FDR to include minimum age and serial number requirements, was tacitly accepted. The law extended the original gun ban to include the mentally ill, and drug addicts. In addition, it restricted the shipping of guns across state lines to collectors and federally licensed dealers, and certain types of bullets could only be purchased with a valid ID. The NRA blocked the most stringent part of the legislation, which mandated a national registry of all guns and a license for all gun carriers, but in an interview in American Rifleman, Franklin Orth stated that despite portions of the law appearing “unduly restrictive, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

The NRA was still a far cry from producing hyperbolic television videos threatening “clenched fists of truth”, accusing liberals of treason, and telling media outlets that their ‘time is up.’

In 1971 that all began to fall apart. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, raided the home of longtime NRA member Kenyon Ballew who had been reported stock piling weapons and hand grenades. He was a collector who happened to have on hand a few deactivated hand grenades that functioned as paperweights. When the BATF agents broke into his apartment after Ballew refused to answer his door, he picked up his revolver and they exchanged fire. He was wounded and left paralyzed.

Following the incident, NRA board member and editor of New Hampshire’s Manchester Union Leader William Loeb referred to the federal agents as “Treasury Gestapo” from which we can already hear echoes of “Jack Booted thugs.”  To address the incident, the NRA’s top managers in 1975 created the group’s first lobbying organ, the Institute for Legislative Action.

According to NPR, the ILA was headed by a Texas lawyer named Harlon Carter, an immigration hawk who had headed up the Border Patrol in the 1950s.

“You don’t stop crime by attacking guns,” he said. “You stop crime by stopping criminals.”

Or the now infamous, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Carter was soon at odds with the Old Guard of the parent NRA, who downsized his ILA staff. He fought back by organizing an uprising at the annual NRA convention in 1977 and in the end, Carter won, ascending to NRA’s de facto leadership as its executive vice president. He installed another hard-liner, Neal Knox, to head the ILA. The new marching orders were to oppose all forms of gun control across the board and lobby aggressively for gun owners’ rights in Congress and the legislatures.

The NRA subsequently came to view attempts to enact gun-control laws as threats to the Second Amendment. It was only a few decades later that Charlton Heston would become famous in his role as NRA president, hoisting a rifle, and proclaiming vehemently, “From my cold dead hands!”, at their yearly convention.

From that moment to Wayne LaPierre insisting that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” is a straight line. Now NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch insists that arming school teachers across the country is a suitable response to the Parkland High School shooting in which 17 people were killed by a semi-automatic AR-15; a weapon the NRA would once have banned.

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