January 13, 2013 |
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 when the NRA that Americans know today emerged, after libertarians who equated owning a gun with the epitome of freedom and fomented widespread distrust against government—if not armed insurrection—emerged after staging a hostile leadership coup.
In the years since, an NRA that once encouraged better markmanship and reasonable gun control laws gave 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, while opposing new restrictions on gun usage.
It is hard to believe that the NRA was committed to gun-control laws for most of the 20th century—helping to write most of the federal laws restricting gun use until the 1980s.
“Historically, the leadership of the NRA was more open-minded about gun control than someone familiar with the modern NRA might imagine,” wrote Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment scholar at U.C.L.A. Law School, 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 war dragged on because more urban northerners could not shoot as well as rural southerners. It’s motto and focus until 1977 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 concerned 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 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 from New York State to buy a firing range ($500,000 today). 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 tryanny. The 18th Amendment outlawing alchohol 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.