NRA has had presidents whose personal views were less rigid including the one-time movie star Charlton Heston, who served from 1998 to 2003. But Heston is most famous in his role as NRA president for proclaiming: “From my cold dead hands!” at the 2000 NRA convention, as he hoisted a rifle above his head.

“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away,” Heston said, trying to rally the membership against Vice President and Democrat Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election. “I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!'”

That rallying cry is on NRA bumper stickers and symbolizes the modern-era NRA attitude when it comes to gun restrictions. And since Carter’s hard line, picked up by the subsequent leaders of the organization, the NRA has also seen its membership and funds swell. And when a mass-shooting happens or a Democratic president looks like he or she might win, gun stock prices soar.

That speech also took place after eight years of a Democratic presidency that saw an assault-rifle ban go into effect. Gore, of course, narrowly lost in 2000. Often when there’s momentum in one direction, there is a backlash, and that happened that year.

The NRA experienced setbacks on gun restrictions in the 1990s, stemming from the 1981 attempted assassination of Reagan. It created a new groundswell for gun control and led to the 1993 law known as the Brady Bill (for Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady, wounded in the attempt on the president’s life).

The Brady Bill established a waiting period and other restrictions and had the support of NRA member Ronald Reagan. The following year, a Democratic Congress enacted a domestic ban on “assault weapons,” the combat style semiautomatics so common in war zones around the world.  But the NRA managed to insert a 10-year sunset on the law, and when it came due in 2004, the control of Congress had passed to the GOP, which allowed the law to expire.

Over the years, the NRA has also become involved in litigation, such as the lawsuit challenging the personal handgun ban in the District of Columbia. That case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which struck down the law in the landmark Heller decision in 2008.  That decision also preserved the longstanding NRA principle that the Second Amendment right to firearms was meant for a private individual as well as a “well-regulated militia.”  The majority opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who had been appointed to the court by Reagan, the first president endorsed for the office by the NRA.

This is the NRA we know today, the one to whom lawmakers and the media turn after a firearm massacre such as in Florida.  When this happens, the NRA has a well-established protocol for its response.  First the organization remains silent for a period of days, offering only a message of sympathy for the victims and a request that the tragedy “not be politicized.”  Then it begins to engage, usually through a few officers and spokespersons who have been through this multiple times, such as the chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, and its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre.

LaPierre then makes the rounds of TV talk shows and cable channels, reciting a well-practiced “talking points” defending his faith in guns, their use in self-protection and the NRA view of the Constitution.  That is:

  1. That the Second Amendment guarantees the right to “keep and bear arms,” and the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that this right applies to private individuals and not just to organized militias (as referenced in the Constitution), but also to private individual citizens.
  2. The organization lays the blame for gun violence on criminals and the producers of Hollywood movies and video games and the failures of the mental health system.
  3. It reminds that it is not possible to legislate away the evil in the world.

Finally, and repeatedly, the NRA repeats its chant: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Or, as LaPierre put it recently, “It comes down to … if your glass breaks in the middle of the night, there is not a government authority on the planet that substitutes for your right to own a firearm.”

In the case of the Las Vegas on shooting on October 1, 2017, that took 58 lives and wounded or injured hundreds more, the NRA has deviated only a degree from its pattern. In its original response, the NRA said it was willing to discuss the Las Vegas shooter’s reliance on a weapon modification known as a “bump stock.”

This enables someone holding a semiautomatic weapon to fire many rounds without squeezing the trigger for each. This does not modify the weapon to make it “fully automatic,” but it produces a similar effect.

On the same day the NRA released its statement, a number of Republican legislators, including some from party leadership in the House and Senate, told reporters they could “take a look at” bump stocks.  Shortly thereafter, Trump also said the administration would “take a look at” bump stocks.

Whether or not this was a coordinated strategy, it was a mild concession on the part of the NRA which usually opposes new limitations. It was condemned as such by the Gun Owners of America, a smaller guns-rights group that is often critical of what it calls the NRA’s willingness to compromise and “sell out.”

But it soon became clear that the NRA was not in favor of addressing the bump stock through any actual change in the law. LaPierre and others said it was within the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms to regulate bump stocks now. They said repeatedly that ATF should simply “do its job.”  LaPierre wouldn’t agree on legislation, but regulation simply because it is a lot easier to revoke when necessary.

ATF officials, however, contradicted LaPierre’s statement pointing to the language of the relevant laws on the books. They said those laws needed to change for them to ban bump stocks.  While that “he-said, she-said” debate goes forward, LaPierre added recently added that he did not see a need for any gun bill that “would become a Christmas tree” loaded with anti-gun measures. He specifically mentioned the suggestions by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrat with whom he has clashed since she pushed the assault-weapons ban in 1994. (LaPierre was first made executive vice president in 1991.)

LaPierre’s view is already being championed by many members of Congress. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was seriously wounded when a gunman opened fire in June 2017 on a congressional baseball team practice, has suggested there might be other legislation moving in his chamber that enhanced gun owner rights rather than limiting them in any way.

In my view, NRA will continue to buy members of congress through their grading structure and financial support.  That organization poured $36.3 million into the 2016 election, breaking its own record of $31.7 million from just two years earlier.  NRA continues to be “bad news” for America because that organization is concerned more about gun manufacturers than children, and the only way to change that model is to vote in people who are more concerned about their constituencies that than selling their soul to the NRA.



Founded in 1871, NRA has about 5 million members.  The power of the organization is legendary, especially the widely published report cards it issues giving A to F grades to lawmakers. The cards have been credited with the election (or defeat) of many candidates including incumbents. Even the nuances of the group’s affection, an A+ over an A grade, for example, can make the difference especially in Republican primaries.

That is why the NRA has anchored the opposition in every major gun-related debate since it altered its main aim from marksmanship to hard-edged political activism. That change came 40 years ago and was related to other shifts in political sentiment, including the departure of Southern rural conservatives from the Democratic Party. All these helped Ronald Reagan to be elected the first presidential candidate to ever be endorsed by the NRA.

So how did the NRA get so much power?  The group’s website offers the following introduction:  “While widely recognized today as a major political force and as America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, the NRA has, since its inception, been the premier firearms education organization in the world.”

The origin of NRA dates back almost to the Civil War when two former Union officers who had despaired over their wartime recruits’ poor shooting skills. Their idea was to educate a new generation of marksmen, whether for war or hunting or recreational target shooting.

Well into the 20th century, NRA was known primarily for promoting the safe and proper use of firearms, often in some form of cooperation with the government. The Army, at times, donated surplus equipment for training, and the state of New York helped NRA purchase its first shooting range.

The idea that people owned and used guns was a given in the early years of America. They were integral to frontier survival and rural life, and inherent in the wider American culture — a feature of folklore and tradition, a symbol of individuality and independence. In time, however, controversy over guns arose.

After Abraham Lincoln, two other presidents were shot by assassins, and Theodore Roosevelt sustained and survived a short-range gunshot wound, people began to talk about the availability of guns and the desirability of some restrictions.  Of course, NRA wanted to be part of that conversation.

The NRA wasn’t always staunchly opposed to gun restrictions.  In fact, the NRA of past generations worked with the federal government to limit the traffic in guns — for example, where ex-convicts or mental patients were involved.  When handguns became the focus, the NRA produced a subgroup devoted to them and supported state-level permit requirements for concealed weapons.

In the Prohibition Era, the conversation changed again with the urban use of shotguns and the fully automatic Thompson gun.  Bank robbers and warring gangsters became a target for lawmakers and as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1938 regulated such guns, banned some buyers and made gun dealers register with the government.

The NRA worked with Congress and the White House on those acts and supported their enforcement. The same was true when these restrictions were extended and tightened following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and again by a 1968 gun bill responding to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy.

But in the late 1960s, there was also widespread concern about rising crime rates and the deadly riots that flared in the nation’s major cities. Citizens were concerned about their safety and turned to gun purchases for their personal protection. And many NRA members wanted their organization to get out in front of that.

In 1971, agents of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms killed a NRA member who was hiding a large number of illegal weapons. This stirred a restless reaction within the NRA rank and file. As a result, in 1975, the NRA’s top managers created its first lobbying organ, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA).  The ILA was headed by a Texas lawyer named Harlon Carter, an immigration hawk who had headed the Border Patrol in the 1950s.

“You don’t stop crime by attacking guns,” he said. “You stop crime by stopping criminals.”  Hard-charging and uncompromising, Carter was soon at odds with the Old Guard of the NRA who downsized his ILA staff. He fought back by organizing an uprising at the annual NRA convention in 1977 and forcing the power struggle into the open.

In the end, Carter won, ascending to NRA’s 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.

This change in mission coincided with a new surge in political money. Decisions by the Federal Election Commission and the Supreme Court had opened the spillway on vast new reservoirs of cash.  Soon, the NRA became a tough force in fundraising and campaign spending at the state and federal level.  This, in turn, gave the group the muscle to move pro-gun legislation as well as to stop efforts at gun control. Carter proclaimed his group would be “so strong and so dedicated that no politician in America, mindful of his political career, would want to challenge our legitimate goals.”  The NRA has followed the path blazed by Carter (who retired in 1985) and Knox.



Over the years, Right Wing Conservatives, guided by the NRA, have continued to mis-inform the American people about the Second Amendment. Their false information states, among other things, that the Second Amendment was passed to allow citizens to arm themselves and to form militias to thwart government interference against states’ rights and for self-protection.  The NRA has also been instrumental in perpetuating lies about Democrats wanting to take guns away.  However, the real reason the Second Amendment was ratified and why it says “State” instead of “Country,” was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote.  In other words, slave rebellions became a problem for the southern states.  A review of the history of the Constitution, more specifically the Second Amendment, provides a vast amount of information on the rationale and concerns of its framers on how best to preserve slave ownership.

In the beginning, there were the militias. In the South, they were also called the “slave patrols,” and they were regulated by the states.  In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, laws were passed in 1755 and 1757 that required all plantation owners or their male white employees to be members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in the state.  The law defined which counties had which armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.

As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California Law Review in 1998, “The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search ‘all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition’ and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.”

It’s the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?”  If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.

Sally E. Haden, in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, notes that, “Although eligibility for the Militia seemed all-encompassing, not every middle-aged white male Virginian or Carolinian became a slave patroller.” There were exemptions so “men in critical professions” like judges, legislators and students could stay at their work.  Generally, though, she documents how most southern men between the ages 18 and 45 – including physicians and ministers – had to serve on slave patrol in the militia at one time or another in their lives.  And slave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy.

By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South.  Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings.  As Dr. Bogus points out, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias. Thus, the characterization of the Second Amendment by Conservatives and the NRA has nothing to do with self-protection or protection against government, but everything to do with the creation of armed slave patrols.

If the North were to invite into military service the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern economic and social systems, altogether.  This possibility worried southerners like James Monroe, George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).

Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves.

This was not an imagined threat because 12 years earlier, during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunsmore offered freedom to slaves who could escape and join his forces.  “Liberty to Slaves” was stitched onto their jacket pocket flaps.  During the War, British General Henry Clinton extended the practice in 1779.  And numerous freed slaves served in General Washington’s army. Thus, southern legislators and plantation owners lived not just in fear of their own slaves rebelling, but also in fear that their slaves could be emancipated through military service.

At the ratifying convention in Virginia in 1788, Patrick Henry provided the following scenario:

“Let me here call your attention to that part [Article 1, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution] which gives the Congress power to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States. . . .

“By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and best defense is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the states can do neither . . . this power being exclusively given to Congress. The power of appointing officers over men not disciplined or armed is ridiculous; so that this pretended little remains of power left to the states may, at the pleasure of Congress, be rendered nugatory.”

George Mason expressed a similar concern:

“The militia may be here destroyed by that method which has been practiced in other parts of the world before; that is, by rendering them useless, by disarming them. Under various pretenses, Congress may neglect to provide for arming and disciplining the militia; and the state governments cannot do it, for Congress has an exclusive right to arm them [under this proposed Constitution] . . . “

Henry then bluntly laid it out:

“If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.”

Henry went on to say:

“In this state,” “there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States. . . . May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free.”

Henry was also convinced that the power over the various state militias given the federal government in the new Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their slave-patrol militias.  He knew the majority attitude in the North opposed slavery, and he worried they’d use the Constitution to free the South’s slaves (a process then called “Manumission”). The abolitionists would, he was certain, use that power (and, ironically, this is pretty much what Abraham Lincoln ended up doing):

“[T]hey will search that paper [the Constitution], and see if they have power of manumission,” said Henry.  “And have they not, sir? Have they not power to provide for the general defense and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power?

“This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction. The paper speaks to the point: they have the power in clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly exercise it.”  He added: “This is a local matter, and I can see no propriety in subjecting it to Congress.”

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and a slaveholder himself, basically called Patrick Henry paranoid.  “I was struck with surprise,” Madison said, “when I heard him express himself alarmed with respect to the emancipation of slaves. . . . There is no power to warrant it, in that paper [the Constitution]. If there be, I know it not.”  But the southern fears continued.

Henry even argued that southerner’s “property” (slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the resulting slave uprising would be less than peaceful or tranquil:  “In this situation,” Henry said to Madison, “I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.”

So Madison, who had (at Jefferson’s insistence) already begun to prepare proposed amendments to the Constitution, changed his first draft of one that addressed the militia issue to make sure it was unambiguous that the southern states could maintain their slave patrol militias.

Madison’s first draft for what became the Second Amendment had said: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well-armed, and well-regulated militia being the best security of a free country [emphasis added]: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government.  So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State [emphasis added], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Little did Madison realize that one day in the future weapons-manufacturing corporations, newly defined as “persons” by a Supreme Court some have called dysfunctional, would use his slave patrol militia amendment to protect their “right” to manufacture and sell assault weapons used to murder schoolchildren.

Once again, and sadly not for the last time, on February 14, 2018, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stunned the nation and shocked the rest of the civilized world, spurring a national debate about guns and gun laws. Seventeen people were killed, most of them students, and once again, and surely not for the last time, that debate features the pre-eminent organization of gun owners, the NRA.