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.
CONTINUED IN PART 3