How was the NRA founded and how did a gun lobby become so influential in American politics?

Firearms organisation continues to insist easy access to weapons not to blame for high school massacres and uses campaigning muscle to press for looser restrictions

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 26 April 2019 09:57 BST
Charlton Heston gives a speech at NRA annual meeting in 2000

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is America’s oldest civil rights organisation and the country’s most influential political lobby group, boasting six million members.

NRA spokespeople like Dana Loesch routinely appear on TV in the aftermath of mass shootings to insist that the real enemy is the pernicious influence of the entertainment industry and that the solution is the sale of more guns, not fewer.

But the group has strayed a long way from its roots. Founded in the aftermath of the Civil War, the NRA was actually in favour of gun control until 1968.

First chartered in New York on 16 November 1871 by journalist William Conant Church and lawyer George Wood Wingate, both Yankee veterans, the NRA’s primary goal was to improve marksmanship. The men were shocked by official Union Army statistics from the war that estimated 1,000 bullets were fired for every Confederate soldier hit.

Rhode Island gunsmith Ambrose Burnside was elected its first president nine days later.

In those early days, there was no strident insistence on the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to bear arms. The NRA was simply concerned with training hunters to shoot and promoting responsible gun ownership. The US Army donated surplus rifles to their cause and the state of New York even funded the construction of their first rifle range at Creedmoor, Long Island.

The NRA continued to expand in the late 19th century, rolling out new clubs across the country as its membership grew and arranging long-range shooting competitions with rival British and Irish organisations. Ex-president Ulysses S Grant was elected its head in 1883.

Congress established the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice in 1901 and the Civilian Marksmanship Program in 1903, prompting the NRA to relocate its headquarters to Washington, DC, in 1907, a first move towards advocacy.

During the Prohibition era, when Tommy gun battles between Al Capone’s gangsters on the streets of Chicago and rural bank robberies carried out by the likes of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde made sensational headlines, the NRA backed the National Firearms Act.

Enacted in 1934, this was America’s first federal gun control law. It was followed by the Gun Control Act of 1938 and together the two pieces of legislation placed heavy taxes and new regulations on the ownership of machine guns, sawn-off shotguns and silencers and required owners to register, developments the NRA supported.

A far cry from the association’s current rhetoric, the NRA’s then-president Karl T Frederick said at the time: “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licences.”

All this changed with the successive assassinations of President John F Kennedy, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy in the 1960s, coupled with outbreaks of lawlessness and civil unrest in the Watts and Detroit riots and the political establishment’s concern about the operations of Black Panther militants, openly brandishing weapons on street corners.

Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of gunning down JFK, himself a member, with a mail order Carcano rifle promoted by the NRA. Congress quickly brought in the Gun Control Act of 1968 to restrict and regulate the interstate sale of firearms.

Unease within the NRA’s ranks about the future of American gun laws began to foment and were exacerbated when agents from the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division (ATFD) shot member Kenyon Ballew in the head in his own home in Silver Spring, Maryland, during a raid on 7 June 1971, the NRA’s centenary year.

Ballew was a military veteran, newspaper printer and Boy Scout troop leader whom the ATFD believed had a stockpile of unregistered guns and grenades in his house after being tipped off by a teenage burglar turned informant. Hearing his front door kicked in, Ballew emerged naked to confront the agents holding a replica of an 1847 Colt revolver. Three plainclothesmen opened fire and he was left paralysed for the rest of his life.

A federal court subsequently ruled that the action had been justified as the weapons were found and Ballew had broken the law in possessing them. The NRA capitalised on the incident, attacking the ATFD for what it regarded as “Gestapo-like” tactics in its official magazine The American Rifleman and hosting Ballew in his wheelchair at their events, holding a sign reading “Victim of the Gun Control Act”.

The increasing politicisation of the NRA developed throughout the 1970s. It founded its first lobbying organ, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), in 1975 before matters came to a head on 21 May 1977, when a group of radical members stormed its annual general meeting in Ohio and demanded more aggressive leadership to protect gun owners’ interests, an incident known in NRA lore as the “Revolt of Cincinnati”.

As a result of this, the ILA’s head Harlan Carter was elected as the NRA’s new executive vice president. A Texas lawyer who once fatally shot a man he suspected of being a car thief and who had served as a hard-line Border Patrol chief in the 1950s, Carter’s attitude to gun control has become the abiding stance of the NRA ever since: “You don’t stop crime by attacking guns. You stop crime by stopping criminals.” He was succeeded at the ILA by the equally uncompromising Neal Knox.

It was at this juncture that the NRA began its infamous system of grading congressmen with political report cards, assigning them A to F grades depending on how sympathetic they are to its agenda and dishing out campaign donations accordingly.

The body backed its first presidential candidate in 1980 with its endorsement of Republican Ronald Reagan, a member, who would suffer an assassination attempt just one year later. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady was shot and wounded in the incident and subsequently gave his name to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, enacted in 1993, which enforced mandatory federal background checks and a five-day waiting period on gun purchases.

Further restrictions were introduced by the Bill Clinton administration under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, which prohibited the manufacture of semi-automatics for civilians and large capacity ammunition clips, legislation opposed by the NRA but which expired anyway in 2004 under a “sunset provision”.

The organisation achieved one of its most effective recent “victories” in 1996 when it lobbied for a clause known as the Dickey Amendment to limit academic research into gun violence by controlling funding administered by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The stipulation rules that none of the CDC’s annual budget is allowed to be invested in research that “may be used to advocate gun control” and was so effective that the body’s spending on the issue thereafter tailed off by 96 per cent to just $100,000 (£75,000) of a total of $5.6bn (£4.4bn).

The NRA has similarly successfully opposed the ATFD for decades on having access to an online database searchable by name to trace gun ownership.

Charlton Heston brandishing his rifle after addressing the NRA (Ric Feld/AP)
Charlton Heston brandishing his rifle after addressing the NRA (Ric Feld/AP) (AP Photo/Ric Feld)

Hollywood actor Charlton Heston became president of the association in 1998 and is best remembered in the job for his famous rebuke of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, in which he declared that Mr Gore would have to prize Heston’s own rifle from his “cold, dead hands”. He was memorably challenged by documentarian Michael Moore in the film Bowling for Columbine (2002) about the NRA’s role in facilitating high school shootings, refusing to commit himself and eventually storming off.

The NRA was nevertheless credited with securing Mr Gore’s defeat to George W Bush and was named America’s most powerful interest group by Fortune magazine that same year.

Since the turn of the millennium the organisation has continued to fight aggressively for its interests, battling a federal handgun ban in the Supreme Court in 2008 and blocking congressional efforts to pass tighter background check amendments in 2013 despite a 91 per cent approval rating for the measure in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Today the NRA’s financial muscle is considerable. By some estimates it makes $1 from every gun sold. It receives annual donations from 22 firearms manufacturers including Smith & Wesson and Beretta USA.

But its real strength arguably lies in its support base. The NRA can rely on a highly organised, politically active membership, all of whom are united on a clear, single issue: saying no to gun control. Through NRA TV, first broadcast in 2014, the group cultivates its audience by presenting gun ownership as a lifestyle choice, interspersing its broadcasting with the portrayal of a nightmarish vision of contemporary America under threat on all sides, to which the only answer is for citizens to be armed and ready. “Our greatest weapon is truth,” the channel proclaims.

The NRA is at present facing a greater questioning of its role in American society than ever before. The mass shooting at a country music event in Las Vegas last autumn, in which 58 died and a further 851 were injured, drew new attention to the availability of bump stocks, used by killer Stephen Paddock to lethal effect. The Justice Department has now outlawed these rapid-fire modifiers.

The efforts of the teenage survivors of February’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida did much to recharge the gun control debate in the US, particularly on social media, where #BoycottNRA gained enough traction to pressure a number of companies into severing their ties, notably the rental cars businesses Hertz, Avis and Budget. Apple and Amazon attracted criticism for failing to block NRA TV at a time when YouTube was cracking down on advertising by weapons retailers and vloggers.

The Onion’s routinely republished school shootings headline, ”’No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”, has similarly served to keep the heat on the NRA online, going viral after every atrocity.

The NRA’s current position on school shootings is typified by its outgoing executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Mr LaPierre is famous for penning a fundraising letter attacking federal agents as “jack-booted government thugs [who wear] Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens”, a line that so offended president George HW Bush that he turned in his membership card in 1995.

Unsurprisingly, Mr LaPierre supports Donald Trump’s view that the way to tackle the problem is more guns in schools. Arming just 20 per cent of US teachers would result in 700,000 new weapons sold.

The NRA’s incoming new president, Oliver North, told CNN last year that the reason for America’s epidemic of high school shooting was that ”youngsters are steeped in a culture of violence”, neglecting to mention his past role as a consultant on the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Anchor Anderson Cooper attacked Mr North’s “glaring hypocrisy” over the issue.

Under President Trump, the NRA suddenly finds itself in a weakened position, ironic given it poured millions of dollars into ensuring its dark horse candidate was elected in 2016.

Much of the legislation it has championed has stalled – in no small part due to the courageous campaigning efforts of the Parkland survivors – while the group is said to be grappling with infighting, haemorrhaging money and facing a series of investigations into its operating practices, including allegations that covert Russian agents courted its officials and funnelled money through the NRA to influence the election.

With a president friendly to its interests in the White House, there is also little reason to fear the Second Amendment is under threat for the meantime. “Good times are never good for interest groups because it’s much better when Armageddon is at your doorstep,” according to Harry Wilson, a Roanoke College professor.

The bump stock ban was a disappointment to some members of the NRA attending its convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, in April 2019 to see Mr Trump and vice-president Mike Pence address the crowd.

Alabama shipyard worker Mike Lee spoke for many when he told the AP he considered Donald Trump ”better than the alternatives”, as fine an example of damning with faint praise as you will ever hear.

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