Once upon a time, the NRA actually supported gun control laws

Once upon a time, the NRA actually supported gun control laws

PoliticsOctober 13, 2017 By Paul Hazelton

Once upon a time, the National Rifle Association didn’t advocate placing gats into the desks of school teachers, it didn't puppeteer politicians prose by mobilizing massive blocks of voters. It didn’t politicize and polarize a whole country around an amendment. 

Believe it or not, long ago, it did support gun reform legislation. 

The extensive rabbit hole that is NRA history starts in 1871 when two Civil War veterans, both Yankees, found themselves bemoaning the length of the war. They attributed its enduring nature to the North’s lack of deft deadeyes and soon afterward formed the NRA with the stumble-off-the-tongue mission statement: “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.”

The organization trained citizens into potential militias and proficient hunters and in 1872, accepted a donation from New York State (roughly $500,000 today) to build their first shooting range, as well as, surplus guns from the U.S. military to stock it for successive years afterward.

But here’s where past and present NRA’s start to appear noticeably distinguishable. In the 1920’s the National Revolver Association-the handgun cousin to its rifle counterpart-proposed prototype legislation to require safety controls. These included concealed carry permits and gun ownership restrictions on non-citizens. They even suggested that gun dealers relinquish information on gun owners to authorities. That idea didn’t pass but what did was their suggested one-day waiting periods. Neither of the latter are popular ideas within the modern NRA.

By 1933 gun control had become a major policy position for the incoming administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt after gangsters like Capone, bank robbers like John Dillinger and crime spree enthusiasts like Bonnie and Clyde demonstrated the damage civilians with thousand round clips could inflict. As part of the “New Deal” the NRA helped pass the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Gun Control Act.

These regulations represented some of the first federal gun laws and made it impossible for felons to purchase firearms, placed a $200 tax on the manufacture and sale of large arms (such as machine guns, sawed-off shotguns) and lethal accessories (like silencers) used primarily by crime outfits. It further forced distributors and producers to register with the government.

In a move that would be unthinkable today, the laws were passed with the NRA’s help and for nearly half a century Second Amendment rights lived in harmony with these common sense gun laws.

Then in 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated with a military surplus rifle ordered off an ad featured in the NRA’s magazine, “American Rifleman.” In subsequent congressional hearings, their president again supported a gun control law, this time aimed at killing mail-order sales. But nothing came of that legislation or any other until the Gun Control Act of 1968 that was prompted primarily by the Black Panther movement and riots that came as a result of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Among other things, the new statute created serial numbers, minimum age requirements and further barred the mentally ill and drug addicted from purchase. This time around, however, the NRA effectively blocked a major aspect of the bill: a national gun registry and mandatory licenses.

And though the NRA had seen a partial victory the law wasn't warmly received by all its members. Many within the organization hoped the Supreme Court would rule that the Second Amendment entitled everyone the right to arms. Many others argued the problem was had less to do with guns and more to do with addressing crime. Rural citizens felt urban problems where bleeding into their lives and many gun dealers felt persecuted. The other camp felt that this level of compromise was to be expected and once again a civil war, this time waged within the NRA, was threatened to shape its future.

Enter Harlon B. Carter. As former Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, Carter was hardline gun rights activist who in 1975 was chosen to head up the NRA’s newly established lobbying appendage: The Institute of Legislative Action (ILA). It's goal? To influence legislators and ironclad gun rights and liberties A.K.A. the current organization’s priorities.

This experiment only lasted a year before it was shut down by senior members on the Board of Directors. They axed Carter and 80 others, citing the lobbies inability to compromise on any gun legislation and its then extremist views of the Second Amendment. But Carter wasn't some bumbling backwater liable to accept defeat, and by May of 1977, he and others in the organization had a plan to hijack the NRA for good. 

That year the NRA’s annual meeting was moved from Washington to Cincinnati in protest over the newest gun control act. The board attempted to move their headquarters to Colorado Springs, marking a definite end to its political activities. This, coupled with growing resentment within the organization prompted Carter and more than a thousand rebelling NRA members to utilize the organization's parliamentary rules. And by four in the morning, Carter and his clan had disrupted the meeting's agenda, changed how the Board of Directors was elected and recommitted the NRA to once again battling gun control measures. They revived Carter's lobbying ILA and ultimately voted him in as executive director. 

This event, now known as the “Revolt at Cincinnati” marked a new age for the NRA and an end to any possibility of compromise. Carter quickly canceled the relocation of their national headquarters to Colorado and changed its motto to “The Right Of The People To Keep And Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”

The preservation and expansion of individual gun rights became its sole purpose and they succeeded. By 1980 the GOP’s platform included the statement, “We believe the right of citizens to keep and bear arms must be preserved, ” and in 2008 the organization finally cemented their views into law when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment included individuals right to possess firearms for self-defense.

Today the NRA continues as a political powerhouse, one that consistently ranks among the most influential lobbying groups in Washington. It is an organization that shoves conservative legislators actions in the direction of their interests through the invisible hand of mammoth donations and their Vader like grip on one issue voters. It's an organization that despite mass murders and daily displays of gun violence continues to stick to the game plan of noncooperation no matter the public outcry.

And as the gun debate rages in America it appears that a return to the NRA’s roots remains a non-starter and it might always be that way. After all, if the massacre at Sandy Hook and the bloodbath in Vegas where 64-year-old Stephen Paddock gunned down at least 59 concertgoers and injured some 500 more with near automatic fire doesn't facilitate change, it's hard to picture an event that will.