The Evolution of the NRA

The NRA we know today has garnered a reputation as the most influential right-wing lobbying group in the country, but it’s much humbler beginnings show this was not the type of organization it was meant to be.

The NRA was founded in 1871 by former Union generals who wanted to offer opportunities for soldiers to advance their marksmanship. It was first chartered in New York where it became an association for gun safety, hunting, and conservation. In 1934, after the National Firearms Act was passed, the NRA formed its Legislative Affairs Division in an effort to spread information about gun laws to its members. The  establishment of the Division was not meant to create a political machine to sway voters, but rather to keep them abreast of the gun laws they should be following. At the time the National Firearms Act was being discussed in Congress, then President of the NRA, Karl Frederick, testified, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. I have when I felt it was desirable to do so for my own protection. I know that applies in most of the instances where guns are used effectively in self-defense or in places of business and in the home. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

For nearly a century, the NRA existed as an organization that was more akin to the Boy Scouts than to a conservative lobbying group. Then came the Civil Rights Movement and with it the escalation of street violence and the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. In response, the government passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. The legislation imposed “stricter licensing and regulation on the firearms industry, established new categories of firearms offenses, and prohibited the sale of firearms and ammunition to felons and certain other prohibited persons.” Though the NRA publicly supported the Gun Control Act, in its wake the organization began to fraction.

The creation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in 1972 was a step too far for some NRA members. Some felt that a federal agency regulating gun laws was an infringement on states’ rights, and it was this burgeoning resentment that opened the door for people like Neal Knox. Knox wanted to roll back gun legislation, arguing that the government was trying to restrict 2nd Amendment rights and constitutional freedom. Knox began to shift the focus of the organization towards politics and lobbying, which lead to the establishment of the Institute for Legislative Action. The moderate NRA members that remained began to distance themselves from the group. At the NRA’s annual convention in 1977, things came to a head at what later would be called “The Cincinnati Revolution.” By the end of the night, the NRA had a new President, Harlon Carter, the ideological equivalent of Knox but with more political savvy. In the five years after the revolution, the NRA’s membership tripled and their demeanor, once moderate and humble, was starkly conservative.

The reformed NRA’s first political victory came with the 1986 passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, “which, among other gun-friendly provisions, eased restrictions on interstate sales of firearms and expressly prohibited the federal government from creating a database of gun ownership.” Over the next ten years, the NRA hired more policy experts to expand their influence in Washington. The Assaults Weapons Ban of 1994 angered the far right base of the NRA. Their policy lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, even penned a public letter saying that the ban, “gives jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us.” This rhetoric is not dissimilar to much of what we see today, but, at the time, it served to both isolate moderates and attract more extreme conservatives.

Over the last fifteen years, the NRA has successfully ensured that the Assault Weapons Ban expired and had a victory in the Supreme Court in 2008 when it ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment establishes an individual’s right to own a firearm. Perhaps more ominously, it spent about $20 million during the last election cycle. 49 of 100 current US Senators have accepted NRA donations. In 2000, it surpassed AARP as the most influential lobbying group in Washington. In short, the NRA of today is an entirely different beast.

Why does this matter? It matters because, in the wake of mass shootings when our government needs to be pushing for gun control legislation, we cannot find bipartisan ground because members of the GOP are financially beholden to the NRA. The ideology espoused by the group is far more conservative than the organization was ever intended to be. NRA members and supporters believe that any gun control is a violation of the Second Amendment, even when responsible gun owners would have nothing to fear by increased regulation. For decades, going head to head with the NRA has been politically suicidal, but we cannot let their money stand in the way of protecting the lives of American civilians. In learning about their history, perhaps we may find a rational to appeal to and a place to start working towards a safer future.

Greer Clem