Sadly, tragically, infuriatingly, it seems that every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, the same sorts of arguments come up from the same, opposing, sides. Gun control advocates say there is only one solution, and that is, not surprisingly, more gun control. Gun rights advocates argue that gun ownership and the right-to-carry are inviolable and almost sacred. Near the sidelines of this debate in the United States, you sometimes hear a little bit about the history of the most powerful gun rights organizations in the United States (indeed, one of the most powerful political organizations of any kind) — the National Rifle Association. But you never hear very much about the NRA’s history.
The story sometimes told is that the NRA used to be a sportsmen’s organization that concentrated on marksmanship and hunters’ rights; and that, for some reason, it has taken a very strict view of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment and has gone to extremes in its defense of gun ownership in the last several decades. And you’ll often hear that long-time members of the NRA, such as former President George HW Bush, have resigned from the NRA because of this change, and have done so very publically, in order to distance themselves from what has become, in essence, “the new NRA.”
For the most part, this story about the change in the NRA’s direction and focus is true. But, as so often happens when we look more deeply into the full history of something, there’s a great deal more about what happened to the NRA than most people hear. And, as you know well, one of our goals in this podcast is to dig deeper into such stories, to explode the myths often embedded in them, and to provide a fuller understanding of what happened. That’s what we want to do with this episode — to explain how and why the NRA changed, and to give much needed context to a very complicated and emotionally-charged historical issue.
I’m not going to talk about the history of the famous Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, nor even to the changing interpretations of that Amendment. I’ll leave that to a later show if you want one on that topic.
Since this episode is bound to get a lot of attention (positive and negative), I’d better make sure everyone has all our contact information. Comments on this episode can, of course, be placed on Twitter (@buzzkillprof), Instagram (@professorbuzzkill), and Facebook (Professor Buzzkill). You can also send hate email or love email, or any kind of email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Founding the NRA:
The origins of the National Rifle Association can be traced to the American Civil War. Several prominent American sportsmen suggested that the United States, and specifically, the gathering Union Army forces, needed to have an organization like the British National Rifle Association (founded in 1859). The British NRA (now called the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom) was created as a sportsman’s organization, and “for the promotion of marksmanship in the interests of Defence of the Realm.”
The American version of the British NRA didn’t really get going until after the war. A number of things seemed to indicate that Union Army troops had been undertrained as marksmen. Union General Ambrose Burnside, publicly complained that, only 10% of Union infantrymen could “hit the broad side of a barn.” Additionally, some war-time statistics gathered by the Union Army seemed to indicate that Union soldiers fired nearly 1,000 shots for every Confederate soldier they injured or killed. That led Burnside and some other Union Army officials to conclude that the Boys in Blue were bad shots, and may have been poorly trained before being sent into battle.
Although that’s what Burnside famously concluded, the evidence wasn’t as clear as he seemed to think. Other Union generals argued that the low percentage of “hits” by Union troops was due to firing tactics, rather than poor abilities. The army frequently used “volley” tactics, which didn’t take advantage of the rifled bores of modern rifles in the 1860s. Commanders weren’t taking advantage of the rifled bores of modern rifles in the 1860s.
So the National Rifle Association was formed in New York in 1871, and was led mainly by former Union Generals and high-ranking officers. It encouraged the formation of state and local shooting clubs, and helped form rifle teams to compete against other nations in international shooting competitions.
The NRA continued as a national, umbrella organization for local and state rifle clubs across the US for the rest of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. The NRA’s work was all very respectable and uncontroversial. So much so that former Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant was an early NRA President, as was another former Union General and Civil War hero, Philip Sheridan. It concentrated almost completely on shooting competitions and promoting the idea that this country needed well-trained civilian marksmen. It worked in parallel with government plans such as the Civilian Marksmanship Program, created by Congress in 1903.
The NRA moved its headquarters to Washington DC in1907. And in the 19-teens and 1920s, the War Department even provided ammunition and other marksman training materials to rifle clubs across the country, including those run by the NRA.
Little changed during the 1930s, except that the federal government reacted to the slight increase in violent crime (and to an even greater increase in the perception of rising crime, and the sensationalizing of gangsters in fiction). It passed the first national gun-control law, the National Firearms Act, in 1934. This was basically a licensing Act, requiring gun manufacturers and sellers to keep careful and exact records of guns produced, and to whom they were sold. It also made it illegal to sell or transfer guns to convicted felons and other “prohibited persons.”
For the most part, the NRA supported the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934. During the congressional hearings held when the bill was being considered, NRA President, Karl Frederick, said, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. … I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”
World War II and its immediate aftermath pushed more or less everything off the national agenda during the 1940s. And even during the height of McCarthyite paranoia of communist cells infiltrating the government and other major institutions in the 1950s, the NRA remained what it had been for almost a hundred years — a sportsmen’s organization that only worried about gun control legislation if it meant restricting the rights of hunters and outdoorsmen.
The Black Panthers, the NRA, and Gun Control in the 1960s
The 1960s were different, however. Even the tense Cold War of the 1950s hadn’t extinguished all romantic notions about the inevitability of a bright American future. But the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and the growing divisions over the Vietnam War during the mid-1960s, helped suffocate what few romantic notions remained. Popular political activism broadened. More and more Americans of different backgrounds, and with different agendas pushed for changes, sometimes even harder than the Civil Rights Movement had been doing for the previous fifteen years.
Perhaps the most important organization in this part of the story about the NRA and gun control was the Black Panther Party. Their original name, as many of you probably know, was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Founded by in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in late 1966, the Black Panthers were initially motivated by what they saw as police brutality and over-reaction against suspected law breakers who were African-American.
The Black Panthers started patrolling Oakland’s streets and observing policemen during traffic stops, arrests of crime suspects, and any other policing done in largely African-American neighborhoods. Much as modern day people monitor and film some police action with their cell phones in order to record potential abuse of police power, the Black Panthers saw themselves as fulfilling an essential public duty.
This being 1966, obviously, the Black Panthers didn’t have cell phones. They did, however, have shotguns, and they carried them during their patrols. Again, this being 1966, it was perfectly legal for the Panthers, or any other citizens, to carry weapons openly in California. As you might imagine, this frightened the Oakland police tremendously, and there were several tense stand-offs (although there were no shoot-outs or anything like that during the Panthers’ patrols). Still, for the rest of 1966 and most of 1967, California politicians “freaked out” (sorry for the use of that technical historians’ phrase) about armed Black Panthers in California cities.
The California State Assembly and the California Governor, Ronald Reagan, put forward firearms control legislation almost immediately. And on May 2, 1967, the Panthers attended one of the Assembly’s committee meetings that was considering one of these pieces of legislation. And they did so armed. Panic ensued in the chamber, some legislators dove under their desks, and voices, to say the least, were raised.
It was nothing more than that, however. The Panthers did not discharge their weapons, nor point them at anyone, or threaten any of the Assembly members. The incident escalated into a very heated argument, but no one was hurt. Police arrested six of the Panthers, but charged them with the only thing they could charge them with — “disrupting a legislative session.” Again, carrying the shotguns was not illegal.
Still, California passed the 1967 Mulford Act, which made it illegal to carry a loaded firearm in public. This was a significant gun control act. But no serious and well-read scholar of this period and this topic questions the fact that it was the sight of young, seemingly angry, and armed black men that terrified (mostly white) California politicians, who enacted gun control measures like this very quickly.
OK, OK, Professor, I hear you saying, “why are you going on about the Black Panthers in a show that’s supposed to be about the NRA.” The reason is that the swift government reaction to the Panthers’ actions, as well as to the crime, violence, murders, and assassinations of 1968 started to worry a small minority of the NRA, those who took the absolutist view of the meaning of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment about the right to keep and bear arms. This small group believed that the Second Amendment guaranteed Americans the right to own as many guns as they wanted, to have as much ammunition as they wanted, and to carry those guns and that ammunition with them in public, unhindered by government legislation.
After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in mid-1968, President Lyndon Johnson promoted a national Gun Control Bill. The Bill was opposed by some members of the NRA, the Wildlife Management Institute, the Sport Fishing Institute, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute. By pressuring sympathetic members of Congress, they were able to water it down. These lobbyists were afraid that this 1968 bill would be the start of a slippery slope to eventual gun confiscation. Ultimately, however, they accepted it mainly because, as NRA Executive VP, Franklin Orth, would write in American Rifleman, the NRA’s magazine, “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of American can live with.”
Congress passed the bill, and LBJ signed it into law on October 11, 1968. It supplemented the 1934 Firearms Act (which required licensing) and strengthened it by regulating interstate trade in guns. Prior to that the 1968 Act, moving and selling guns between states was one way that criminals and criminal organizations could skirt the restrictions of gun registration (which was limited to the registration efforts of each state). Still, LBJ was depressed that the Act wasn’t stronger.
Here’s what he said at the signing ceremony for the Act.
“The Congress adopted most of our recommendations. But this bill—as big as this bill is—still falls short, because we just could not get the Congress to carry out the requests we made of them. I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry those guns. For the fact of life is that there are over 160 million guns in this country—more firearms than families. If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we just must have licensing. If the criminal with a gun is to be tracked down quickly, then we must have registration in this country. The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for the moment in an election year.”
“More firearms than families.” We’ll revisit that observation near the end of this show.
For the rest of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, the strict-Second-Amendment-interpretation minority of the NRA became more and more worried (some would say paranoid). In the wake of 1968, they thought the government would push through stronger gun control legislation. And they really worried that the moderate majority of the NRA membership and the moderate NRA leadership would do nothing, or almost nothing, to stop stricter gun control laws from being enacted.
Further, the relatively moderate NRA leadership had decided that they were going to leave Washington DC, move to Colorado, and concentrate on the “outdoorsmen and sportsmen” aspect of the organization. They also had decided to shift their focus to further promote hunting and outdoor life. These things, not lobbying the federal government to stop gun control, had been the NRA’s main purpose since its founding. And so the executive board expected no trouble when they planned to announce these changes to the assembled membership during the NRA annual meeting, to be held in Cincinnati in 1977.
The Cincinnati Revolution of 1977
The NRA leadership, however, didn’t realize how strong the fundamentalist-Second-Amendment-interpretation minority of their own organization had become. Or, at least, they didn’t realize how well-organized and determined they were to “purify” the NRA — to stop the move to Colorado, and to turn the organization’s new Institute for Legislative Action into a fearsome and powerful lobbying organization.
Led by Neal Knox, this committed group of NRA purists had been working together in the mid-1970s to “fix” the NRA the way they thought it should be fixed. And they came to the 1977 Cincinnati meeting prepared to make it all happen. What’s known as the “Cincinnati Revolution” or the “Revolt in Cincinnati” took place on started on May 21st and dragged into the early hours of May 22. Using the NRA’s own by-laws and Robert’s Rules of Order, the Knox group, managed to hijack the meeting’s agenda. This Revolution almost deserves a show of its own. But, in sum, the Knox purists managed to kill the Association’s planned move to Colorado,and to have the whole NRA executive voted out of office and their places. And they charged the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action with all the power (and, ultimately, all the resources) it would need to: put pressure on the government; to support and fund like-minded politicians’ campaigns; and to fight gun control advocates in elections and in the halls of Congress.
Although the NRA has had plenty of other internal struggles from the 1980s till today (including its current financial crisis), overall it has gone from strength to strength since that pivotal moment in Cincinnati. The combination of two things, the organizational take-over by the Knox radicals and keeping the NRA in Washington DC, in essence, created the modern NRA.
Since 1977, with the exception of the passage of the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, the NRA has successfully ensured that gun control legislation has never gotten far. Even the Assault Weapons Ban only lasted for ten years. It expired in 2004, without Congress renewing it. And since then, of course, the number of mass shootings and gun deaths have gone up dramatically. In his statement at the signing of the 1968, President Johnson referred to the fact that there were more 160 million guns in the United States, “more firearms than families,” as LBJ said. Just over 50 years later, there are not “more firearms than families.” There are more firearms than people.
There are, roughly, 326,474,000 people in the United States today. And there are 393,347,000 guns. There are 120 guns for every 100 people in our country. And the mass shootings and death by gun fire have increased along with this arms race we seem to be having between ourselves.
You may have noticed at the beginning of the show that I didn’t specify which mass shootings I was referring to, nor did I give a date. The cynic, show business, devil-on-my-shoulder type urged me to do this so that the show could be repeated, and not sound “dated” (that is, to a particular shooting or series of shootings). And that’s a sickening truth.
I could have recorded this show during the first year of this podcast, 2015, and have replayed it every six months since. The essence of the story that I’ve given wouldn’t have changed. And each repeat would have proved relevant to the month and year it was played. It would never have to have been moth-balled or archived. In terms of getting attention and new listeners, it would be evergreen.
The humane, the normal, and the sane angel on my other shoulder urges me to stress the evergreen nature of this topic as a way to help awaken more people up to this horrific and shameful trend.
Again and again and again. These killings do not stop. The frequency increases and the body count increases. And genuine extremists like the NRA and their political lap dogs are doing everything they can to keep weapons of war on the streets and in the marketplace.
I don’t want to trivialize this problem by referring again to the hardiness and continued usefulness of this topic in getting ratings and numbers for this podcast. I can only hope that this episode and its blog post will give a little extra impetus to the gun control movement. Very rarely do I promote other organizations on this show. But please, please, please take time to join and contribute to groups such as “Everytown for Gun Safety,” “The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence,” and the tragically- but necessarily-named “Mom’s Demand Action.” Links for these groups are in the blog post for this episode.
Let’s work to cure this national madness. If we do, we can make podcast episodes, news stories, and editorial essays about gun control truly a part of our past. We want these stories, editorials, and this podcast episode to become archival, and of interest only to historians and other scholars in the future who try to understand why the people of the United States allowed these gun murders to continue.
Before I go, I want to return briefly to June 6th, 1968. Here is part of the statement that President Johnson when he proposed his Gun Control Bill, the day after the shooting of Robert Kennedy.
“I call upon the Congress in the name of sanity, in the name of safety—and in the name of an aroused nation—to give America the Gun Control Law it needs. I urge the Congress to make it unlawful to sell rifles and shotguns—as well as hand guns—by mail order.
I urge the Congress to make it unlawful to sell rifles and shotguns—as well as hand guns—to persons who are too young to bear the terrible responsibility that is placed in the hands of a gun owner. I urge the Congress to make it unlawful to sell rifles and shotguns—as well as hand guns—in one State to residents of another.
This will not prevent legitimate hunters or sportsmen from purchasing firearms but with this reinforced law we can give the States the proper incentive to shape their own gun control legislation, and the country can at long last have a network of systematic safeguards for all our citizens.
I am asking the Governors of the fifty States immediately and comprehensively to review their gun laws and to amend them where necessary to fully protect citizens of their States from deadly weapons in dangerous hands.
The voices of the few must no longer prevail over the interests of the many.
When I last appealed to the Congress on this subject again only a month ago, I asked this question: ‘What in the name of conscience will it take to pass a truly effective gun control law?’
In this new hour of tragedy, that question should at last be answered. Let us now spell out our grief in constructive action.”
What in the name of conscience, indeed. That statement is over fifty years old, and things have only gotten worse.
Nothing would make me happier than knowing that this podcast episode will sound strange and distantly historical to future generations. If it does, that will mean that, somehow, we have finally taken up President Johnson’s plea. We will have spelled out our grief in constructive action.
Talk to you next week.
Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America
Gunfight is a timely work examining America’s four-centuries-long political battle over gun control and the right to bear arms. In this definitive and provocative history, Adam Winkler reveals how guns―not abortion, race, or religion―are at the heart of America’s cultural divide. Using the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller―which invalidated a law banning handguns in the nation’s capital―as a springboard, Winkler brilliantly weaves together the dramatic stories of gun-rights advocates and gun-control lobbyists, providing often unexpected insights into the venomous debate that now cleaves our nation.
There are thousands of books and academic articles on this topic, but Buzzkillers might prefer these more approachable sources.
“Global Firearms Survey,” Small Arms Survey, 2017. http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/weapons-and-markets/tools/global-firearms-holdings.html
International Firearm Prevention and Policy, Gunpolicy.org. https://www.gunpolicy.org
Joel Achenbach; Scott Higham; and Sari Horwitz, “How NRA’s true believers converted a marksmanship group into a mighty gun lobby,” The Washington Post, January 12, 2013.
Ann Gerhart and Chris Alcantara, Chris, “How the NRA transformed from marksmen to lobbyists,” The Washington Post. May 29, 2018.
Radiolab Presents: More Perfect – The Gun Show https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/radiolab/id152249110?i=1000403538408