Today’s show is mainly an interview with award-winning journalist, Frank Smyth, whose book The NRA: the Unauthorized History, is the most recent, in-depth history of the National Rifle Association. The book, and the interview, show how the NRA changed very radically in the 1970s and has continued to spin out on a new trajectory, becoming more and more extremist in its ideology toward guns.
I would like to add something to the discussion before we start the interview, however. It’s yet another thing that a historian can add to try to help people understand why this gun insanity has happened during our own lifetimes. It’s important to note, however, that what I’m going to say in this introduction is not part of my interview with Frank Smyth. While I’m pretty sure that’d he would agree with me, I certainly don’t want to speak for him.
This trajectory of extremism about gun ideology that I’m talking about has an important parallel in American history, one that developed in almost exactly the same ways, and one that led to the greatest conflict in our country’s history – the Civil War.
That other development was the deepening and broadening of the justifications of slavery in the 50 years leading up to the Civil War. It shares a great many of the morally-troubling characteristics of the intensification of the extremist ideology and beliefs of some powerful gun rights groups, especially the National Rifle Association.
If I explain this well enough, it just might help some more people understand why both things have been horrific stains on American history and culture.
Slavery, of course, has existed throughout human history. And the generation that founded the American government certainly practiced it, and utilized its brutality for their own profit and power. But there was a certain uneasiness about the justifications for slavery in the 1780s and 1790s America. Many founders wrestled with the moral questions surrounding human enslavement. And the political beliefs of the late-18th and early 19th-century movements to abolish the slave trade (and then slavery itself) gripped many Americans during those years.
Things started to change by 1800. Cotton production increased enormously because of technological changes that made removing cotton seeds gradually more straightforward and efficient. Cotton plantations worked by human slaves, therefore, expanded in the American South. That meant more slaves producing more cotton. To many southern slave owners, this massive growth over the next 50 years convinced them that human enslavement was an economic necessity for them. But soon larger justifications for slavery grew in their minds.
They started to see human enslavement as a moral good. Human enslavement had made the empires of the ancient world immensely powerful and rich. Human enslavement had helped make the modern British empire rich. Human enslavement (enhanced by the technological and agricultural improvements I was just talking about was making America rich), far richer than the Founding Generation could have conceived.
For slave societies in the south, these new justifications for the righteousness of slavery became as strong as religious beliefs. It was a sort of lengthy self-brain-washing that happens in cultures when fortunes and whole economic structures are built on such a system. People start to believe in it so deeply that it wouldn’t occur to them to question its morality, and they fight back with fervor whenever they perceive that system is being threatened.
Here are two examples that show you how deep and extreme these justifications for human enslavement had become by the 1850s.
First, the dome of the US Capitol building was re-built and made larger during the 1850s and 1860s. So, at the time of the growing sectional crisis and the country seemed to be tearing itself apart, the central building of the United States government was itself being “fixed.” Part of that repair was putting a statue of Freedom on top of the new dome. “Freedom,” usually presented as Lady Liberty, was a very common representation of the United States, then and now. Yet, in 1855, the anti-freedom forces, led by Jefferson Davis (then the US Secretary of War, but later to become President of the Confederacy) objected to the design of the statue because it included a Liberty Cap. Davis was worried that a Liberty Statue with a Liberty Cap would equate the liberty of freeborn white Americans with the desire of African-American slaves in the United States to be freed.
That’s how deep the justifications for slavery had become. Let me repeat. Jefferson Davis from Mississippi, the United States Secretary of War in the administration of President Franklin Pierce, objected to a Liberty Statue that included an important symbol of liberty, specifically because he was afraid that it might _symbolize_ freedom for all people. He was able to get the design changed to a military helmet, and the statue has been adorned like that ever since.
And then, on March 21, 1861, between the Confederate States seceding from the United States, and their actual attack on Fort Sumpter in South Carolina, Vice-President of the new Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave his famous “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah. In describing the origin and justification for this new Confederate government, Stephens said:
…its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.
When Stephens said “this truth has been slow in the process of its development,” he was referring to this 50-60 year intensification of the racist justifications for slavery during the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century.
Justifications for slavery had always been immoral, but they intensified so much in the United States by 1860 that the Confederacy was willing to wage war on the United States “based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth,” as Stephens said.
It’s at this stage that the justifications for slavery became both immoral and demonic. The immorality of slavery is a given. By “demonic” I mean that slave owners and Confederates were willing, like demons, to work and, indeed, to die to help expand and strengthen it.
The National Rifle Association has followed the same trajectory in its belief that gun ownership is now _sacred_. Over roughly the same length of time, 50-ish years, the NRA has gone from a sportsman’s organization to an absolutist gun cult.
Some gun manufacturers, such as Spike’s Tactical, engrave verses from the Christain New Testament on their assault rifles. Daniel Defense, a Georgia gun manufacturer, deliberately uses Christian symbolism in advertising its assault weapons. One of their social media posts shows a small child with a rifle, and included the text, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). And even more sick, their social media posts for Easter 2022 included a picture of an assault rifle with a crucifix laying across it, and “He is Risen” as the post’s text.
It should have been obvious a long time ago that extremist gun rights groups (as well as extremist gun manufacturers) have lost _any_ sense of morality they might have had fifty years ago. Now they are being demonic in their abuse of religion, and in their insistence that guns become even more fundamental to American culture than they already are.
In the last few decades, these organizations and these people have reached the degree of moral rot found in murderous and destructive cults. It’s happened in the same way, over a similar number of years, that justifications of slavery were expressed by Jefferson Davis (in his denial of artistic expressions of liberty in 1855) and by Alexander Stephens in his despicable Cornerstone Speech of 1861. That’s how bad things are now.
I can’t imagine that anyone is any doubt about what I’m saying here. But if they are let me stress it again. The gun extremists I’m talking about are now immoral and demonic.
Immoral and demonic.
And now onto the interview with Frank Smyth about his new book, The NRA: the Unauthorized History.
Frank Smyth, The NRA: The Unauthorized History
For the first time, the definitive account of America’s most powerful, most secretive, and most controversial nonprofit, and how far it has strayed from its origins.
The National Rifle Association is unique in American life. Few other civic organizations are as old or as large. None is as controversial. It is largely due to the NRA that the U.S. gun policy differs so extremely ― some would say so tragically ― from that of every other developed nation. But, as Frank Smyth shows, the NRA has evolved from an organization concerned above all with marksmanship ― and which supported most government efforts around gun control for a hundred years ― to one that resists all attempts to restrict guns in any way. At the same time, the organization has also buried its own remarkable history.
Here is that story, from the NRA’s surprising roots in post-Civil War New York City to the defining event that changed its culture forever ― the so-called “Cincinnati Revolt” of 1977 ― to the present day, where President Donald Trump is the most ardent champion in the White House the NRA has ever had. For anyone who has looked at access to guns in our society and asked “Why?”, this is an unmatched account of how we got here, and who got us here.
Some sources to read: