The Once and Future NRA

This past July I “liked” on my Facebook page an article by Juan Cole entitled “How Long Will We Let the National Rifle Association and Corrupt Politicians Kill Our Children?”   Cole, a history professor at Michigan, wrote his article on the heels of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting.   He pointed out the shooter used a semi-automatic rifle to fire off multiple rounds of ammunition, quickly.  It was a gun which had been restricted under the assault weapons ban which Congress allowed to lapse in 2004.  It turns out it was the same gun used in the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Back in July, I thought the likely answer to Professor Cole’s question would have been: “At least until after the November elections.”   I join the millions of others who reacted in anger and sadness to the Newtown tragedy with a more urgent, direct answer: “No longer.”

On the heels of this tragedy, opinion writers around the country have pounced on the subject of gun control, with comparisons that regulations for ladders are more stringent than for guns , or that it is easier to adopt a pet than to buy a gun, or that even toy guns have regulations.

The obstacle to any form of gun control, as Professor Cole pointed out, has been the NRA, which took a week to respond in any form, and then, when it finally did, it trotted out the same old talking points that had served them so well for so long.  Their public relations playbook must read something like: “Hunker down.  This too will pass.  Don’t give an inch; blame people and the media.  Any chink in the right to bear arms could result in the prohibition of all guns, tomorrow.”   The face of the NRA was once again Wayne La Pierre, the same man who, in 2000, blamed Bill Clinton for tolerating gun shootings in order to promote gun control.

What’s interesting is that the NRA has only adopted that playbook within the last 30 years.  It started out a different organization, in 1871 right after the Civil War, as a response to the poor marksmanship of the urban Northern soldiers.  Well into this century, it focused its activities on hunting and the outdoors.

Given the rhetoric from the NRA recently, it is striking to learn that even they once advocated for gun control, as early as the 1930s and as recently as the 1960s.  One president of the organization, Karl T. Frederick, developed model legislation for state gun control laws.  His testimony during the Congressional deliberations in 1934 to pass the first major national gun control laws reveals the separation between the organization and its current all-out embrace of the Second Amendment.  When a congressman asked if he thought the law under consideration “is unconstitutional or that it violates any constitutional provision,” Frederick responded, “I have not given it any study from that point of view. I will be glad to submit in writing my views on that subject, but I do think it is a subject which deserves serious thought.”   The National Firearms Act passed in 1934, and four years later the Federal Firearms Act passed.  Among other provisions, these limited the ownership of automatic weapons through heavy taxes and licensed firearms sellers.   Their target was principally organized crime.

Bill of Rights.  Photo: National Archives

Bill of Rights. Photo: National Archives

The NRA in the 1960s also advocated gun control legislation, first after the nation learned the Lee Harvey Oswald had purchased his rifle by mail order, through an ad in the NRA magazine.  Laws were only passed following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  Again, the NRA supported the legislation, with its Vice President, Franklin Orth, testifying before Congress in support of the proposed law to ban mail order sales of guns, among other provisions.

Since that time, the NRA has reversed course and consistently assumed its don’t-give-an-inch position, working to prevent passage of the Brady Bill, taking lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court, and working to remove from office politicians who promote the slightest movement in the direction of safe use of guns in our society.

However, a look backwards shows us that, much like the limits on free speech (yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater,) we have accepted lines drawn to limit any absolute view of our right to bear arms.  Even the NRA once supported drawing lines.  In fact, if it really wants to protect the right of the people to bear arms, it might want to reconsider its stance, as its absolutism may actually be harming its cause.  Imagine an organization which actually knows about arms, leading the way, like it once did, to advocate limits, to prevent the next Newtown, the next Aurora, the next Columbine.   It could be an organization that would look back on the past 30 years as an exception, a tarnished period in its own history.  Better, it could help avoid having to repeat Professor Cole’s question every few months.

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