Even the NRA used to be sane

Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor, is writing a book and dug up some really interesting information about the NRA:

Reports indicate that the Obama administration may be considering new gun control proposals to limit the size of magazines or to strengthen background checks on gun purchasers. One thing you can bet on is that the National Rifle Association will oppose any such measures.

Yet it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, the NRA used to draft and promote restrictive gun control laws.

In researching my book, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, I discovered that the NRA used to be far more open-minded on gun control — and, amazingly, paid almost no attention whatsoever to the Second Amendment.

The NRA was founded by William Church and George Wingate after the Civil War. Wingate and Church — the latter a former reporter for a newspaper not exactly known for its love of gun rights, the New York Times — both fought in the War on the Union side. They were shocked by the poor marksmanship of Union soldiers and convinced that one reason the Confederacy was able to hold out so long before surrender was because their soldiers had more experience shooting. Church and Wingate’s goal for the NRA was to improve the marksmanship of civilians who might one day be called to serve in the military, not to fight gun control.

These days, the NRA is known for its anti-government rhetoric; Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president, has called some federal law enforcement officers “a jack-booted group of fascists” and warned that “if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” Yet it was government largess in the form of subsidies and special sales of discounted firearms that helped the NRA grow in its formative years. Were it not for a generous government grant of $25,000 to buy land for a rifle range by the state of New York — a modern-day target of much NRA hostility — the NRA might never have gotten off the ground.

The old NRA also promoted gun control. In the 1920s, NRA leaders helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act — model legislation for states to adopt that established new, restrictive rules on carrying firearms in public. Karl Frederick, the NRA’s president, said at the time, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons… I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The Uniform Firearms Act only awarded licenses to “suitable” persons with a “proper reason” for carrying and created a waiting period before a newly purchased handgun could be delivered to the purchaser. Today’s NRA, by contrast, fights to eliminate these very same requirements.

The NRA also endorsed the first major federal gun control law of the modern era, the National Firearms Act of 1934. During hearings on the proposed legislation, which imposed heavy restrictions on machine guns and other gangster weapons, Karl Frederick was asked how the Second Amendment affected this groundbreaking law. His answer was astounding: “I have not given it any study from that point of view.”

He discovered that a hardcore group of gun rights advocates (who thought guns should be for “personal protection” against a rising crime rate) who were angry over the NRA’s endorsement of the 1968 Gun Control Act basically staged a coup in 1977 and took control of the organization.

Imagine that. So even the NRA used to be sane.

This post is written as part of the Media Matters Gun Facts fellowship. The purpose of the fellowship is to further Media Matters’ mission to comprehensively monitor, analyze, and correct conservative misinformation in the U.S. media. Some of the worst misinformation occurs around the issue of guns, gun violence, and extremism, the fellowship program is designed to fight this misinformation with facts.

One thought on “Even the NRA used to be sane

  1. When I was growing up in the 1960’s, I knew quite a few men who belonged to the NRA. They were hunters that supported conservation and gun safety which were goals of the NRA (along with enjoying the magazine). By the 1980’s, they all had quit. I really believe that the NRA is an organization bankrolled by the gun manufacturers and with a small rabid membership.

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