I confess that I have always been jealous of historians and historical sociologists because their wide field of vision offers so many insights into the present. Good history helps us see where we came from, and how the present day is or is not different from the past. Total immersion into a previous time period must be an amazing intellectual experience, and those who can convey what it was like to be living in that earlier time are remarkable.
I hope my own work analyzing gun advertising in The American Rifleman over a 100 year period will give me some insight into how American gun culture has changed over time, but I am also very aware that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.
For example, I am not a historian of the National Rifle Association as an organization. I have observed, however, a common narrative that the NRA was founded as an a-political marksmanship organization and remained so until the 1977 Cincinnati Revolt which transformed it into an extremist gun lobby.
To wit: a very long 2013 Washington Post story was titled “How NRA’s true believers converted a marksmanship group into a mighty gun lobby.” The story claims:
The organization, about a century old already [in 1977], was thoroughly mainstream and bipartisan, focusing on hunting, conservation and marksmanship. It taught Boy Scouts how to shoot safely. But the world had changed, and everything was more political now. The rebels saw the NRA leaders as elites who lacked the heart and conviction to fight against gun-control legislation.
After the Cincinnati Revolt, the story continues, “the NRA overcame tremendous internal tumult and existential crises, developed an astonishing grass-roots operation and became closely aligned with the Republican Party. Today it is arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the nation’s capital and certainly one of the most feared.”
There’s no question that a struggle over the direction of the NRA took place in 1977, but in looking back through old issues of The American Rifleman, I cannot help but question this simple narrative.
Consider three issues of The American Rifleman from the late 1940s and early 1950s. (In my study of gun advertising, we are analyzing one randomly selected issue per year from 1917 to 2017.)
The April 1949 Legislative Bulletin, for example, begins by noting: “Response has been spontaneous and effective where warning of unwise legislation has reached shooters through NRA Legislative Bulletins. The Association is highly gratified at the prompt and effective action which members have taken to protect the rights of the shooters and sportsmen of the country.”
One of the reasons the NRA is an effective lobby is because it largely represents the interests of its members, and that its members are willing to take political action as necessary to support the NRA’s lobbying positions. Even someone writing in The New Yorker recognized this in a 2015 story called “Taking on the NRA”:
In many accounts, the power of the N.R.A. comes down to money. … But money is less crucial than you’d think. The N.R.A.’s annual lobbying budget is around three million dollars, which is about a fifteenth of what, say, the National Association of Realtors spends. The N.R.A.’s biggest asset isn’t cash but the devotion of its members. Adam Winkler, a law professor at U.C.L.A. and the author of the 2011 book “Gunfight,” told me, “N.R.A. members are politically engaged and politically active. They call and write elected officials, they show up to vote, and they vote based on the gun issue.”
And apparently have done so for some time.
The Legislative Bulletin in the June 1951 issue also has interesting comments in its preface to the bills being introduced in various states. After noting that many state legislatures had already adjourned, it encouraged readers in states still in session to “study this bulletin carefully for any bill that can affect your right to own a personal weapon and use it for sport, home protection, and national security.” Although personal protection outside the home is not specifically mentioned, home defense is clearly seen as a motivation for owning a personal weapon, as is national security!
The column further recognizes, “Not all the bills reported here are necessarily bad.” Perhaps this is the mainstream and bipartisan nature that the Washington Post refers to in describing the pre-Cincinnati NRA? But that same sentence immediately adds, “but note how many well-intended proposals tend to chip away, a little at a time, at time honored rights and privileges. Looked at singly, and in the light of one good cause or another, these proposals may seem to call for small sacrifices. Looked at in the aggregate, they may easily spell the end of satisfaction and pleasure owning and using guns; eventually the end of our legal right to do so.”
A.k.a., The Slippery Slope! The argument was not invented by Harlon Carter, Neal Knox, Charlton Heston, and Wayne LaPierre.
That passage’s reference to “time honored rights” and “our legal right” also calls into question an argument made by Adam Winkler in an editorial published immediately following the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre. In “NRA took hard right after leadership coup,” Winkler claims:
For most of its history, the NRA completely ignored the Second Amendment. If you go through old issues of the NRA’s signature publication, American Rifleman, from the 1940s and 1950s, you can read issue after issue without finding a single mention of the Second Amendment. The organization was focused on marksmanship and hunting, not shooting down gun control.
I usually like Winkler’s work. I even called his book Gunfight “the best single-volume treatment of guns in American history” and I assign it to my Sociology of Guns students every semester. A charitable reading would say that Winkler was really talking about where the priorities of the organization were at the time. And I would agree that the NRA’s emphasis on the Second Amendment was less in the 1940s and 1950s than it is post-Cincinnati. But so too were the threats to the Second Amendment in the 1940s and 50s.
Less charitably, Winkler makes an empirical claim (albeit in the second person) about going through issues of The American Rifleman in the 40s and 50s and not “finding a single mention of the Second Amendment” which is simply false. I looked at just one issue of the magazine from 1949, 1951, and 1953 and I found mention of the Second Amendment in every one, if we consider references to “your right to own a personal weapon” (1949) and “our legal right” (1951) as references to the Second Amendment. Where else would the right come from?
The April 1953 issue of The American Rifleman makes the importance of the Second Amendment still clearer, with a bolded statement above the headline on “New Firearms Bills”:
If American sportsmen are to preserve their right to keep and bear arms, constant vigilance — plus work– are necessary.
As in 1951, the column recognizes that “hundreds of bills have been introduced in the many state legislatures this year” and that many “are petty or innocuous.” There’s that mainstream, bipartisan attitude again!
BUT, as before, the cautionary flag is waved from the start: “In the very volume of the material, however, there is the grave danger that something damaging may pass unnoticed or unpublicized.
The volume of bills emphasizes one great need of paramount importance — for NRA members and all interested law-abiding sportsmen personally to make their own representatives at the state legislature aware of the problem and the very great stake the citizen has in preserving the right to own and bear private firearms for lawful purposes.
The column concludes by imploring readers, “Don’t overlook the opportunity to personally take your part in this battle to retain basic rights that would be infringed upon by much of this proposed legislation.”
As anyone following my project knows, I am NOT saying nothing has changed in American gun culture over time. The fact that home protection is mentioned but not personal protection outside the home is significant, as is the frequent reference to sport and sportsmen.
But to the extent that the political aspect of the NRA has changed, how much of the change is explainable in terms of the increasing scope and intensity of gun control efforts to which the organization has had to respond from the 1960s forward? Also, if the NRA became more closely aligned with one party than previously, how much is that due to the fact that anti-gun sentiments became more closely aligned with the other party than previously?