Review of Frank Smyth’s “The NRA: The Unauthorized History” (2020), PART 1

TL:DR = In the end, although I think this book is wrong in fundamental ways, and I continue to look for scholarship that tells the whole history of the NRA in less biased manner, I did learn a few things from Frank Smyth’s “The NRA: The Unauthorized History,” captured in part in this blog post.

Journalist Frank Smyth recently published an “unauthorized history” of the National Rifle Association. I began the book in April, but because of 2020 I only just finished it this week. Following are my observations on the book, which were originally composed as a Tweet thread, so please forgive the scattershot nature of some of the observations.

A fundamental point of this book is that the early NRA bears essentially no resemblance to the NRA even of 50 years ago, and certainly not to the NRA post-Revolt at Cincinnati (1977). In my view, although the NRA has certainly evolved over the years as society itself has changed, the history of the organization in the 20th and 21st centuries does not reflect any fundamental break from its past.

Although Smyth does not present his argument this way, Chapter 3 of the book highlights the deep roots of the NRA’s political activity in opposition to gun control, once gun control became an issue in the early 20th century.

Smyth says gun control was not a concern of the NRA until 1920s, which would mean that it did not engage the 1911 Sullivan Law in New York. But this part of the organization’s history is glossed over, so who knows? Minimally I want to know more about why the NRA did not engage the original 1911 NY Sullivan Law, if that was in fact the case.

Later, Smyth quotes a 1922 editorial in the NRA magazine noting: “Our readers . . . do much to combat the passage of Sullivan laws.” Was this only after NY passed it? According to Kennett and Anderson’s history of The Gun in America, the Sullivan Act was passed in the NY State Senate by 37 to 5 and the State Assembly by 123 to 7. Perhaps the NRA just didn’t want to stick its leg in front of a runaway train?

Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection [LC-B2- 2768-7]

Smyth wants to claim the NRA fundamentally changed over time, but he also notes 1920s language that “would anticipate the NRA’s stance many years later” and sees “the seeds of an attitude that would blossom” later. Which begs the question: Is it fundamental change or an evolution to adapt to changing socio-political environments?

Last, Smyth quotes NRA President Karl Frederick’s famous line, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns” as if they defined the NRA’s stance. Smyth characterizes this view as “reasonable” – which, like “common sense,” is a political not descriptive term – and “anathema” to current NRA.

This is a good time to pause in this review and note that this is not the work of a professional historian. There is much more to be known about the political role of the NRA in the 1920s/30s and I hope someone does that work. (I am not a professional historian either). Also, there is a so much presentism here. Everything is treated as a foreshadowing or “presaging” (p. 59) of later events. Seeds are being planted or things are happening that the current NRA “would prefer to forget” (p. 55).

In Chapter 4, when C.B. Lister raises concerns about gun registration in 1944, it is “congruent with the paranoid backdrop of the McCarthy era” (p 59). So when the contemporary NRA raises those same concerns, guess what that makes them? At the end of this chapter, Smyth raises the issue of how the NRA Board of Directors is controlled by a Nominating Committee appointed by the same BoD, which makes the process akin to “a communist politburo.”

Generally when reading this book I get the general feeling that Smyth is like the Dana Carvey Saturday Night Live character “Grumpy Old Man.” He likes things the way they used to be. E.g., in 1937, C.B. Lister called Magnum revolvers a “freak class of weapon” that had “no practical function for the sportsman which cannot be [performed] as well or better by arms of standard type” (pp 54-55). Smyth says the modern NRA would “prefer to forget” this, but perhaps NRA leaders would instead say, “Yeah, those ideas were wrong. We’ve evolved in our thinking.” Today, Magnum revolvers are standard for handgun hunters, and many standard defensive revolvers shoot 38 special/357 Magnum rounds.

Likewise in 1955, Meritt Edson wrote, “Certain controls such as those which exist over the ‘wearing’ of concealed weapons are clearly constitutional and their being so does not affect the basic right to bear arms” (p 63). Has the NRA position evolved or devolved from there?

Last, Smyth makes the strong claim that a column in 1952 by Edson was “the first known . . . reference to the Second Amendment in the American Rifleman” (p. 63). I wish I had time to investigate this claim, about which I am dubious.

Chapter 5 ends Part One of the book covering the first hundred years of the NRA – i.e., the “good” NRA. Here we see increasing political activity by the NRA in response to increasing demands for gun control in the 1960s. Smyth argues “the NRA back then was still willing to compromise, as long as the rights of gun owners were respected” (p. 69). What does compromise entail, though? For the pre-Cincinnati NRA, “it is the criminal element at which our legislative guns should be aimed” (p. 69). Sounds familiar.

The pre-Cincinnati NRA viewed the following as unacceptable gun laws: “discriminatory or punitive taxes or fees” on firearms, “licens[ing] the possession or purchase” of guns, restricting transport by shooters or collectors, and “registration on any level of government” (p. 70). Again, all sound familiar to me today.

Acceptable gun laws include: prohibited persons (felons, etc.), “severe additional penalties for the use of a dangerous weapon in the commission of a crime,” and prohibition on “sale of firearms to juveniles” (p. 70). Once again, all of these sound familiar to me today.

The NRA also accepted “a law mandating the issuance of permits for citizens to legally carry concealed handguns” provided that “the authorized government agency was obliged to issue the license once [clearly stated] conditions had been met” (p. 70). That is, the NRA favored shall issue concealed carry laws. If the NRA today favors permitless carry, is this a fundamental break from tradition or a development of the organization’s position on the right of citizens to bear arms in public? I would say the latter.

The NRA today advocates for permitless concealed carry, but considering that only Washington State had shall issue permitting laws in the 1960s, it makes sense that the NRA would support shall issue carry laws which were/are superior to may/no issue laws.

To be sure the tone/stridency of the NRA has changed since its centennial in 1971, as has its alignment with the Republican Party. But so too has the tone/stridency of gun control advocates and the alignment of the Democratic Party with them.

When I finished Part One of this book, I felt it was interesting to read, but I didn’t think the author had clearly established that there used to be a good, moderate, compromising NRA from which the current NRA has devolved. Even though Part Two of the book covers “the shift” to what the author calls the “modern NRA,” Smyth did not successfully establishing his baseline in Part One.

Still, please read my review of Part Two of The NRA: The Unauthorized History, forthcoming.

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