Review of Frank Smyth’s “The NRA: The Unauthorized History” (2020), PART 2

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.

Yesterday I published the first of this two part review of Frank Smyth’s recent book, The NRA: The Unauthorized History (Flatiron Books, 2020). Here I conclude my review by examining Part Two of the book, “The Shift.”

“The shift” refers to the process begun in the early 1970s which gave rise to what the author calls the “modern NRA.” In the same way that post-Civil War reconstruction was a second founding of the United States as a nation, post-Gun Control Act of 1968 reconstruction was a second founding of the National Rifle Association, led by Harlon Carter and Neil Knox.

Smyth’s accounts here are again based largely on newspaper stories and The American Rifleman, so little new ground is broken. Some of the description of Neil Knox is taken from his son, Chris Knox, who compiled and annotated Neil’s writings in The Gun Rights War.

The NRA didn’t register a lobbyist until 1974 (and established the NRA-ILA only in 1975), “to be able to counter effectively one of the most powerful anti-gun campaigns yet mounted, in the legislative halls and news media,” according to The Rifleman (p. 95).

In this same paragraph, Smyth repeats the often stated but still unproven claim that the NRA is “the most vaunted and powerful of America’s lobbyists.” This claim has also been made recently by the PBS television program “Frontline,” NPR reporter Tim Mak, who is working on his own book on the NRA, and the Gangster Capitalism podcast, which I otherwise like). I guess that makes the story more dramatic and the NRA more villainous.

The NRA’s second founding certainly placed protection of gun rights at the center of its concerns, but Smyth makes clear that these concerns were warranted. Certainly figures like Robert MacNeil (later of PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer), NYC Mayor John Lindsay, and Handgun Control Inc. were upping the ante. But there is also a lot even in this period that is of a piece with the modern NRA.

Smyth claims that “rather than simply shun allegedly unfriendly media, as it tends to do today, [it] engaged with critics of all kinds” (p. 93). He cites a response to Ann Landers in The Rifleman. But the response he quotes includes name-calling (“the syndicated sexpert”), questioning her veracity, and sarcasm (“paragon of social wisdom”). Smyth himself describes the NRA column as scornful. To quote David Byrne, same as it ever was.

Consider also what Smyth (erroneously) describes as the NRA’s asking for the media’s help. “On CBS News in the summer of 1972, [Sen. Kennedy] challenged the NRA ‘to develop its own educational program, so buyers of guns will …show they know how to use the weapons they buy.” Smyth continues, “The NRA responded by declaring to all three networks ‘that it was ready, willing and able to teach firearms safety on a national scale’ if the ‘television networks would cooperate’ by providing a forum for this programming. The offer was not accepted” (p. 94).

Asking for help? I rather see this as an example of the NRA showing the disingenuousness of Kennedy and the media (which are aligning in the new post-sixties gun control milieu), who–as I have said of gun control vs. gun rights–want safety FROM guns not safety WITH guns. It’s the same today. #GunSafety organizations today focus largely on promoting gun regulations (safety from guns) and little on teaching firearms safety in practice (safety with guns). TV networks today are no more likely to provide a forum for firearms safety information than back then.

Chapter 6 concludes by noting that among the changes made during the Cincinnati Revolt were “tightening the bylaws to make it harder to change them thereafter, preempting future challengers” (p. 100). As we now know, the consequences of this policy change weigh heavily on the NRA today.

In Chapter 7 we see how Cincinnati revolutionary Harlon Carter solidified his power atop the organization and set it on its current course. This includes its culture warrior stance, though Smyth provides minimal evidence for this.

Wayne LaPierre appears in 1978 and the chapter ends with his ascendancy in 1990 to the position of Executive VP, which he still occupies. Ackerman McQueen, so heavily implicated in the NRA’s current woes, arrives on the scene in 1984. By 1986, it has taken over for the NRA’s public education section. The shift in organizational emphasis toward vigorously defending the Right to Keep and Bear Arms against all challenges is reflected in the NRA’s new motto post-Cincinnati, but it would be good to know more about how the shift affected NRA programming. Financial records are tightly guarded, as Smyth is quick to point out, but there are many living witnesses to this history who could speak on the topic.

I read through this part of the book in the summer of 2020, so the quote at the start of Chapter 8 from Marion Hammer in the wake of the Rodney King riots in 1992 really stood out: “You Loot-We Shoot.”

Of course, there was so much happening in the early 1990s beyond Rodney King. 1991: Luby’s Cafeteria massacre, 1992: Ruby Ridge, 1994: Branch Davidians, 1994: Crime Bill/Brady Bill, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. And all the while there are internal struggles taking place in the NRA as Wayne LaPierre (WLP) tries to consolidate his power. Neal Knox continued to play the role, in Smyth’s recounting, of Leon Trotsky, Don Quixote, or Captain Ahab throughout the 1990s (p. 135).

This chapter draws on some of Smyth’s original reporting for the Village Voice and detailed descriptions of the drama are welcome. We hear the story covered also in Gangster Capitalism podcast series on the NRA of Knox getting the board to to cut ties with Ackerman McQueen (AckMac) over overbilling only to have WLP hire Mercury Group, a subsidiary of AckMac. Knox’s victory was also his demise as WLP consolidated his power. Enter Anthony Makris of AckMac/Mercury Group and Hollywood director John Milius, and thereby Charlton Heston and the rest is history.

In Chapter 9, “The Business Model,” Smyth claims: “Wayne LaPierre turned the NRA into a peerless force in Washington” (p. 153). I am not going to rehash this (but see, for example, this post), but in terms of political influence in Washington, the NRA has many peers. And other organized interests are even more forceful in DC.

Smyth is particularly concerned about the passage/non-passage of laws that are out of step with public opinion: “the NRA has long been able to lead lawmakers to repeatedly pass laws wholly incongruous with the views of most voters” (p. 164). But this concern is shaped by one’s stance on the issue. I don’t always want laws to reflect majority pub op (e.g., policing, same sex marriage). A majority in MS (59%), AL (58%), KY (57%) & LA (57%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases and they got that law. It is also the case that laws don’t just reflect public opinion but form it. The shall issue revolution in concealed carry beginning in 1986 shifted Americans views on the concealed carry. Smyth wisely cites the Gun Culture 2.0 blog on this development (p. 164).

The last three chapters of “The Unauthorized History” are more contemporary and perhaps because Smyth is trying to capture an unfolding story, these are more scattershot. For example, Chapter 10 (“Hidden Hands”) covers the NRA’s funding of legal scholarship, its relationship to race/civil rights, AR15s, and more

The “Hidden Hands” refer to the NRA’s manipulation of legal scholarship by paying for “pro-gun” law review articles, briefs, and testimony, directly or indirectly. Smyth identifies David Kopel and Stephen Halbrook as the most important players. According to Smyth, “The modern NRA’s legal strategy may well be the most successful case of strategic advocacy in any field in terms of its impact on American jurisprudence” (p. 175). E.g., Kopel’s brief in Heller was cited 4 times, including in Scalia’s majority opinion (p. 179).

Smyth also highlights the NRA’s complex relationship to race. LaPierre’s claim that “open doors for minorities…has been at the center of the NRA’s existence” (p. 182) is a clear exaggeration. In the 1950s Robert Williams’s received an NRA charter for his Black Armed Guard, though my colleague Alex Young pointed me to some evidence that Williams downplayed the fact that his was a black gun club fearing that the NRA would not have granted the charter had they known.

Of course, Otis McDonald of McDonald v. Chicago (extending Heller) also gets a mention here. McDonald was an African American who made the Great Migration from Louisiana to Chicago and later decided to arm himself because, “I just got the feeling that I’m on my own” (p. 181). Certainly the NRA didn’t create that feeling, even if they took advantage of it to push the cause of gun rights.

Chapter 11, “A Family Sport,” opens with a nod to NRA-sponsored shooting competitions, but only to set up a discussion of Sandy Hook and the NRA’s response. Here the NRA’s “hidden hand” reappears in the form of testimony by David Kopel and David Hardy. This chapter mostly covers familiar ground and ends with a potpourri of brief snippets: on Maria Butina’s “Right to Bear Arms” group, massacres at Emanuel AME Church and Pulse Nightclub, NRA honoring civilian law enforcement, Christianity, and North Carolina Lieutenant Governor-elect Mark Robinson (who was nominated but not elected to the NRA Board of Directors).

The concluding chapter covers what Smyth calls “The Creed.” But before that it briefly surveys contemporary woes like Carry Guard, Ackerman McQueen, and related financial and legal problems. Some of this played out at the 2019 NRA Annual Meeting in a failed “Revolt at Indy,” which kept Wayne LaPierre in power and which I witnessed and documented in part. For this part of the NRA’s history I cannot recommend more highly the provocative and entertaining “Gangster Capitalism” podcast (season 2) by Cadence 13 productions.

According to Smyth, the NRA Creed has two parts: “No law-abiding gun owners should ever be penalized or even inconvenienced over the misuse of firearms by others. And almost any form of gun control would require gun registration, which would inevitably lead to gun confiscation, followed by tyranny if not genocide” (p. 233). To which Smyth adds a comment on the “dubious merits of these assertions” (p. 233).

In the end, Smyth’s book is premised on the idea that the modern NRA is fundamentally different than the original NRA, straying from its origins. To be sure the NRA has changed over time, significantly after 1977, and it is a troubled organization today. But is this an evolutionary development or radical break from its origins? I would say the former. The NRA became political in the early 20th century when gun control efforts expanded. As control efforts grew, so too did the NRA’s political efforts. But even early on we see both elements of “The Creed.”

Bottom line: 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, some of which is captured in this and my previous blog post reviewing the book.

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4 comments

  1. David, so glad you reviewed this book (so I don’t have to miss something more valuable for my reading time). Like Bellesiles’ “Arming America”, there will always be Gun Control hagiography and misleading ‘academic studies’ to weed through and criticize. Great that you pulled out the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chafe’ for those of us following the current woes of the ongoing WLP saga. I quite agree on your estimate of the ‘NRA is the most powerful lobby in Washington’ trope. An old friend who was lobbyist for a farmer’s organization laughed out loud when she was lambasted by a food industry lobbyist (industry is NOT the friend of the farmer producing the food ingredients) as ‘the only lobby to rival the NRA’! She pointed out that there are hundreds of government ‘influencers’ far more effective and powerful than the NRA. Any way, enough mondering, do keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! My wife and I go to DC every year to celebrate an anniversary and we often stay at a hotel on K Street. You just have to walk up and down that block a bit, or anyplace in DC for that matter, to see your point. E.g., the American Pharmacists Association has a sweet spot between the Lincoln Memorial and State Department, the only privately owned building on the National Mall.

      Liked by 2 people

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