I recently finished reading The Gun in America: The Origins of a National Dilemma (Praeger) by James LaVerne Anderson and Lee Kennett, two history professors at the University of Georgia. Published in 1975, it is 45 years old now. But its age is actually a strength rather than a weakness for my purposes.
One nice thing about the age of Kennett and Anderson’s work is that, unlike Frank Smyth’s (which I just reviewed) or even Adam Winkler’s (which I like much better), it does not interpret the NRA’s history through the lens of its post-Cincinnati Revolt, Wayne LaPierre-centric “present.” This makes the fallacy of the argument about an a-political NRA shine through all the more.
To be sure, in its very early history (say from its founding in 1871 into the 20th century, including 1892 to 1900 when it was essentially dormant), the National Rifle Association of America was clearly tasked to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis,” not to be involved in legislative politics. But the control of guns was not a major issue of legislative politics during this time either.
To counter the narrative that the NRA has fundamentally broken from its past as an a-political marksmanship organization that was all-too-happy to sign on to gun regulations, I submit several snippets of Kennett and Anderson’s larger history of guns in America. For example, Kennett and Anderson observe:
The gun came to America with the pilgrims but the “gun problem,” as anything more than a minor social irritant, appeared only with the 20th century. The burgeoning concern over firearms and their role in American life which began around 1900 was undoubtedly part of the new national consciousness of the Progressive Era. (p. 165)
As efforts to promote state and federal gun control legislation grew in the 1920s and 1930s, so to did the NRA’s attention to it. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Attorney General, Homer Cummings, began to develop a proposal for a National Firearms Act, “he had every hope of success” (p. 204). However, according to Kennett and Anderson, “Cummings probably underestimated the forces opposing him” (p. 205). They continue:
Small arms manufacturers, already wrestling with the problem of survival in the depression era, would present a solid front. There was also potential opposition in the nation’s several million hunters and its lesser numbers of gun collectors and target shooters, who had found a common spokesman in the National Rifle Association. (p. 205)
Already in the 1920s, the NRA “began to take an interest in firearms legislation generally, and played a role in the framing of the Capper Bill,” which regulated firearms in the District of Columbia.
By 1934 it was the largest association of firearms users in the country and the best organized. During the hearings on the National Firearms Act, a United States senator would describe its executive vice-president as “the most influential man in this country in opposition to firearms legislation.” (p. 206)
In hearings about Attorney General Cummings’ National Firearms Act, “the NRA conjured up the specter of compulsory registration of all firearms” (p. 208) — part of what Frank Smyth in his “unauthorized history” calls the modern NRA’s “Creed.”
Kennett and Anderson also report that committees considering the NFA “were visibly angry at the flood of letters and telegrams they received, and for this they blamed the NRA” (p. 208). The image below shows a humorous and telling exchange between U.S. Representative John McCormack of Massachusetts and General M.A. Reckford, Executive Vice-President of the NRA (Wayne LaPierre predecessor).
The NRA today is criticized for being uncompromising, but General Reckford was known to take a hard line himself back in the day.
In an apparent effort to get the Cummings Bill through unaltered, the attorney general’s office suggested a compromise that was also proposed in the House hearings: ownership of pistols would be regulated, but with special consideration being given to members of organized groups such as the NRA. General Reckford was not receptive to the idea. (p. 210)
In an attempt to stir up support and counter the NRA’s influence, “Assistant Attorney General Joseph Keenan told a meeting of the General Confederation of Women’s Clubs that the NRA had emasculated the proposal, thus showing itself more powerful than the Justice Department” (p. 211). Surely there is hyperbole in this statement, but the need to exaggerate no doubt highlights the central role being played by the NRA in the gun politics of the day.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and another wave of federal gun control legislation. Those who thought passage of laws would be easy in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy were frustrated. Kennett and Anderson’s observation here is again telling:
How is it then that the congressional mills ground so long without producing anything? The blame is usually placed on the NRA, spokesman of the “gun lobby,” whose oratory “mysteriously mesmerized” the Congress. (p. 238)
In a passage that could be written verbatim about the NRA today, Kennett and Anderson write of the NRA’s role in debates over the Gun Control Act of 1968:
As the argument grew more clamorous the NRA raised its voice. The Rifleman got a new editor in late 1966 and immediately took a more combative, hard-hitting line. But the cost of leadership was high. They NRA became a prime target for the opposition: its headquarters was picketed, its finances dissected, its tax-exempt status challenge, and its public image generally battered. (Page 242)
This hardly sounds like a benign marksmanship and education organization that willingly supported gun control regulation. Rather, “The Gun Control Act was the result of a great deal of maneuvering and debate in that hectic summer. It was grudgingly accepted by those who feared even more stringent measures” (p. 244).
I am not a professional historian, but it seems to me that the NRA has been political as long as the NRA has needed to be political. If the NRA has become more strident in tone, more hard-lined in position, and more partisan in alignment, this is because its political opponents have done so as well.