A Brief History
On November 16, 1871, the National Rifle Association received its charter from the State of New York, starting a long and distinguished history as a major force in encouraging marksmanship by Americans as preparation for possible military service and promoting the shooting sports. Later emphasis on the rights of gun owners and shooters embroiled the organization in political mire and in recent years the once universally admired organization has generated much backlash against its political activities, including hatred from those that oppose the 2nd Amendment. How did things go so wrong? The answer is a bit complex, to say the least!
The roots of the NRA go back to the beginning of the American Civil War, when Americans in England realized the need for trained marksmen on a large scale to man the ranks of the growing US Army. President Lincoln was sent a letter communicating this proposal, using the British Rifle Association as an example, an organization that had formed in 1959 and still exists as the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom. The proposal included the establishment of a rifle shooting range and the conduct of marksmanship competitions, with the awarding of Whitworth rifles as prizes, some of the most accurate long distance rifles of their day. The urgencies of war delayed the formation of the NRA until 1871, when Union Army Civil War General Ambrose Burnside, who had worked as a gunsmith prior to the Civil War, was elected the first President of the NRA.
The choice of Burnside as NRA President was appropriate as he had experienced first hand the lamentable lack of marksmanship skills by Union soldiers, causing him to comment, “Out of ten soldiers who are perfect in drill and the manual of arms, only one knows the purpose of the sights on his gun or can hit the broad side of a barn.” Burnside was well aware of a study that concluded it took about 1000 shots fired by Union soldiers to hit a single Confederate soldier! Previously, Napoleonic tactics of un-aimed volley fire used when smooth bore muskets were general issue no longer applied to the standard issue of rifled weapons to common soldiers, and marksmanship had become an important factor.
NRA officers went to European countries to observe and learn from training techniques used by modern armies, and brought back the knowledge to the United States where soldiers and civilians were trained in the art of marksmanship. Contests and competitions were arranged and conducted, and Americans became premier shooters in rifle competition, thanks largely to the efforts of the NRA. NRA chapters and clubs sprung up across the US, including association with National Guard units. Prominent Americans such as former President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant and former General Phillip Sheridan took turns as NRA President. In 1903, Congress created the Director of Civilian Marksmanship, often referred to as the CMP, an office closely associated with the NRA. The NRA has counted numerous American Presidents among its members and today claims around 5.5 million members, including President Donald Trump..
At this point it is appropriate to discuss the background of firearms in the United States, and until 1934, the long history of free access and ownership of firearms was not particularly challenged. Americans had the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution to guarantee their right to “keep and bear arms,” which is somewhat confusing to the casual reader that reads the 2nd Amendment without context. The framers of the Constitution specifically meant the common citizen should have access to military type weapons, which was a contradiction to the common practice in European countries where since the Middle Ages governments feared their people having swords and other weapons of war. The Federalist Papers provide insight to exactly what our Founding Fathers were referring to, which is simply that a people cannot be free without arms to resist a tyrannical government. Not only did the widespread ownership of firearms greatly enhance the ability of the American people to successfully seek independence from Britain, those same firearms were a necessary tool on the frontier, putting meat on the table and protecting citizens from hostile Native Americans and bandits. For about a century and a half the right of Americans to be armed went more or less unchallenged until the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), a law passed in response to an era of well publicized outlaws wielding a variety of heavy firepower such as Thompson submachine guns, Browning Automatic Rifles, sawed off shotguns and the like. Americans could still buy and own such weapons, including sound suppressor devices, but those certain items were controlled by the government and a hefty excise tax was placed on certain weapons and devices (notably machine guns) to discourage widespread casual use of such weapons.
While the NFA of 1934 would seem to infringe on the rights of Americans to be armed with military style weapons, the NRA did not object to the legislation, nor did it object to the follow on legislation known as Federal Firearms Act of 1938. When Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, the NRA also supported that legislation that further defined regulation of firearms and limitations on certain types of weapons. The NRA continued to promote shooting sports, including hunting, and to promote the free exercise of shooting sports and firearms ownership.
The GCA of 1968 alarmed many gun owners and activists in the United States and the NRA, causing a backlash against the law and other restrictive measures being proposed by gun control advocates. By the mid-1970’s the NRA had become the foremost champion of civil rights of Americans concerning gun ownership and use and became embroiled in the now strident political debates about gun control vs. gun rights. The NRA gradually transformed from a non-partisan organization to one that vociferously supported politicians that supported 2nd Amendment rights, which meant a de facto endorsement of mostly Republican Party candidates. Enormous amounts of money began to flow into NRA coffers to support political activity, and both sides of the gun control debate started backing political candidates based solely on the candidate’s stance over gun rights. This political shift alienated many NRA members with Democratic Party ties and Democrats became maligned and castigated by their own party if they maintained any association with the NRA. In 1980 the NRA backed Ronald Reagan for President of the US, the first such endorsement in the history of the organization. Eventually, hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent by the NRA in major election years (2010 revenues of about $228 million).
In the next few decades the gun control crowd became increasingly radical in its opposition to gun rights, with prominent politicians advocating for the outlawing of civilian gun ownership and repeal of the 2nd Amendment or the outlawing (and even confiscation) of certain types of firearms, or even all firearms. The highly publicized instances of mass shootings in the US, especially at schools, has created a bitter point of contention between gun control advocates and gun rights supporters, especially the NRA. Gun control advocates (“gun grabbers” to many hard line gun rights types) have been demanding “common sense” gun control reform and have been labeling the NRA as “murderers” for supporting gun rights and the Constitution of the United States! The rhetoric has become nasty and divisive to the extreme, and the NRA has sometimes reacted poorly to criticism, fanning the flames itself.
A pair of extremely important cases heard and decided by the Supreme Court of the United States brought by the NRA against overly restrictive gun laws were enormous victories for the NRA and for gun rights advocates, notably District of Columbia et al. v. Heller 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago 2010, cases that confirmed the constitutional right of individual Americans to keep and bear arms, not just “well organized militia.” The NRA continues to back major court cases concerning gun rights in a constant see-saw battle against gun control zealots. The passage of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005 was another major coup by the NRA, legislation that prohibits harassment lawsuits against gun manufacturers by victims of gun violence. Financial support for the NRA by firearms manufacturers has also created an area of controversy, allowing anti-gun people to describe the NRA as a “tool of the gun industry.”
In the 21st Century the status of the NRA has become even more polarizing, much as the polarizing of the political landscape of the United States at large. The NRA, as have other lobbying organizations, benefited from the Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court, which allows mass quantities of money to flow into organizations from anonymous sources, including foreign sources. Unfortunately, the “foreign” part of “foreign sources” has allegedly included Russia, a country proven to be currently meddling in American politics, mostly in support of President Trump, creating a scandal that is adversely affecting the NRA and dividing its members. Additionally, internal squabbles have become public, and allegations of the misuse of funds has undermined the integrity of the NRA.
Meanwhile, the gun control vs. gun rights debate is raging full steam in the United States, and the “common sense” proposals offered are often not so common sense! Seldom does a gun control proposal in reaction to a particular incident offer any hope of preventing such an incident, with a bizarre lack of correlation to the problem that absolutely defies all logic. Frustration at finding some sort of new laws or regulations that can actually prevent many gun crimes, especially mass shootings, is driving the gun control crowd to demand ever more restrictive measures, inflaming opposition from the NRA and gun rights advocates.
And to think, this incredibly divisive debate is occurring when murders are committed at a far lower rate today than they were back in 1970’s and 1980’s! Watching the television news would make Americans believe there is some sort of mass murder shooting spree going on today far in excess of the past, but the truth is considerably different. Mass shootings and the use of semi-automatic rifles of the military clone variety remain a tiny percentage of actual murders in the US, a highly misleading impression willfully espoused by the gun grabber crowd.
Will the NRA recover from its bad recent publicity and public image problems to once again take a high place in the opinion of the American public? Will the NRA be able to continue to successfully support gun rights, or will the organization falter and become increasingly less relevant? Time will tell, and for that matter, you can feel free to tell us your predictions!
Question for students (and subscribers): Will the NRA recover its prestige and influence, or continue to decline? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Charles, Patrick. Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry. Prometheus, 2019.
Smyth, Frank. The NRA: The Unauthorized History. Flatiron Books, 2020.
Winkler, Adam. Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.