How the NRA Works

How Did the NRA Evolve Into an Activist Organization?
Some Black Panthers hold guns during the group's protest at the California Assembly in 1967 in Sacramento. Ironically during the '60s, the liberal Panthers supported the right to bear arms, while the conservative NRA supported some gun control laws. Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" [source: National Archives]. Scholars have debated what exactly was the Constitutional framers' intent with regard to the average American owning a gun. But the world is obviously a different place now than it was in the 18th century when this amendment passed, and many politicians believe that gun ownership should be restricted and regulated.

When the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings in January 2013 in the aftermath of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut in which a mentally ill young man armed with a military-style semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and two semiautomatic handguns killed 20 children and six adults, NRA executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre appeared to argue against new firearms restrictions. "Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of violent or deranged criminals," LaPierre testified. "Nor do we believe the government should dictate what we can lawfully own and use to protect our families" [source: Judiciary].

But the NRA wasn't always opposed to new gun control legislation. In fact, there was a time, in the 1920s and 1930s, when the organization helped to write it. The then-NRA president Karl T. Frederick, a former Olympic champion pistol shooter, helped to draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model for state gun laws, in which police permits were required for carrying concealed handguns, gun dealers had to report sales to law enforcement agencies and a two-day waiting period was imposed on sales [source: Winkler].

In congressional testimony about the National Firearm Act of 1934, which required federal registration of weapons such as machine guns and sawed-off rifles, Frederick said that while he didn't believe "in the general promiscuous toting of guns," he was opposed to the law. This was not because he was against gun control but because he thought from a constitutional standpoint it should be left to the states [source: Shamaya].

In the 1960s, the NRA actually supported new federal gun laws. In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald bought the rifle used to assassinate President John F. Kennedy from a mail order ad in an NRA magazine. The NRA's executive vice president at the time, Franklin Orth, testified to Congress in favor of banning mail-order rifle sales, and gave measured support to the Gun Control Act of 1968, saying that although it was "unduly restrictive" for law-abiding citizens, the law "appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with." With the rise of the Black Panther Party whose members openly toted weapons, some NRA members were concerned about guns getting in the "wrong hands." The Gun Control Act cut down on the importation of "Saturday Night Specials" often used in urban crime [source: Winkler].

But in the 1970s, the NRA's politics began to shift, as gun owners increasingly became people who bought firearms for protection rather than for sports. In 1976, the then-EVP announced that the NRA was leaving Washington as it was retreating from lobbying to concentrate on promoting recreational shooting [source: Winkler]. This was too much for the new breed of activists. At the NRA's annual convention in Cincinnati in 1977, a grass-roots insurgency ousted the existing leadership and took the NRA in a more stridently anti-regulatory direction [source: Achenbach, Higham and Horowitz]

The NRA's switch coincided with a time when changes in campaign finance regulations made it easier to infuse money into politics. The NRA soon became a formidable fundraising juggernaut — in the words of National Public Radio news analyst Ron Elving, "making and breaking candidacies at the state and federal level." It's continued to exert that influence ever since.

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