How The NRA Lost Its Mind

In the wake of last year’s shooting in Las Vegas, which saw 58 concertgoers murdered and 800+ injured, Donald Trump promised that we’d be soon “be talking about gun laws.” It was really easy to call bullshit on that promise, but then … we started talking about gun laws. Namely, a bill to ban “bump stocks,” the modification used by the shooter to up the kill-itude of his weapons. Just as quickly as that happened, however, we stopped talking about gun laws and the bill died with no explanation.

I was going to say something, but then a churchload of people was gunned down in Sutherland Springs. I thought we were then going to start talking about gun laws again. After all, it’d be pretty screwed up of the government to ignore the deadliest and third-most deadliest mass shootings ever … but then Donald Trump said that wasn’t “a gun situation” and everyone stopped talking about it.

We’re now seven weeks into 2018, and we’ve already had 30 mass shooting incidents, including Parkland. It kinda seems like we’re in the middle of a gun situation, you guys.

To hear gun control proponents out, one might think that the best, fastest solution to the mass shootings plaguing our country would be to take a shiny litigatory scalpel and excise the NRA — with their bottomless lobbying coffers, poisonous conspiracy theories, promotion of violence against protesters, and all-around assholery — from politics and wider society. It’s hard to argue against that. We certainly wouldn’t stand for that shit from, say, the dairy industry. But the NRA somehow gets a pass every damn time.

That’s a pretty reductionist view of the problem, though. We don’t need to completely tear down the NRA. But we do need to de-crazy those motherfluffers and take them back to the good ol’ days when they were a force for good in society.

NRAYes, were serious.

When the NRA was founded in 1871, its primary purpose was to teach “urban northerners” how to use guns as well as their Southern counterparts could, figuring that this disparity lengthened the Civil War by several years. The organization taught basic marksmanship and firearm maintenance, funded the construction of shooting ranges, partnered with the War Department to host tournaments, and sparked the interest of a thoroughly traumatized nation in need of some semblance of security.

They weren’t just teaching hunters how not to blow their balls off, however. They were also big players on Capitol Hill, where (and hold on to this next sentence like a wish that your heart makes) they spent their time politicking for both sides of the gun control debate. They campaigned against legislation that would have impugned their core membership base, hunters and sportsmen. But they also proposed and sponsored gun control bills. In the 1920s, for instance, they drafted handgun regulations not too dissimilar from those that they campaign against today: regulations requiring a permit for concealed weapons, a mandatory waiting period, and making records of gun sales available to law enforcement. In the 1930s, they went further and sponsored both the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Gun Control Act, which, among other things, banned felons from owning guns, required gun sellers and owners to register with the government, and placed heavy tax levies on guns associated with the likes of Bonnie & Clyde, and John Dillinger.

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via New York History BlogI have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses. — Karl Frederick, the President of the Freaking NRA, 1939

It all started to go wrong in the 1960s. As part of establishment efforts to spite the Black Panthers — who in 1967 marched on the California State Capitol building as part of a pushback against efforts to restrict the rights of black people to own guns — the NRA sponsored the Mulford Act, which banned the carrying of loaded weapons across California. They also sponsored the Gun Control Act of 1968, a piece of legislation which restricted the shipping of firearms and ammunition, placed a minimum age requirement on gun purchases, and banned drug addicts and the mentally ill from owning firearms. You’ll note that two of these three measures appear to have stuck around.

The group’s support for these bills caused a hardline faction to form within the NRA that was, to put it lightly, a bit miffed at how their supposed Second Amendment rights were being signed away without a fight. They issued a simple demand to the NRA leadership: Stop the education programs and start seriously lobbying against gun control, or else. The NRA called their bluff and pressed on with efforts to relocate from Washington, D.C. to Colorado, thereby completely disengaging the NRA from politics and, as a happy bonus, flipping the most ostentatious middle finger possible to the hardliners — who, it must be emphasized, had no possible line of recourse.

On May 21, 1977, at the NRA’s annual conference and in a stunning display of organization that future generations would come to know as the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” the rebel faction was able to decapitate and replace the entire leadership of the NRA with a single stroke. Out were the “elites,” in were the “real people” who wouldn’t hesitate to tell the government to get their stinkin’ paws off their guns. Enter Harlon Carter, a former chief of U.S. Border Control (and murderer). Under his leadership, the NRA realigned from education to rough, tough lobbying, a mission which gave the organization’s in-house lobbying group, the ILA (Institute for Legislative Action), a massive war chest and as much firepower as it needed.

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The rest is history. In 1980, they handed their first presidential endorsement to Ronald Reagan, noted Second Amendment advocate and, um … signatory to the Mulford Act. The 1980’s also saw the NRA strengthen its ties with gun manufacturers by making them a boatload of money through helping to decriminalize and loosen restrictions on concealed-carry firearms, previously considered jokes (or “mouse calibers”) by the wider gun community. The NRA hasn’t done too badly with this arrangement either, especially given the $20-52.6 million and $2.9 million in donations and advertising dues (respectively) that they’ve received from gun manufacturers.

So are we suggesting that we retake the NRA for common-sense-wielding gun owners? Sure. But it’s also important to note that they’ve opened a nasty can of worms that we’re never going to be able to put back in the bottle. Basically, they’ve rewritten how we interpret the Second Amendment, and in doing so, made gun control an impossibility for the foreseeable future.

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.

Although it’s easy to say that this very important phrase isn’t definitive, people who don’t ignore the historical context in which the Second Amendment was written — people who actually stop and think about not only their rights but their responsibilities as parts of a whole nation — know that it clearly refers to military activities, especially given the usage of the terms “militia” and “bear arms.” It didn’t need to be watertight when it was written because it was obvious to everyone what it meant. The Second Amendment guarantees state militias the right to bear arms. It’s a reading that stuck with us from 1791 throughout most of the 20th century, and was even ratified by the Supreme Court on four occasions.

Daderot/Wiki CommonsThis becomes important later, trust us.

Enter NRA 2.0. Within years of their rebirth, a slew of law review articles — written by scholars funded by the ILA — began to appear that argued that this reading was “incorrect,” that the Second Amendment doesn’t just guarantee state militias, but everyone the right to buy, stockpile, and use guns. And not just hunting rifles, but also pistols and other firearms crafted specifically to allow human beings to kill human beings without any training or skill. The support of prominent politicians such as Orrin Hatch and Ronald Reagan soon codified this definition, and as the years wore on, public opinion started to shift accordingly. By 2008, 73 percent of Americans supported the “everyone gets guns” interpretation of the Second Amendment. It was almost inevitable that when the time came, the Supreme Court would agree.

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As a result of this ruling, the court refuses to hear any other gun-related cases, apparently considering the matter settled. And that’s perhaps the worst thing: By refusing to hear any other cases (and remember that the old interpretation was challenged four times), they’re allowing an interpretation of the Second Amendment to exist that, unlike the rest of our constitutional rights, is totally unrestrained. We have the right to free speech, but not to libel. We have the right to religious freedom, but our religious practices can’t violate state laws. We have the right to bear arms, but … nothing. Doesn’t that seem a little weird?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images“You can have your guns, but we want the right to sacrifice people to Quetzalcoatl again.”

That’s why we’re constantly putting serious discussions about gun control on the back burner. Any attempt to discuss the damn topic is seen as a full-frontal assault on people’s rights, and that’s by sheer virtue of the fact that those rights are so far-ranging that there’s no line in the sand behind which we can make a stand and begin negotiating.

In the aftermath of any shooting, it’s easy to blame the Second Amendment for being so loose and open to abuse. But that’s not fair. It made sense to the people who wrote it, and as far back as only a few decades, it made sense to us. It’s just that we’ve been rewritten to ignore the context in which it was drafted. You can thank the NRA for that. And so will your children. And so, maybe, will your children’s children. The NRA will be long gone by then, but their history-twisting, self-serving legacy is going to take some years to flush out of the system.

Marina and Adam spread the good word on Twitter. Adam also has a Facebook page and a newsletter about creepy history that you should totally subscribe to.

Keep your guns in your blasted video games. Preferably ones like Red Dead Redemption, where you’re using old-timey ones.

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