National Rifle Association

National Rifle Association
National Rifle Association

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is an organization that promotes the rights and interests of gun owners, and often views any perceived restriction of those rights and interests by the government as a conspiracy against the liberty of its members.

It was founded in 1871 by Colonel William C. Church and General George W. Wingate. Prompted by worries over the poor marksmanship of Union soldiers during the Civil War, the NRA’s initial aim was simply to improve the shooting skills of its members. This emphasis on marksmanship, together with sporting and other recreational uses of firearms, especially hunting, remained the NRA’s principal focus of activity until the 1960s.

Although the NRA continues to offer a range of services to its approximately 3 million members, including educational, safety, and training programs, insurance packages, discounts on gun-related products, and even loans, as well as publishing a number of magazines including the American Rifleman, American Hunter, and American Guardian, since the late 1960s it has become increasingly involved in the politics of gun ownership.

It is this shift of emphasis that has led to criticisms that the NRA has become conspiratorial both in its outlook and in its attempts to resist the imposition of restrictions on gun ownership in the United States.

The origins of the NRA’s greater political involvement can be traced to the successful passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The wave of political assassinations that took place during the 1960s—most notably those of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and the African American leaders Malcolm X and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.—created a widespread debate about the place of guns in U.S. society and this, in turn, led to the 1968 legislation. The Gun Control Act was the most substantial congressional regulation of firearms since the National Firearms Act of 1934.

Among other things, it prohibited the interstate shipment of firearms and ammunition to private individuals; banned the importation of surplus military firearms into the United States except those suitable for sporting purposes; and prevented the sale of guns to minors, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and convicted felons.

Many NRA members were concerned that the Gun Control Act might be the first step toward more stringent restrictions on gun ownership. Led by Harlon Carter, these members pushed for more political action on the part of the organization.

As a result, in 1975 the NRA established an Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) to direct its political lobbying activities and in 1976 created a political action committee, the NRA Political Victory Fund, to provide support both for sympathetic officeholders and those seeking public office.

The transformation of the NRA into a much more politically oriented interest group was confirmed at its 1977 convention in Cincinnati when, in what became known as the “Cincinnati Revolt,” Carter and his supporters succeeded in gaining control of the organization from its more traditionally inclined members.

This is not to say that the nature and extent of the NRA’s political activities have been uncontested since the 1970s. On the contrary, the NRA is often subject to internecine conflict about the direction of its political activities. During the 1990s, for example, there was a long-running dispute between the “purist” approach of Neal Knox and the “pragmatist” strategy of Wayne LaPierre.

The dispute climaxed at the annual meeting of the NRA’s board of directors in Seattle in 1997 when Knox sought to unseat LaPierre as the NRA’s executive vice-president by supporting the candidacy of Donna Dianchi.

However, not only was Dianchi defeated by LaPierre, Knox himself lost his seat on the organization’s board of directors as first vice-president to longtime NRA member and NRA spokesman, the actor Charlton Heston. Heston became the NRA president in 1998.

Despite such internal struggles, the broad approach of the NRA since the 1970s has been characterized as one of almost complete and unyielding opposition to any kind of gun control legislation or to any attempt to regulate gun ownership, and it is this attitude that draws criticism that the organization has a conspiratorial worldview.

For instance, in the mid-1980s the NRA opposed legislation to ban armor-piercing “cop-killer” bullets—opposition that led, in part, to a break in the formerly close relationship between police organizations and the NRA—and during the 1990s it opposed the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and the “assault weapons ban” within the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994.

The Brady law was the first piece of major gun control legislation since the Gun Control Act of 1968. Its main effect was to institute a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. The Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 banned the sale or use of nineteen types of semiautomatic assault weapons and placed a ten-bullet limit on gun clips.

The NRA objects to legislation like the Brady law or the assault weapons ban for two main reasons: first, because it sees them as infringements of Americans’ constitutional right to keep and bear arms as contained in the Second Amendment, and second, because it fears that such restrictions indicate moves toward the total disarmament of U.S. citizens.

In an article in the June 1994 issue of the American Rifleman entitled “The Final War Has Begun,” for example, Wayne LaPierre claimed he had secret evidence that “the full scale war to ... eliminate private firearms ownership completely and forever” was “well underway”. The NRA, he argued, had to employ all its resources to counter these plans.

For opponents of the NRA, such attitudes reveal the conspiracism they see as underpinning the organization and they are critical of the often apocalyptic language the NRA uses in its mailings and public statements.

During the 1990s, the NRA was also heavily criticized for the fierce antigovernment tone of much of its rhetoric. The NRA was particularly hostile to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms because of its role in the sieges of Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge in Idaho in 1992 and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in 1993.

A fund-raising letter sent out by Wayne LaPierre a few days before the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995 compared federal government agents with Nazis, for example.

Former President George Bush, Sr., resigned his life membership in the NRA in response to the letter, and there was much criticism of the apparent overlap between the rhetoric of the NRA and that of the militia movement.

This criticism intensified when it was revealed that Tanya Metaksa, the head of the NRA’s ILA, had met with members of the Michigan Militia a few months prior to the Oklahoma bombing. LaPierre later apologized for the letter, but concern remained that the NRA was taking increasingly extremist positions in its efforts to defend the rights of gun owners in the United States.