As you read this, about 75,000 members and friends of the National Rifle Association are streaming into Pittsburgh for the opening of the NRA’s 140th annual meeting this weekend.
Few Americans know all that much about the NRA’s history, and if asked to describe the association, they probably would repeat the media description of it as “America’s gun lobby.” In fact, the NRA is the largest and arguably the most influential advocacy organization in the nation today, with 4 million members ready to step up to the plate whenever they believe their Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” is threatened.
Elected officials undeniably tend to listen when the NRA speaks because they know the association’s members - and millions who don’t carry an NRA membership card but look to the group for leadership - pay attention to what the NRA says and does on issues of importance to them. Former President Bill Clinton even grudgingly acknowledged after the 2000 elections that crossing the NRA was politically dangerous. Al Gore, he said, was denied the electoral votes of five states and the White House itself by the group.
What few realize is that until gun ownership became a partisan and ideological issue in the 1960s, the NRA hadn’t spent a dime on politics, didn’t have even one registered lobbyist and avoided political involvement whenever possible. Indeed, after President Johnson signed the landmark Gun Control Act of 1968, one major Senate sponsor of the bill described the NRA as a “paper tiger.”
What he and his colleagues didn’t realize at the time was that the NRA was really a sleeping giant. Its members had never lobbied or been involved in politics because, until the world changed in the’60s, they had never had to. Gun rights had enjoyed broad bipartisan support from the early days of the republic, and many former presidents, including Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were proud card-carrying NRA members. One former President, Ulysses S. Grant, even served as NRA president.
The NRA was formed to promote civilian marksmanship in the days following the Civil War and spent a century as a service organization running firearm competitions and shooting ranges, educating generations of Americans on the safe use of firearms and providing technical information to hunters, shooters and collectors.
The turmoil of the ‘60s, combined with the rise of a new liberal wing of the Democratic Party, changed all that as politicians came to believe that they could make political hay by opposing gun ownership, and the gun control “movement” was born. Republicans and Democrats alike signed up. President Nixon’s attorney general, Elliot Richardson, for example, advocated the confiscation of all privately owned handguns by 1983.
It was not to be. As it turned out, the 1968 Gun Control Act represented not the “good first step” on the road to abolishing the private ownership of guns in this country that the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy believed it to be, but the legislative high-water mark for a movement that was generating a massive public backlash.
Within a few years, the NRA established a lobbying and political arm, recruited supporters in Congress and began to fight back. Led by Idaho’s Republican Sen. James McClure and Democratic Rep. Harold Volkmer, gun rights supporters in both houses overcame establishment opposition to pass the McClure-Volkmer Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986. The McClure-Volkmer Act rolled back the most obnoxious features of the 1968 act, and with its passage, the modern NRA was born.
Since then, the NRA has helped gun owners win victory after victory in Congress and at the polls, in the courts and with the public. The NRA enjoys a higher public approval rating than either party and has more friends in Congress than at any time since the ‘60s.
This weekend, as the NRA prepares for the challenges of the next decade, its members will honor the memories of McClure and Volkmer, two Second Amendment champions who died this spring but were instrumental in turning the group into a formidable defender of Second Amendment Rights and, as former NRA President Charlton Heston described it, the “deep and serious voice of a people determined to be free.”
David A. Keene is first vice president of the National Rifle Association and is expected to be elected president on Monday.