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Early America had militias composed of ordinary citizens required to own and keep in working order muskets, which they used when called to duty.

In 1789, when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the Second Amendment’s meaning was a clear reference to militias, not individual rights. No one questioned the amendment’s meaning for nearly two centuries.

The Civil War exposed a deadly marksmanship disparity between Confederate and Union soldiers — one reason the South outfought the North for so long. After the war, two Union veterans, New Yorkers George Wingate and William Church, founded the National Rifle Association to remedy that imbalance. Its objectives: gun safety and marksmanship.

That changed in 1911 with New York’s Sullivan Law requiring a license to carry a gun small enough to be concealed — a law still in effect. At the time, one NRA editorial read, “Such laws have the effect of arming the bad man and disarming the good one.” The NRA blamed automobiles, not handguns, for the uptick in crime because cars provided fast getaways.

During Prohibition, NRA President Karl Frederick helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act requiring permits to carry concealed handguns in public, a two-day waiting period to purchase a gun and law enforcement notification of all handgun sales. In 1934, the NRA endorsed and promoted the National Firearms Act with stringent taxes and registration constraints on “gangster guns” such as machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.

The social unrest of the 1960s and ’70s, plus the assassinations of three American icons, found the NRA supporting a ban on handguns with “no sporting purpose,” and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which restricted the interstate sale of firearms. Not all of its members agreed.

At the 1977 NRA National Convention, Texan Harlon B. Carter, leader of the newly established lobbying arm of the NRA, and his anti-gun control allies took over the NRA in the “Cincinnati Revolt.” This “new NRA” displayed a strong distrust of government and law enforcement, sought to make gun ownership an entitlement and, for the first time, referenced the Second Amendment as applying to all Americans, not just militias.

Over the next decade, the NRA amplified its lobbying efforts and spread rumors of government threats to “gun rights” that proved to be dubious. Membership plummeted. Former President George H.W. Bush resigned in 1995, repelled by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre’s reference to the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms as fascist thugs with “Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms,” bent on harassing and even “murdering law-abiding citizens.” In decline and facing public fury, the NRA looked for new leadership, and Charlton Heston became NRA president in 1998. Recognizing the general discontent with the many changes in the country, he lambasted drivers of change such as feminists and gay-rights advocates and made gun rights one piece of a much broader political position. He also introduced new gun safety programs, popularized a new interpretation of the Second Amendment, aligned the NRA with the Republican Party and built one of the nation’s most powerful political action committees.

Today’s NRA relies on scores of pro-gun publications as well as thousands of gun shops and clubs nationwide to spread its message, helping to make it the most powerful lobbying organization in the United States.

That’s the history in a nutshell. I encourage you to do some research of your own.



Patricia R. Dunlap, Tall Timbers