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The NRA Wasn't Always Against Gun Restrictions

Once again, and sadly not for the last time, a mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 stunned the nation and shocked the rest of the civilized world, spurring a national debate about guns and gun laws.

And once again, and surely not for the last time, that debate features the pre-eminent organization of gun owners, the National Rifle Association, known as the NRA.

Founded in 1871, the group now has about 5 million members. More to the point, it is among the most feared and effective players in Washington and the 50 state capitals, where it lobbies, raises money and prepares field campaigns.

The power of the organization is legendary, especially the widely published report cards it issues giving A to F grades to lawmakers. The cards have been credited with the election (or blamed for the defeat) of many a candidate, including incumbents.

Even the nuances of the group's affection, an A+ over an A grade, for example, can make the difference for candidates, especially in Republican primaries.

That is why the NRA has anchored the opposition in every major gun-related debate since it altered its main aim from marksmanship to hard-edged political activism. That change came 40 years ago and was related to other shifts in political sentiment, including the departure of Southern rural conservatives from the Democratic Party. All these helped elect the first presidential candidate to ever be endorsed by the NRA, Ronald Reagan, in 1980.

So what exactly is this juggernaut of influence and how did it become the de facto arbiter of firearms laws in our society?

The group's website has this modest introduction:

"While widely recognized today as a major political force and as America's foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, the NRA has, since its inception, been the premier firearms education organization in the world."

Started by Union officers upset over Civil War recruits' poor shooting skills

That inception dates back almost to the Civil War and two former Union officers, who had despaired over their wartime recruits' poor shooting skills. (An official study estimated that Yankee troops fired 1,000 rounds for every bullet that actually struck a Confederate soldier.)

The idea was to educate a new generation of marksmen, whether for war or hunting or recreational target shooting.

New York helped the NRA buy its first shooting range

Well into the 20th century, the NRA was known primarily for promoting the safe and proper use of firearms, often in some form of cooperation with the government. The Army, at times, donated surplus equipment for training, and the state of New York helped the NRA buy its first shooting range.

Of course, the idea that people owned and used guns was a given in the early years of America. They were integral to frontier survival and rural life, and inherent in the wider American culture — a feature of legend and lore, a symbol of individuality and independence.

In time, however, controversy over guns arose.

Four presidents shot began a split of Americans on guns

After Abraham Lincoln, two other presidents were shot by assassins, and Theodore Roosevelt sustained and survived a short-range gunshot wound.

People began to talk about the availability of guns and the desirability of some restrictions.

And the NRA wanted to be in on that conversation.

The NRA wasn't always staunchly opposed to gun restrictions

Many are surprised to learn that the NRA of past generations worked with the federal government to limit the traffic in guns — for example, where ex-convicts or mental patients were involved.

When handguns became the focus, the NRA spawned a subgroup devoted to them and supported state-level permit requirements for concealed weapons.

In the Prohibition Era, the conversation changed again with the urban use of shotguns and the fully automatic Thompson gun.

These lurid hallmarks of bank robbers and warring gangsters became a target for lawmakers. In the legislating beehive of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1938 regulated such guns, banned some buyers and made gun dealers register with the government.

The NRA worked with Congress and the White House on those acts and supported their enforcement. The same was true when these restrictions were extended and tightened following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and again by a 1968 gun bill responding to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy.

But in the late 1960s, there was also widespread concern about rising crime rates and the deadly riots that flared in the nation's major cities. Citizens were concerned about their safety and turned to gun purchases for their personal protection. And many NRA members wanted their organization to get out in front of that.

The hard-liners took over the NRA after an NRA member was killed by federal agents.

In 1971, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms killed an NRA member who was hiding a large number of illegal weapons. This, too, stirred a restive reaction within the NRA rank and file. To address it, the NRA's top managers created the group's first lobbying organ, the Institute for Legislative Action, in 1975.

The ILA was headed by a Texas lawyer named Harlon Carter, an immigration hawk who had headed of the Border Patrol in the 1950s.

"You don't stop crime by attacking guns," he said. "You stop crime by stopping criminals."

Hard-charging and uncompromising, Carter was soon at odds with the Old Guard of the parent NRA, who downsized his ILA staff. He fought back by organizing an uprising at the annual NRA convention in 1977 and forcing the power struggle to burst into the open.

In the end, Carter won, ascending to NRA's de facto leadership as its executive vice president. He installed another hard-liner, Neal Knox, to head the ILA. The new marching orders were to oppose all forms of gun control across the board and lobby aggressively for gun owners' rights in Congress and the legislatures.

Becoming a political force

This change in mission coincided with a new surge in political money. Decisions by the Federal Election Commission and the Supreme Court had opened the spillway on vast new reservoirs of cash.

Soon, the NRA became a formidable force in fundraising and campaign spending, making band breaking candidacies at the state and federal level.

This, in turn, gave the group the muscle to move pro-gun legislation as well as to stop efforts at gun control. Carter proclaimed his group would be "so strong and so dedicated that no politician in America, mindful of his political career, would want to challenge our legitimate goals."

The NRA has followed the path blazed by Carter (who retired in 1985) and Knox.

The group has since had presidents whose personal views were less rigid. That included the one-time movie star Charlton Heston, who served from 1998 to 2003. But, ironically, Heston is arguably most famous in his role as NRA president for proclaiming: "From my cold dead hands!" at the 2000 NRA convention, as he hoisted a rifle above his head.

"So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away," Heston said, trying to rally the membership against Vice President and Democrat Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election. "I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: 'From my cold, dead hands!'"

The rallying cry is on NRA bumper stickers and symbolizes the modern-era NRA attitude when it comes to gun restrictions. And since Carter's hard line, picked up by the subsequent leaders of the organization, the NRA has also seen seen its membership and coffers swell. And when a mass-shooting happens or a Democratic president looks like he or she might win, gun stock prices soar.

A setback and backlash

That speech also took place after eight years of a Democratic presidency that saw an assault-rifle ban go into effect. Gore, of course, narrowly lost in 2000. Often when there's momentum in one direction, there is a backlash, and that happened that year.

The NRA experienced setbacks on gun restrictions in the 1990s, stemming from the 1981 attempted assassination of Reagan. It created a new groundswell for gun control and led — eventually — to the 1993 law known as the Brady Bill (for Reagan's press secretary Jim Brady, wounded in the attempt on the president's life).

The Brady Bill established a waiting period and other restrictions and had the support of NRA member Ronald Reagan. The following year, a Democratic Congress enacted a domestic ban on "assault weapons," the combat style semiautomatics so common in war zones around the world.

But the NRA managed to insert a 10-year sunset on the law, and when it came due in 2004, the control of Congress had passed to the GOP, which allowed the law to expire.

Over the years, the NRA has also become involved in litigation, such as the lawsuit challenging the personal handgun ban in the District of Columbia. That case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which struck down the law in the landmark Heller decision in 2008.

The decision enshrined the longstanding NRA tenet that the Second Amendment right to firearms was meant for a private individual as well as a "well-regulated militia."

The majority opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who had been appointed to the court by Reagan, the first president endorsed for the office by the NRA.

The modern-day NRA has a well-established response formula after mass shootings

This is the NRA we know today, the one to whom lawmakers and the media turn after a firearm massacre such as in Las Vegas.

When this happens, the NRA has a well-established protocol for its response.

First ... the organization remains silent for a period of days, offering only a message of sympathy for the victims and a request that the tragedy "not be politicized."

Then ... the organization begins to engage, usually through a few officers and spokespersons who have been through this multiple times, such as the chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, and its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre.

LaPierre made the rounds of TV talk shows and cable channels this weekend, reciting a well-practiced catechism defending his faith in guns, their use in self-protection and the NRA view of the Constitution.

That is, as follows:

1. That the Second Amendment guarantees the right to "keep and bear arms," and the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that this right applies to private individuals and not just to organized militias (as referenced in the Constitution), but also to private individual citizens.

2. The organization lays the blame for gun violence on criminals and the producers of Hollywood movies and video games and the failures of the mental health system.

3. It reminds that it is not possible to legislate away the evil in the world.

Finally, and repeatedly, the NRA repeats its mantra: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Or, as LaPierre put it Sunday, "It comes down to ... if your glass breaks in the middle of the night, there is not a government authority on the planet that substitutes for your right to own a firearm."

After Vegas, a shift? Maybe not so fast

In the case of the Las Vegas shooting that took 58 lives and wounded or injured hundreds more, the NRA has deviated only a degree from its pattern. In its original response, the NRA said it was willing to discuss the Las Vegas shooter's reliance on a weapon modification known as a "bump stock."

This enables someone holding a semiautomatic weapon to fire many rounds without squeezing the trigger for each. This does not modify the weapon to make it "fully automatic," but it produces a similar effect.

On the same day the NRA released its statement, this past Thursday, a number of Republican legislators, including some from party leadership in the House and Senate, told reporters they could "take a look at" bump stocks.

Two days later, President Trump also said the administration would "take a look at" bump stocks.

Whether this was a coordinated strategy or not, it struck many as a mild concession on the part of the NRA, which usually opposes new limitations. Indeed, it was denounced as such by the Gun Owners of America, a smaller guns-rights group that is often critical of what it calls the NRA's willingness to compromise and "sell out."

But it soon became clear that the NRA was not in favor of addressing the bump stock through any actual change in the law. LaPierre and others said it was within the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol and Firearms to regulate bump stocks now. They said repeatedly that ATF should simply "do its job."

ATF officials, however, directly contradicted that statement, pointing to the language of the relevant laws on the books. They said those laws needed to change for them to ban bump stocks.

While that "he-said, she-said" debate goes forward, LaPierre added Sunday that he did not see a need for any gun bill that "would become a Christmas tree" loaded with anti-gun measures. He specifically mentioned the suggestions by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrat with whom he has clashed since she pushed the assault-weapons ban in 1994. (LaPierre was first made executive vice president in 1991.)

LaPierre's view is already being echoed by many members of Congress. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was seriously wounded when a gunman opened fire in June on a congressional baseball team practice, on Sunday suggested there might be other legislation moving in his chamber that enhanced gun owner rights rather than limiting them in any way.

Scalise, it must be noted, just returned to Congress after months of rehabilitation from his injuries. Scalise, whose NRA report card grade is an A+, said on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that the right to guns is, in essence, without limits.

"Our Founding Fathers believed strongly in gun rights for citizens," Scalise said. "Don't try to put new laws in place that don't fix these problems. They only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to own a gun."

Asked if he thought gun rights were "unlimited," Scalise said: "It is. It is."

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for