The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by National Guard and retired Army officers in New York who vowed to “promote rifle practice” and improve marksmanship. There have been too many Union soldiers who couldn't shoot straight. For generations thereafter, the NRA focused on shooting, hunting and conservation, and no one thought of it as a gun lobby.
The turmoil of the 1960s — assassinations, street violence, riots — spurred Congress to pass the Gun Control Act of 1968, the first major piece of gun legislation. Supporters of gun control originally included California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who worried about the heavily armed Black Panthers.
The NRA didn't like the 1968 law, viewing it as overly restrictive, but also didn't see it as a slide toward tyranny. The top NRA officer, Franklin Orth, wrote in the association’s publication American Rifleman that “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.” The key word: “sportsmen.”
The organization, about a century old already, was thoroughly mainstream and bipartisan, focusing on hunting, conservation and marksmanship. It taught Boy Scouts how to shoot safely.
In 1972, a new federal agency charged with enforcing the gun laws came into being: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Lawmakers raged against the terror of cheap handguns known as Saturday-night specials.
Over the next few years, NRA membership tripled. With the presidential election of Reagan, the energized activists went on the offensive, hoping to roll back the 1968 gun-control laws and, in the process, abolish the ATF.
On May 21, 1977, gun rights radicals seized the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, taking the Old Guard by surprise. The rebels saw the NRA leaders as elites who lacked the heart and conviction to fight against gun-control legislation.
The NRA developed an astonishing grass-roots operation and became closely aligned with the Republican Party. They are absolutist in their interpretation of the Second Amendment, and learned to say no to create controversy which is a motivator and recruitment tool for them.
Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, which, among other gun-friendly provisions, eased restrictions on interstate sales of firearms and expressly prohibited the federal government from creating a database of gun ownership. A huge NRA triumph. Some lawmakers said off the record that they would have voted against the act but feared retaliation from the gun lobby.
Then came the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The gun-control effort, named for White House press secretary James Brady, who was wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, called for a seven-day waiting period on gun purchases and a background check on the purchaser.
Democrats in Congress and some Republican allies passed an assault-weapons ban in 1994. That fired up the NRA base. The NRA’s rhetoric grew harsher. Out on the political fringe, the militia movement grew in influence, as anti-government activists warned of black helicopters carrying federal agents dressed like ninjas. The militants cited the 1992 shooting deaths of two civilians in a federal raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the 1993 siege by federal agents of a religious sect’s compound in Waco, Tex., that culminated in a fire killing 76 people.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day-care center, made the NRA’s anti-government rhetoric much harsher and was interpreted as a broad attack on the federal government.
By 2000, the NRA had become even more closely aligned with the Republican Party and worked strenuously to keep Al Gore from becoming president.
In the last election cycle, the NRA spent about $20 million on federal election campaigns, according to Opensecrets.org. It has endowed a professorship at George Mason University (the Patrick Henry Professorship of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment). It’s a prodigious publisher of newsletters and glossy magazines, including American Rifleman, which in 2011 reported a paid circulation of 1.8 million. The NRA has a weekly TV show (“American Rifleman Television” on the Outdoor Channel) and a satellite news service, NRA News. The Web site is as slick as they come (as it loads on the screen, the site informs the visitor, “The full NRA experience requires a broadband connection”).
Beyond the financial muscle, the NRA has people power. The NRA can inundate local, state or congressional offices with phone calls via a single action alert to the membership.
Grover Norquist, the influential tax activist and an NRA board member since 2000, believes that gun-control advocates fail to recognize that their efforts are viewed by many gun owners as a message that says, “You don’t like me.” That message blots out all other efforts to communicate, he says.
The NRA keeps track of gun-control supporters and makes lists. The NRA compendium of “National Organizations With Anti-Gun Policies” includes AARP, the AFL-CIO, the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics — just from the A’s on the list.
NRA lobbyist Chris Cox explained the organization’s position:
“The federal government has no business maintaining a database or a registration of Americans who are exercising a constitutional right. Just like they have no right and no authority to maintain a database of all Methodists, all Baptists, all people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds.”
The paradox for the NRA is that it gains strength when is under assault. During the 2000s, with gun control now largely off the table, the NRA membership leveled off. The organization claimed an influx of 100,000 new members in recent weeks in the wake of the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
The NRA, already with about 4 million members, hopes that the new push by Democrats in the White House and Congress to curb gun violence will bring the membership to 5 million.