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September 16, 2014

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The NRA’s sharp turn to the right

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Some four decades ago, as a seventh-grader in upstate Idaho, I participated in a basic hunting-safety program the National Rifle Association offered at our school. I carried my NRA safe-hunter card in my wallet all through high school — and with it, my impression of the NRA as an avuncular group dedicated to the outdoors and to safe, courteous, sportsmanlike hunting.

Which is what it was back then. As recent stories in the Washington Post and Salon have recounted, for most of its history, the NRA was a mainstream organization that promoted marksmanship, conservation and hunting. After the headline-grabbing shoot-outs involving heavily armed, Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde, the NRA even helped the FDR administration to pass the nation’s first gun-control laws, in 1934 and 1938. Decades later, it deemed the gun-control act of 1968 something “the sportsmen of America can live with.”

So what happened? Simple: A group of gun-rights absolutists unhappy with the organization’s moderate, bipartisan orientation staged a surprise takeover. That started with a floor fight over rules and leadership at the NRA’s 1977 meeting in Cincinnati, where better organized gun-rights absolutists prevailed over NRA moderates. As an index of their outlook, Neal Knox, instrumental in the Cincinnati insurrection, thought the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might be part of a plot to advance gun control, and favored rolling back restrictions on the private ownership of machine guns.

Although there have been some internal struggles since, the hard-liners have transformed the NRA into the uncompromising, fire-breathing pressure group that it is today.

The full extent of that transformation came into sharp focus in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when reporters put the NRA under the microscope after the revelation that domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh had once sent an angry letter to his congressman sealed with a decal reading: “I’m the NRA.”

The Globe reported in a 1995 series that an important NRA official had met with leaders of the ultra-fringe Michigan militia movement and that the NRA had selected as one of its law-enforcement officers of the year a pro-militia Arizona sheriff who had started his own “civilian posse,” which, he declared, he would call upon to fight the federal government if necessary.

The series also reported that as the NRA tried to boost revenues, its rhetoric had increasingly begun to resemble that of the conspiracy-theory-prone militia types, many of whom are convinced that the federal government wants to seize all private firearms and then impose totalitarian rule.

One regular source of hyper-heated anti-government rhetoric was Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president and CEO. In a fundraising letter sent out before the bombing, LaPierre charged that the ban on assault weapons then in effect “gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” He further asserted that “in Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” LaPierre eventually issued a weasel word apology for some of his comments.

Now, one might have thought that the NRA would have changed its tactics and tone after that national embarrassment. But last year, LaPierre, who earns about $1 million a year for his efforts, was still ranting away in similar terms. If President Barack Obama was re-elected, “the future of your Second Amendment rights will be at stake,” he wrote in an NRA fundraising appeal. “And nothing less than the future of our country and our freedom will be at stake.”

Preposterous as that is, given the extent of right-wing paranoia abroad in the land, some NRA members may actually believe that. It’s even possible that LaPierre and other NRA leaders do. Still, the more likely scenario is that they simply use those apocalyptic tropes as tools to raise the millions needed to fund the NRA’s operation and salaries.

It’s hard to know which is more troubling, really. But as the debate about curbing gun carnage goes forward, it’s important for sensible, mainstream America to realize that this is no longer even remotely your father’s NRA.

Scot Lehigh writes for the Boston Globe.

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  1. Like it or not, agree or not, the NRA is winning the gun control debate on the facts and evidence. Unless and until the anti-gun rights people accept this and move on, a reasonable debate on gun controls will never happen in the USA. We all agree that better gun controls can always be implemented. The debate is how. As long as authors like this columnist are living in the past glory days of the NRA, nothing will be accomplished to advance the cause for sensible gun controls.

    CarmineD

  2. The NRA has morphed from sportsman and hunters organization to a mouthpiece for the most paranoid elements in our society. In recent years they have concentrated their energies on OBAMASCARE spreading fear that the Federal Government will be breaking down doors and confiscating everyone's guns.

  3. Jim: Your opinions on this matter are not supported by the facts, just like I stated above.

    "A sizable 89 percent of all respondents, and 75 percent of those identified as NRA members, support universal background checks for gun sales. Similar surveys by Pew Research Center and Gallup have also found background checks to be by far the most popular gun control proposal in the aftermath the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut."

    CarmineD

  4. "1/17/13

    "National Rifle Association President David Keene said his organization doesn't object to background checks, but argued against banning certain firearms.

    WASHINGTON -- The head of the National Rifle Association says the organization has no problem with tighter background checks of gun purchasers.

    But association president David Keene also says too much emphasis has been placed on banning certain firearms.

    In an interview on "CBS This Morning" Thursday, Keene argues, "The real question that needs to be addressed is not what we do about guns, but what we do to make our schools safer."

    The NRA has come under close scrutiny in the wake of Newtown, Conn., shootings that killed 20 children and six adults.

    Keene said officials should focus more attention on a "devastatingly broken mental health system in this country," if they genuinely want to end gun violence.

    He said the NRA has been "generally supportive" of stronger background checks."

    Jim, you have to get your facts straight before you sit down at the table and debate how best to implement sensible and reasonable gun controls. You can't debate the issue on emotional charged opinions that are are just plain wrong.

    CarmineD

  5. For years Jim, local police have patrolled and been present in inner city schools to safeguard children from gang members and the criminal element. In fact by current counts over a third of the US schools have armed guards/police on duty daily. The news media never reports it. Never makes it an issue. The NRA, in the aftermath of Newtown, CT Sandy Hook school massacre, recommends that there be armed guards in schools. What happens? The liberal mainstream media goes bonkers. Why? Where has the mainstream media been for the last 2 decades? Watching MTV?

    CarmineD

  6. CarmineD

    My opinions are supported by facts. Early last year I began receiving phone calls from the NRA and listened to their propoganda spiels before informing the caller I was on the Do Not Call List. Nevertheless, they continued to call with more of the same and seeking donations to defeat President Obama. I became less polite and started reporting the calls to the FTC. The calls persisted nearly to the election before I was able to persuade them to stop.
    Regardless of how NRA members feel, the NRA has their own agenda and what I previously described is accurate.

  7. Jim:

    I don't see the connection between your first and last post on the NRA. You're introducing irrelevant and superfluous facts into evidence that have no bases on the official NRA positions on gun controls.

    CarmineD