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When the NRA Promoted Gun Control

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Reports indicate that the Obama administration may be considering new gun control proposals to limit the size of magazines or to strengthen background checks on gun purchasers. One thing you can bet on is that the National Rifle Association will oppose any such measures.

Yet it wasn't always this way. Indeed, the NRA used to draft and promote restrictive gun control laws.

In researching my book, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, I discovered that the NRA used to be far more open-minded on gun control -- and, amazingly, paid almost no attention whatsoever to the Second Amendment.

The NRA was founded by William Church and George Wingate after the Civil War. Wingate and Church -- the latter a former reporter for a newspaper not exactly known for its love of gun rights, the New York Times -- both fought in the War on the Union side. They were shocked by the poor marksmanship of Union soldiers and convinced that one reason the Confederacy was able to hold out so long before surrender was because their soldiers had more experience shooting. Church and Wingate's goal for the NRA was to improve the marksmanship of civilians who might one day be called to serve in the military, not to fight gun control.

These days, the NRA is known for its anti-government rhetoric; Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president, has called some federal law enforcement officers "a jack-booted group of fascists" and warned that "if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens." Yet it was government largess in the form of subsidies and special sales of discounted firearms that helped the NRA grow in its formative years. Were it not for a generous government grant of $25,000 to buy land for a rifle range by the state of New York -- a modern-day target of much NRA hostility -- the NRA might never have gotten off the ground.

The old NRA also promoted gun control. In the 1920s, NRA leaders helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act -- model legislation for states to adopt that established new, restrictive rules on carrying firearms in public. Karl Frederick, the NRA's president, said at the time, "I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons... I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses." The Uniform Firearms Act only awarded licenses to "suitable" persons with a "proper reason" for carrying and created a waiting period before a newly purchased handgun could be delivered to the purchaser. Today's NRA, by contrast, fights to eliminate these very same requirements.

The NRA also endorsed the first major federal gun control law of the modern era, the National Firearms Act of 1934. During hearings on the proposed legislation, which imposed heavy restrictions on machine guns and other gangster weapons, Karl Frederick was asked how the Second Amendment affected this groundbreaking law. His answer was astounding: "I have not given it any study from that point of view."

Protection for guns "lies in an enlightened public sentiment and in intelligent legislative action," Frederick wrote elsewhere. "It is not to be found in the Constitution."

In fact, the Second Amendment is remarkably absent from the NRA's signature publication, American Rifleman, until the 1960s. You can go to the library and peruse decades of issues and not see any mention of the constitutional provision thought to be the heart and soul of the organization.

All that changed in 1977. That year, the leadership of the NRA decided to retreat from political lobbying and refocus on recreational shooting and outdoors activities. This sparked a backlash among a group of hardline gun rights advocates who were upset that the NRA had endorsed the Gun Control Act of 1968 -- the first significant federal gun legislation since the 1930s. Motivated by the belief that guns weren't primarily for hunting but for personal protection in an era of rising crime rates, the hardliners staged a coup at the annual meeting of the membership, ousting the old leaders and committing the organization to political advocacy.

From then on, American Rifleman featured the Second Amendment on almost every other page.

Next time someone complains about that a modest gun law tramples on the Second Amendment, remind them of the old NRA -- and of a time when even the nation's leading gun rights advocates supported gun control.

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