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The Evolution of the NRA's Defense of Guns The Evolution of the NRA's Defense of Guns

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Domestic Policy

The Evolution of the NRA's Defense of Guns

A Brief History of the NRA's Involvement in Legislative Discussions


In this March 30, 1981, file photo released by the White House, press secretary James Brady, face down at right, and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty, front, lie on the ground after being wounded during the assassination attempt on President Reagan as he was leaving the Washington Hilton. Brady's injury eventually led to the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993.(AP Photo/White House, Michael Evans)

Over the past few decades, the National Rifle Association has opposed most major efforts to control guns. But the organization's rhetoric and tactics against federal gun-control regulation have evolved significantly since 1934, when the first major weapons regulation — the National Firearms Act —  was enacted. 

On Tuesday, the NRA, the nation's largest guns-rights advocacy group, released its first statement since the Dec. 14 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., vowing "meaningful contributions" to the discussion about preventing a similar incident. Those contributions were revealed on Friday, as the organization called for police officers in every school, not additional legistlation. Over the past week, members of Congress and President Obama have engaged in what is perhaps the most substantial gun control legislation  conversation in years


The NRA will be setting up what it calls the National School Shield Program, which will intend to provide an armed security professional for all schools. In the past, the NRA has weighed in on legislative deliberations with congressional testimony, grassroots campaigns, and legal action. Below, we round up the evolution of those tactics.

National Firearms Act 1934

Acknowledging the rise of gangster machine-gun violence during Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 until 1933, the federal government sought to regulate sawed-off shotguns and machine guns. The law levied heavy taxes on the manufacturing and transfer of those weapons. During his congressional testimony on the legislation, NRA President Karl Frederick had the following exchange with Rep. Clement Dickinson, D-Mo.

Dickinson: "I will ask you whether or not this bill interferes in any way with the right of a person to keep and bear arms or his right to be secure in his person against unreasonable search; in other words, do you believe this bill is unconstitutional or that it violates any constitutional provision?"


Frederick: "I have not given it any study from that point of view. I will be glad to submit in writing my views on that subject, but I do think it is a subject which deserves serious thought."

Later, Frederick added: "I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one.... I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses."

Gun Control Act 1968

After the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, President Johnson pushed through a broad-ranging federal law to severely restrict the interstate trafficking of firearms. The bill sought to curb the acquisitions of guns like the one Lee Harvey Oswald had used in 1963 to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, which had been purchased through the mail.

When he testified before Congress on the legislation, NRA President Harold W. Glassen said that "200 million guns did not strike down Senator Kennedy; only one did." Ultimately, the NRA did endorse the law. Watch his full comments below.


The Firearm Owner's Protection Act 1986

The NRA revealed its grassroots strength as it pushed for this act, despite tepid support for it from the federal government. The bill arose in response to a bipartisan 1982 congressional subcommittee report finding that many of the government's gun regulations were unconstitutional. The act sought to reopen the interstate sales of certain guns, legalize the shipments of ammunition through the U.S. Postal Service, and protect the transport of firearms through states in which possession of those firearms were illegal. Additionally, the federal government would only be allowed to inspect firearm manufacturers and sellers once a year to ensure compliance with federal regulations.

The bill's chances were strengthened by a flood of constituent outreach to representatives after the NRA sent a letter to its members with the following message: "If your congressman doesn't sign the discharge petition on the Firearms Owners Protection Act, he's not working for gun and hunting rights in America. It's that plain and simple.... This is the litmus test on whether your congressman stands on gun and hunting rights — either he is for us or against us."

As one legislative assistant to a California representative described the response in Osha Gray Davidson's book, Under Fire, "This place gets 20 letters, and we think there's a national trend. Have you ever seen what a stack of 1,000 letters looks like? It's impressive."

The Brady Handgun Violence Act 1994

An amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act, this bill established the electronic or phone-based background check for individuals wishing to purchase firearms. Eventually, this became the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which the FBI launched on Nov. 30, 1998.

But during congressional deliberation, the NRA showed its legal prowess. The group's legislative counsel, Richard Gardiner, argued before Congress on Sept. 30, 1993, that the bill was a federal overreach. 

He stated: "The 10th Amendment forbids the federal government from compelling the states — and thus local law enforcement — to undertake any kind of action, including conducting background checks on handgun purchasers. As the Supreme Court concluded in New York v. United States, 'even where Congress has the authority under the Constitution to pass laws requiring or prohibiting certain, it lacks the power directly to compel the States to require or prohibit those acts.'"

The bill passed, but the NRA continued to fight it in court, funding a number of legal challenges in several states throughout the country. In 1997, the Supreme Court took the case Printz v. United States, and sided with the NRA. States did not have to conduct federally mandated background checks, the decision stated. Regardless, most states complied with federal regulations when the background check system went live in 1998.

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