I get Heather Cox Richardson’s daily letter. Richardson is a history professor, and one of the voices trying to restore accuracy to the largely incomplete lessons we’ve been taught about how and why we find ourselves where we are.
A couple of days ago, her letter made me think of the old adage about history being written by the victors–something that is evidently as true of policy arguments as it is of warfare.
Richardson was reacting to the mass shootings in Boulder and Atlanta, and she proceeded to lay out a history of gun control in the United States, much of which I had not known.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution is one simple sentence: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” There’s not a lot to go on about what the Framers meant, although in their day, to “bear arms” meant to be part of an organized militia.
As the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in 1840, “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms; much less could it be said that a private citizen bears arms because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”
So how did the “original intent” of the Amendment get twisted into a personal right to own weapons? Evidently, thanks to a similar twisting of the NRA.
The NRA was established in the late 1800s “to improve the marksmanship skills of American citizens who might be called on to fight in another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting.”
By the 1920s, rifle shooting was a popular American sport. “Riflemen” competed in the Olympics, in colleges and in local, state and national tournaments organized by the NRA… In 1925, when the secretary of the NRA apparently took money from ammunitions and arms manufacturers, the organization tossed him out and sued him.
Times have certainly changed.
The early NRA distinguished between law-abiding citizens who should have access to guns, and criminals and mentally ill people who should not. In 1931, it backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons, prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children, to require all dealers to be licensed, and to require background checks before delivery. It endorsed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and other gun control legislation.
But in the mid-1970s, a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee (PAC) in 1975, and two years later elected an organization president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”
Richardson tells us that the NRA “embraced the politics of Movement Conservatism,” a movement opposing business regulations and social welfare programs. Movement Conservatives also embraced the myth of the heroic American cowboy, a White man standing up to the “socialism” of the federal government while dominating Black and Native American people.
In 1972, the Republican platform had called for gun control to restrict the sale of “cheap handguns,” but in 1975, as he geared up to challenge President Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 presidential nomination, Movement Conservative hero Ronald Reagan took a stand against gun control. In 1980, the Republican platform opposed the federal registration of firearms, and the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate—Reagan– for the first time.
After Reagan was shot, the NRA spent millions of dollars fighting the Brady Bill; after it passed, the organization financed lawsuits in nine states to strike it down.
Richardson also points out that until 1959, every single legal article on the Second Amendment concluded it wasn’t intended to guarantee individuals the right to own a gun. In the 1970s, legal scholars funded by the NRA began arguing that the Second Amendment did exactly that.
The organization got its money’s worth. In 2008, the Supreme Court declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.
The unfettered right to own and carry weapons has come to symbolize the Republican Party’s ideology of individual liberty. Lawmakers and activists have not been able to overcome Republican insistence on gun rights despite the mass shootings that have risen since their new emphasis on guns. Even though 90% of Americans—including nearly 74% of NRA members— recently supported background checks, Republicans have killed such legislation by filibustering it.
The good news is that the NRA is currently imploding. Perhaps the loss of its ability to spend mountains of money will allow Congress to pass responsible gun control legislation–and if it’s no longer the policy “winner,” we may get a more accurate history.