To many Americans—particularly those who have little interest in guns—the NRA is a shadowy monolith, a faceless network of right-leaning, pistol-toting Charlton Hestons fighting for the right to plug anyone who invades their personal space. There is an element of truth to that today; but for nearly a century following its 1871 founding, the NRA was concerned primarily with promoting the responsible and safe ownership of firearms.
For decades, the organization adhered to a simple three-pronged objective, which it proudly posted in front of its headquarters: “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.”
The Second Amendment hardly ever factored into its rhetoric and the group frequently threw its support behind laws— like the Firearms Act of 1938—that regulated gun sales.
That all changed in 1977, when the former head of the NRA’s lobbying arm, Harlan Carter—a nut job who once said that allowing “convicted violent felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics people to have guns” was “a price we pay for freedom”—staged a successful coup at the group’s annual convention in Cincinnati. The sign on NRA headquarters was removed later that year, and the organization jumped the rails.
Here, a short timeline of the NRA’s descent into madness.
1976: Banning Saturday Night Specials
Harlan Carter demonstrated his lunacy as a pro-gun zealot the year before his putsch when Senator Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, sponsored a bill that would limit handgun purchases to two per year and outlaw guns known as “Saturday Night Specials.” These were small, cheaply made handguns favored by criminals for their price and concealability. Carter defended the guns by insisting that their small size made them the perfect self-defense tool for children.
1982: Banning cop-killer bullets
In the wake of an NBC broadcast on the dangers of armor-piercing bullets to police officers, a national effort was launched to ban the so-called “cop killers.” The NRA fought the measure, and successfully watered it down to include only the manufacture and importation of the bullets (American ammunition makers had already volunteered to stop making them). They also managed to ensure the ban was based on what “cop-killer” bullets are made of (teflon) instead of what they can do.
1987: Requiring background checks, waiting period
In the aftermath of John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Congress attempted to enact provisions designed to make it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to purchase handguns. The so-called “Brady Bill”—named after Reagan’s press secretary, who was partially paralyzed in the shooting—sought to introduce a federal background check on firearm purchasers in the U.S. and a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. The NRA spent millions of dollars to defeat the measure, which was nonetheless signed into law in 1993. The NRA counterattacked by sponsoring dozens of lawsuits, one of which made it to the Supreme Court. While SCOTUS ruled it was unconstitutional for the federal government to enforce mandatory background checks, every state in the nation chose to do so voluntarily.
1997: Keeping guns out of the hands of kids
In 1996, eight-year-old Whitney Graves was accidentally shot and killed by her friend with a 9mm pistol that had been improperly stored. Legislators in her home state of Washington sprung into action and introduced the Whitney Graves Bill, which would have required gun sellers to offer customers a safe storage unit for their firearms and make it a misdemeanor to leave a loaded firearm in a place where a child under 16 can get to it. Despite overwhelming support for the bill, including the backing of local gun rights groups, a lobbying assault by the NRA managed to quash the bill before it ever hit the legislature floor.
2008: Reporting lost or stolen firearms
Shortly after his election as mayor, Michael Nutter passed a series of gun-control ordinances, including a provision that requires gun owners to report a firearm lost or stolen within 48 hours of noticing it is missing. The NRA sued the city, and while a Common Pleas court overturned several of them, it left the theft/loss reporting statute intact. The NRA responded by calling for Nutter’s arrest for “official oppression,” and convincing Republican legislators in Harrisburg to introduce a bill that would give groups like the NRA legal standing to challenge ordinances like Philadelphia’s in court.