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While widely recognized today as a major political force and as America's foremost defender of Second Amendment rights, the NRA has, since its inception, been the premier firearms education organization in the world. But our successes would not be possible without the tireless efforts and countless hours of service our nearly three million members have given to champion Second Amendment rights and support NRA programs. As former Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos said, 'Let me make one small vote for the NRA. They're good citizens. They call their Congressmen. They write. They vote. They contribute. And they get what they want over time.'
The National Rifle Association is a nonprofit organization promoting gun safety and lobbying for its interpretation of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. (The amendment in full, subject to various modern interpretations, reads: 'A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.') Long respected by some and feared by others on Capitol Hill, the Association's impressive influence extends beyond its three million members. The NRA reaches one million young men and women through educational programs, including 40,000 in its young hunters program. Moreover, 6,000 marksmen compete nationally in the Association's shooting competitions.
The NRA traces its origins to the 1870s, when two former Union Army officers--Colonel William Conant Church and General George Wingate--formed the National Rifle Association (NRA) to foster marksmanship. The NRA was chartered in the state of New York on November 17, 1871. Another well-known Civil War veteran, General Ambrose Burnside, served as the group's first president. Burnside had been a U.S. Senator and governor of Rhode Island. Although he lobbied very effectively for funding, he was not otherwise actively involved in the fledgling group and resigned within a year.
Through the founders' efforts, the state of New York granted the NRA $25,000 to create a practice ground on a 100-acre lot on Long Island. The Creedmoor range opened there in 1873 and hosted the Irish Rifle Association in a two-entrant international shooting competition held the next year. The event drew 8,000 spectators. Even in those early days, however, the NRA faced anti-gun sentiment in the cities, and in 1892 the land grant was rescinded and the range was moved to Sea Girt, New Jersey.
New York governor Alonzo Cornell, predicting a long age of peace, cut the NRA's funding in 1880. However, technological innovations and events overseas soon made weapons training relevant again. Dutch South African farmers demonstrated the effectiveness of new, highly accurate rifles in the Boer War, which led to a renewed interest in marksmanship and military preparedness in the British Empire and in America.
A revitalized NRA began setting up programs at colleges and military schools in 1903; within three years there were more than 200 young men competing at the shooting contest in New Jersey.
NRA headquarters moved to Washington, D.C. in 1907. According to Osha Gray Davidson's book, Under Fire, the NRA persuaded Congress and the War Department to first sell, then give away, surplus rifles and ammunition to NRA-sponsored shooting clubs. Between World War I and World War II, 200,000 rifles were reportedly distributed at cost to NRA members, whose ranks were ballooning. The NRA also received federal money and army assistance for its shooting competitions during this time.
The Association's Legislative Affairs Division was created in 1934 to disseminate information to its members regarding pending gun control legislation. Among the vehicles of communication was the group's flagship publication, The American Rifleman, published sporadically at first and later gaining a large and regular readership. A huge NRA letter-writing campaign helped temper one wave of gun control sentiment so that the National Firearms Act of 1934 would extend only to regulating machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. In 1938, the NRA supported provisions to limit the sale of guns across state lines and prevent the sale of guns to fugitives and convicted felons.
At the dawn of World War II, the NRA collected 7,000 guns to aid Great Britain's defense. When the United States was drawn into the war, the NRA offered its facilities and encouraged its members to guard factories.
In the postwar years, the NRA focused on hunting issues, developing a pioneering hunter education program with the state of New York. The Association also began a program for instructing policemen in marksmanship; it would introduce the country's only national law enforcement certification program in 1960. Membership in the NRA reached nearly 300,000 and employment 140 in the 1950s.
The Controversial 1960s and 1970s
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 prompted the nation to rethink the availability of guns in the United States, which ultimately led to the Gun Control Act of 1968. This act banned the sale of guns through the mail; Lee Harvey Oswald had ordered his infamous rifle from the pages of American Rifleman for just $19.95.
A new NRA shooting range, Camp Perry, had been constructed in Ohio on the Lake Erie shore, and during this time it became home to the NRA's National Matches. The U.S. government supplied $3 million a year and the use of 5,000 troops a year for these tournaments. Opposition to such government aid to the NRA was challenged; Senator Edward Kennedy attempted to cut off the financial aid in the late 1960s and routinely fought NRA-backed bills in Congress throughout his career.
The NRA launched a new magazine, The American Hunter, in 1973, addressing hunting issues only. Two years later, it formed the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), designed specifically as a lobby for Second Amendment rights. The ILA was headed by Harlon Bronson Carter, a Texan controversial for his involvement in the shooting murder of a Mexican youth, for which he was convicted and later cleared. The goals of the NRA during the 1970s had become two-fold. Sportsmanship and safety, embodied in The American Hunter, competed for attention with the role of the ILA as a gun lobby.
During this time, the NRA acquired 37,000 acres of land in the New Mexico wilderness. Controversy in the organization arose, according to Davidson's Under Fire, when some proposed that the New Mexico lands be designated as a shooting center, while others favored an outdoor center, dedicated to camping, wilderness survival, environmentalism, and other wide-ranging concerns, in addition to marksmanship and safety. The rift in the NRA--between those supporting the single issue of Second Amendment rights and those hoping to broaden the scope of the NRA-- culminated, according to Davidson, at the NRA national convention of 1977 in Cincinnati. Led by Carter, the so-called 'hard-liners' took over the convention in what became known as the 'Cincinnati Revolt.' In short, Carter and his supporters, fervently opposed to any form of gun control, wrested control of the NRA from the existing leaders (whose concerns included sportsmanship and environmentalism), turning the NRA into a single-issue gun lobby, according to Davidson. Carter was named executive vice-president, the most powerful position in the organization.
Strength in the Reagan Years
With newly reorganized management and purpose, the NRA entered the 1980s on more cohesive footing. Energies were focused on opposing gun control. When a few local communities, such as Morton Grove, Illinois, enacted city ordinances to ban handguns all together in 1981, the NRA fought the ban unsuccessfully in court. The group then battled similar legislation on the state level, helping defeat Proposition 15 in California, which called for a ban on the sale of new handguns. However, the NRA was unable to overturn a new ban on handguns in Maryland in 1988.
A national print advertising campaign launched in January 1982 gained wide attention. With the tagline 'I am the NRA,' a variety of individuals--including an eight year-old boy, former astronaut Wally Schirra, former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Jo Anne Hall, humorist Roy Rogers, and others--highlighted the group's diverse member base. While several magazines refused to run the ads, particularly those ads depicting handguns, some 45 magazines did run them, and they were credited with raising the NRA's profile considerably. The NRA had more than one million members in 1977; its ranks would reach 2.6 million by the time Ronald Reagan became the first American president to address the group in 1983. Reagan's address to the NRA was regarded as an important affirmation of NRA principles; the president averred that 'we will never disarm any American who seeks to protect his or her family from fear or harm.'
G. Ray Arnett was picked to succeed Carter in 1985. Surrounded by scandal, however, Arnett lasted only until May 1986, when ILA leader J. Warren Cassidy became the next executive vice-president.
In 1986, the NRA had three million members and income of about $66 million a year. During this time, the group was sponsoring the McClure-Volkmer Act, which amended restrictions in the Gun Control Act of 1968 and was eventually passed. The group also fought to temper legislation banning Teflon-coated 'cop killer' bullets. By this time, the issue of gun control in the United States had become highly fragmented and charged with emotion. In fact, the Association was beginning to find itself on different sides of gun control issues with much of the country's police force. In the late 1980s, the NRA ran political ads and direct mail campaigns against several police chiefs who favored regulating handguns.
Although many of its members were Democrats, the NRA spent an estimated $7 million to defeat Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, a staunch supporter of gun control, in the 1988 presidential campaign. Republican George Bush broke ranks with some in the NRA while campaigning for the presidential nomination, calling for a ban on 'plastic' handguns. Still, as an avid hunter, veteran, and NRA member, he appealed to the group and won its approval.
New Challenges in the 1990s
As the U.S. public became ever more aware of increases in violence involving firearms, the NRA again sought to address issues beyond gun ownership. The NRA Foundation was created in 1990 to raise tax-exempt funds for gun education. The Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program, started two years earlier, taught elementary and middle school children to avoid guns and report them to adults. Moreover, Refuse to Be a Victim seminars, introduced in 1993, lectured women on personal safety issues. According to the NRA, three out of four women would suffer through a violent crime in their lifetimes.
The early 1990s were difficult years financially for the organization. According to NRA figures cited by Fortune magazine, the NRA lost $10 million in 1991, $38 million in 1992, and $22 million in 1993. In 1991, the board replaced Warren Cassidy--whose reputation was tainted by a sex scandal, less than stellar financial results, and diminishing popularity due to what some perceived as a willingness to compromise the Association's mission--with long-time politico Wayne LaPierre, another former leader of the group's lobbying arm, the ILA.
The NRA then faced several challenges to its mission. Efforts to overturn New Jersey's ban on semiautomatic weapons and Virginia's gun-rationing program in 1993 both failed. In the late 1980s, the NRA had lobbied unsuccessfully against a national ban of certain semiautomatic assault rifles. Moreover, after several years of struggle, in 1994 the Brady Bill passed. Named for White House press secretary Jim Brady, who was shot and partially paralyzed during an attempt on Reagan's life, the bill mandated a five-day waiting period and a background check for gun purchasers. (This process would replaced by a computerized verification system run by the FBI in 1998.) However, the Brady Bill did not apply to flea markets and gun shows, and gun sales at these venues boomed.
Annual revenues for the NRA approached $150 million in 1994 as the group attracted a more active and high profile membership. The group spent $15 million on a new headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, in the mid-1990s and also invested in a new computer system.
To address issues of increasing violent crime in the country, the NRA called for more prisons, tougher sentences, and more law enforcement officers. However, the Association continued to struggle with public relations issues and alienated certain law enforcement groups. Congressman John Dingell, an NRA board member, had called the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) a 'jackbooted group of fascists' in one of the group's promotional films in 1981. The NRA repeated the rhetoric in a 1995 fundraising letter, prompting former president George Bush to rescind his life membership.
In October 1997, nine firearms manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson, announced they were voluntarily adding child safety locks to their products. The unprecedented break from NRA policy was prompted by a litigious climate that had cities such as Chicago and New Orleans filing lawsuits similar to the ones that had been launched against the cigarette industry. The gun makers risked a boycott by NRA members who opposed compromise of any kind. According to Newsweek, the publicly-traded Sturm, Ruger firm had faced such a boycott earlier in the decade after it came out in favor of limiting high capacity ammo clips for assault weapons.
In 1997, in the face of such challenges, the NRA began publishing The American Guardian, designed to appeal to a more general audience, with less emphasis on technical subjects and more on self-defense and sporting uses for firearms. Membership in the NRA, after reaching at 3.5 million, had fallen by about a million in the mid-1990s. Still, the group held the largest convention in its history in 1998, attracting 41,000 attendees. In the same year, the NRA elected as its president the actor Charlton Heston, perhaps best known for his performance as Moses in the epic film The Ten Commandments. Another famous actor, Tom Selleck, appeared in a new round of magazine advertising for the NRA.
In the late 1990s, following several highly publicized incidents of violence involving guns among American teenagers, some polls indicated that 70 to 80 percent of Americans favored stricter gun control laws. However, Newsweek reported, the fear of political retaliation from the NRA killed a new round of gun control bills in June 1999. NRA membership climbed again late in the decade. By May 2000, the Association reported 3.7 million members fighting challenges to the right to bear arms.
Principal Divisions: Institute for Legislative Action; NRA Foundation.
Principal Competitors: Handgun Control, Inc.