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A Complete History Of How The NRA Went From A Gun Safety Organization To What It Is Today

The NRA is always at the forefront of any discussion revolving around gun owners' rights. No matter how many mass shootings occur - or how many businesses cut ties with the NRA - the organization's stance has stayed consistent: the government will only be able to take weapons "from our cold, dead hands."

The NRA today is vastly different from when it was started in 1871. Looking at NRA history, it's quite clear the group and its supporters have gone through some pretty massive changes. The association didn't always reference the Gun Rights Bible or advocate for the civilian ownership of semi-automatic rifles. In fact, the NRA was started with the notion of gun control in mind. So what does the NRA do today, and how did the organization evolve since its post-Civil War inception?

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  • The NRA Was Founded To Promote Accurate Marksmanship

    When the NRA was founded in 1871, they weren't worried about the Second Amendment in the slightest. The group was founded by two Civil War veterans, George Wood Wingate, a lawyer, and William Conant Church, a former reporter for the New York Times. The same New York Times that serves as the sworn enemy of the NRA today.

    The whole reason the organization was started was to help the average soldier and citizen shoot better. The founders were frustrated at how inaccurate everybody was during the Civil War, so the two founded the NRA to promote, "rifle shooting on a scientific basis." 

  • Four Presidential Assassination Attempts Started The National Conversation On Gun Regulation

    When the NRA was first established in 1871, most Americans owned guns. The NRA was trying to improve marksmanship among the general populace, whether for hunting or for later use in the military. The two co-founders were appalled by an official study that suggested 1,000 rounds were fired for every hit during the Civil War.

    But the cultural attitude towards guns started to shift in the light of four high-profile presidential assassination attempts, including the successful homicide of Abraham Lincoln and a failed effort on Teddy Roosevelt's life. Even though they began as ostensibly a marksmanship club, the NRA wanted to be a part of this growing national conversation.

  • In The 1930s, The NRA Was In Favor Of Gun Control

    The NRA's views have changed fairly dramatically since 1871. Back in the 1930s, for example, their president, Karl T. Frederick, was staunchly in favor of gun control. Gangsters were shooting people down in the streets, and in 1939, Frederick testified before Congress that he thought more restrictions were needed:

    I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.

  • NRA President Karl Frederick Argued Guns Were More Regulated Than Cars In The '30s

    Even though NRA president Karl Frederick was for gun restrictions, he didn't support restrictions on every gun. When Congress attempted to pass the National Firearms Act of 1934, Frederick explained to Congress that, "automobile owners are not fingerprinted and are, as a class, a much more criminal body, from the standpoint of percentage, than pistol licensees."

    At first, the chairman asked him if he was kidding, and whether he truly believed the average car driver was more likely to be a criminal than a gun owner. But Frederick doubled down and said that while big guns could constitute a problem, "pistol licensees, those who have gone to the trouble of securing a license to carry weapons, are a most law-abiding body, and the perpetration of a crime by such a licensee is almost unknown."

  • Originally, The Strongest Supporters Of Gun Rights Were The Black Panthers

    The biggest supporters of gun rights in the '60s were the Black Panthers. They believed gun control was being used to limit their access to guns and to their rights, and they wanted a change. When this was the case, the NRA actively pushed for gun control to limit access to firearms for people like the Black Panthers.

    In 1967, Black Panthers protested outside of the California statehouse, guns in hand. While no shots were fired, the display was enough to make California lawmakers nervous. Ronald Reagan - the governor of California at the time - helped pass the Mulford Act, a state bill that prohibited open carry. Eventually, things swung back the other way, and gun rights activists tended to skew white and conservative by the early 21st century. 

  • The Assassinations Of JFK And MLK Created A Rift In The NRA

    In the '60s, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and several popular leaders were assassinated by politically motivated shooters. At the time, the NRA worked with Congress to enact additional, restrictive measures following the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. But not everybody at the NRA was on board.

    In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act and the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Gun Control Act became the principal federal law regulating firearms. It prevented convicted felons, proven drug users, and the mentally ill from purchasing firearms, raised the age to purchase handguns to 21, and increased the licensing standards of gun dealers. 

    The '60s also saw an increase in crime and rioting, and some citizens were worried that if their guns were taken away, they wouldn't be able to protect themselves. They were done worrying about regulations. They wanted protection.