The Secret History of Guns

The Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan, and, for most of its history, the NRA all worked to control guns. The Founding Fathers? They required gun ownership—and regulated it. And no group has more fiercely advocated the right to bear loaded weapons in public than the Black Panthers—the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement. In the battle over gun rights in America, both sides have distorted history and the law, and there’s no resolution in sight.
More

Today, the NRA is the unquestioned leader in the fight against gun control. Yet the organization didn’t always oppose gun regulation. Founded in 1871 by George Wingate and William Church—the latter a former reporter for a newspaper now known for hostility to gun rights, The New York Times—the group first set out to improve American soldiers’ marksmanship. Wingate and Church had fought for the North in the Civil War and been shocked by the poor shooting skills of city-bred Union soldiers.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the NRA was at the forefront of legislative efforts to enact gun control. The organization’s president at the time was Karl T. Frederick, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer known as “the best shot in America”—a title he earned by winning three gold medals in pistol-shooting at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games. As a special consultant to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Frederick helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model of state-level gun-control legislation. (Since the turn of the century, lawyers and public officials had increasingly sought to standardize the patchwork of state laws. The new measure imposed more order—and, in most cases, far more restrictions.)

Frederick’s model law had three basic elements. The first required that no one carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police. A permit would be granted only to a “suitable” person with a “proper reason for carrying” a firearm. Second, the law required gun dealers to report to law enforcement every sale of a handgun, in essence creating a registry of small arms. Finally, the law imposed a two-day waiting period on handgun sales.

The NRA today condemns every one of these provisions as a burdensome and ineffective infringement on the right to bear arms. Frederick, however, said in 1934 that he did “not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The NRA’s executive vice president at the time, Milton A. Reckord, told a congressional committee that his organization was “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation.” According to Frederick, the NRA “sponsored” the Uniform Firearms Act and promoted it nationwide. Highlighting the political strength of the NRA even back then, a 1932 Virginia Law Review article reported that laws requiring a license to carry a concealed weapon were already “in effect in practically every jurisdiction.”

When Congress was considering the first significant federal gun law of the 20th century—the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed a steep tax and registration requirements on “gangster guns” like machine guns and sawed-off shotguns—the NRA endorsed the law. Karl Frederick and the NRA did not blindly support gun control; indeed, they successfully pushed to have similar prohibitive taxes on handguns stripped from the final bill, arguing that people needed such weapons to protect their homes. Yet the organization stood firmly behind what Frederick called “reasonable, sensible, and fair legislation.”

One thing conspicuously missing from Frederick’s comments about gun control was the Second Amendment. When asked during his testimony on the National Firearms Act whether the proposed law violated “any constitutional provision,” he responded, “I have not given it any study from that point of view.” In other words, the president of the NRA hadn’t even considered whether the most far-reaching federal gun-control legislation in history conflicted with the Second Amendment. Preserving the ability of law-abiding people to have guns, Frederick would write elsewhere, “lies in an enlightened public sentiment and in intelligent legislative action. It is not to be found in the Constitution.”

In the 1960s, the NRA once again supported the push for new federal gun laws. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, who had bought his gun through a mail-order ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine, Franklin Orth, then the NRA’s executive vice president, testified in favor of banning mail-order rifle sales. “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” Orth and the NRA didn’t favor stricter proposals, like national gun registration, but when the final version of the Gun Control Act was adopted in 1968, Orth stood behind the legislation. While certain features of the law, he said, “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

A growing group of rank-and-file NRA members disagreed. In an era of rising crime rates, fewer people were buying guns for hunting, and more were buying them for protection. The NRA leadership didn’t fully grasp the importance of this shift. In 1976, Maxwell Rich, the executive vice president, announced that the NRA would sell its building in Washington, D.C., and relocate the headquarters to Colorado Springs, retreating from political lobbying and expanding its outdoor and environmental activities.

Rich’s plan sparked outrage among the new breed of staunch, hard-line gun-rights advocates. The dissidents were led by a bald, blue-eyed bulldog of a man named Harlon Carter, who ran the NRA’s recently formed lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. In May 1977, Carter and his allies staged a coup at the annual membership meeting. Elected the new executive vice president, Carter would transform the NRA into a lobbying powerhouse committed to a more aggressive view of what the Second Amendment promises to citizens.

The new NRA was not only responding to the wave of gun-control laws enacted to disarm black radicals; it also shared some of the Panthers’ views about firearms. Both groups valued guns primarily as a means of self-defense. Both thought people had a right to carry guns in public places, where a person was easily victimized, and not just in the privacy of the home. They also shared a profound mistrust of law enforcement. (For years, the NRA has demonized government agents, like those in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency that enforces gun laws, as “jack-booted government thugs.” Wayne LaPierre, the current executive vice president, warned members in 1995 that anyone who wears a badge has “the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.”) For both the Panthers in 1967 and the new NRA after 1977, law-enforcement officers were too often representatives of an uncaring government bent on disarming ordinary citizens.

A sign of the NRA’s new determination to influence electoral politics was the 1980 decision to endorse, for the first time in the organization’s 100 years, a presidential candidate. Their chosen candidate was none other than Ronald Reagan, who more than a decade earlier had endorsed Don Mulford’s law to disarm the Black Panthers—a law that had helped give Reagan’s California one of the strictest gun-control regimes in the nation. Reagan’s views had changed considerably since then, and the NRA evidently had forgiven his previous support of vigorous gun control.

In 2008, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the government cannot ever completely disarm the citizenry. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court clearly held, for the first time, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to possess a gun. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court declared unconstitutional several provisions of the District’s unusually strict gun-control law, including its ban on handguns and its prohibition of the use of long guns for self-defense. Indeed, under D.C.’s law, you could own a shotgun, but you could not use it to defend yourself against a rapist climbing through your bedroom window.

Gun-rights groups trumpeted the ruling as the crowning achievement of the modern gun-rights movement and predicted certain victory in their war to end gun control. Their opponents criticized the Court’s opinion as right-wing judicial activism that would call into question most forms of gun control and lead inevitably to more victims of gun violence.

So far, at least, neither side’s predictions have come true. The courts have been inundated with lawsuits challenging nearly every type of gun regulation; in the three years since the Supreme Court’s decision, lower courts have issued more than 200 rulings on the constitutionality of gun control. In a disappointment to the gun-rights community, nearly all laws have been upheld.

The lower courts consistently point to one paragraph in particular from the Heller decision. Nothing in the opinion, Scalia wrote, should

be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

This paragraph from the pen of Justice Scalia, the foremost proponent of constitutional originalism, was astounding. True, the Founders imposed gun control, but they had no laws resembling Scalia’s list of Second Amendment exceptions. They had no laws banning guns in sensitive places, or laws prohibiting the mentally ill from possessing guns, or laws requiring commercial gun dealers to be licensed. Such restrictions are products of the 20th century. Justice Scalia, in other words, embraced a living Constitution. In this, Heller is a fine reflection of the ironies and contradictions—and the selective use of the past—that run throughout America’s long history with guns.

Adam Winkler is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA law school. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, to be published by W. W. Norton in September.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Where the Wildest Things Are

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In