Today, the majority of headlines about the National Rifle Association involve a bit of controversy – debates over gun laws inevitably following mass shootings, or boycotts by citizens or businesses not wanting to be affiliated with the gun rights group. But it hasn’t always been this way. At its founding, the NRA was focused on firearms skill and safety, not politics.
As the NRA prepares for its national conference in Dallas next week, David Tarrant, enterprise writer for the Dallas Morning News, says that two Texans profoundly changed the organization, turning it into the high-powered political force it is today.
Tarrant says the NRA was created during the Civil War with the goal of improving the marksmanship of Union soldiers. Later, the group encouraged participation in shooting sports and hunting. The NRA’s focus on politics began during Prohibition, when violent crime increased along with illegal drinking.
“What happened with Prohibition was that suddenly you made alcohol illegal,” Tarrant says. “As a result, you had gangs dealing with alcohol because people were still drinking.”
Prohibition-era gangsters’ weapon of choice was a fully-automatic machine gun, and that frightened citizens and their elected leaders. The NRA supported legislation restricting machine guns as a way to prevent broader regulation of guns, Tarrant says.
In the 1960s, political assassinations and a general spirit of unrest in the U.S. led to calls for gun control. Again, the NRA stepped in to fight those measures, but the group’s efforts were rebuffed.
“In the 70s,” Tarrant says, “you had people like Neal Knox and Harlon Carter, two Texans who felt that gun control itself was a problem – that the Second Amendment was absolute, and that it should be adhered to without any restrictions…That was the beginning of a very black-and-white era for them.”
Knox and Carter fought the NRA’s plan to move its headquarters away from Washington D.C. to Colorado. They engineered an overthrow of the existing board in 1977, installing Carter as leader of the group, with Knox as chief lobbyist.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.