The NRA's history, from its original focus on marksmanship and responsible ownership to its current insistence on gun sales and a sustained resistance to most efforts at gun-control, reflects many of the divisions that currently exist in our own country. Here's a brief timeline of the major dates and events that will help us to understand its current position.
1871—The NRA was founded by William C. Church and George Wingate. Church had been a reporter for The New York Times, and his main purpose in founding the Association was simply "to promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis." Both Church and Wingate had fought for the North in the Civil War, and they were dismayed that most northerners were such bad shots that their Confederate counterparts, though vastly outnumbered, had extended the war because they were better marksmen.
1872—The New York State Assembly gave the NRA $25000—a sizeable sum in 1872—to buy land for a rifle range. The NRA's hostile relationship to the government, whether state or federal, would arrive later in its history. In the early years, the NRA focused on marksmanship training programs, and the government was a sponsoring friend.
1920s-1930s—Realizing the dangers of unregulated gun ownership, the NRA in these decades was receptive to the idea of gun control, and even lobbied on behalf of such legislation. The Uniform Firearms Act, The National Firearms Act (1934), and The Federal Firearms Act (1938) were all designed to control the use and ownership of firearms in America: taxes, registration, licensing, and other controls were supported by the NRA during this time. Although the organization never gave blanket approval to all controls, it understood and exercised the legislative art of compromise from the beginning of its existence. In the early history of the NRA, the health and welfare of the Second Amendment was not one of its major concerns. In fact, it was rarely mentioned until the 1960s.
1957—Moving into new headquarters, the NRA chose for its motto, "“Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” By 1977, the motto changed. Now, it read "The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed." The NRA's identification with the Second Amendment was in full swing. And its major PR line was well established: gun owners in America are under assault, and their rights to own weapons are threatened.
1960's—As social and political unrest moved through the country, the NRA's membership changed. College students were protesting the Vietnam War, and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to prominence and threatened the NRA's predominantly white male membership. More and more, NRA members began to purchase guns expressly for self-protection. Marksmanship and sport-shooting became less prominent in the members' profile. Also: before 1959, there were only a few legal articles on the Second Amendment, the assumption being that the Amendment pertained to militia. During the 1960s, the NRA's publication, The American Rifleman, began foregrounding the Amendment, and "individual-rights" scholarship expanded.
1968—After the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., the NRA took criticism from its increasingly hardline membership for not stopping the passage of Congress's Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act that laid out a now familiar set of gun controls, some of which the NRA continues to fight today: sales to felons, drug users, and the mentally ill, as well as controlling the import of designated handguns and keeping more detailed purchasing records.
1976—Maxwell Rich, executive vice president of the NRA, announced that the organization would sell its building in Washington, D.C. and move to Colorado Springs. The move was intended to insulate the NRA from the corridors of the D.C. lobbyists and to rediscover its sporting and environmental awareness programs. Rich's decision outraged the hardline members of the organization. The leader of this faction was a Texan named Harlon Carter. An extraordinary shot himself, he won two national shooting titles and set 44 national shooting records. Carter was also head of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), established in 1975 for the express purpose of resisting the gun-control proposals that arrived regularly from state and federal lawmakers.
Rich, disturbed by the growing contingency of reactionary NRA members who had become associated with the ILA, engineered the "Weekend Massacre" in November, 1976. He summarily fired 80 of Carter's cohorts who backed the ILA.
This was Rich's last stand against the para-military atmosphere that now dominates the NRA.
1977—Harlon Carter and his allies staged a legislative revolution at the annual meeting in Cincinnati on May 21, 1977. Calling his supporters the Federation of the NRA, Carter and his friends arrived at the convention equipped with walkie-talkies and a plan. In a night-long session, Carter and his lieutenant, Neal Knox, orchestrated coordinated legislation that changed the way the Board was elected, revised the bylaws to commit the NRA to fighting gun-control legislation, and increased funding for the ILA. Knox, one of the great conspiracy theorists of the NRA, speculated that the government had arranged the assassinations of King and the two Kennedys solely to advance its gun-control agenda. By the morning, Harlon Carter had become the new executive vice president, and the course of the organization was unalterably changed. Harlon served until 1981, during which time the membership of the NRA tripled, and its annual budget reached $66 million. It was under Carter's tenure also that the NRA became the lobbying giant that it is today, taking scores of elected officials, both at the state and national levels, under its protective wing.
1986—Prompted by the increasingly effective efforts of the NRA, Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which restricted the federal government's ability to inspect the essential operations of gun dealers.
1990's—During the 90's, the NRA's radical interpretation of the Second Amendment began to attract into the organization paramilitary groups, who called themselves "militias." They bought guns prolifically and began to stockpile them, creating a consumer base for the gun industry that the NRA had consolidated around its constant stream of fear and paranoia, much of it using racially coded language. These groups became visible at guns shows, where they could purchase guns without background checks, and they began to distribute racist tracts as well. The NRA had come of age in its new and fearsome form.
1991—Wayne LaPierre became executive vice president of the NRA. His paranoid rhetoric and extreme conspiracy theories serve an increasingly radical and shrinking contingency of Americans. Yet, the NRA has formed one of the most effective lobbies in Washington DC, and their alliance with the gun manufacturers in the country have allowed it to influence heavily the laws and the legislators that direct the future of this country. It is interesting to note that LaPierre seems increasingly not to speak for his membership. In a recently released poll, 74% of NRA members support background checks for all gun sales, a position that LaPierre himself has resisted.
1994—The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 produced a 10-year federal ban on assault weapons.
July 1995—NRA membership swelled to more than 3.5 million (these numbers are estimations based on various factors. Technically, their membership roster is "private.")
1997—The NRA failed in its attempt to get the entire Brady law tossed out.
October 2000—In the face of calls for more gun-control legislation, NRA membership grew to a record 4.1 million.
From an organization devoted to marksmanship and a traditional gun culture, the NRA has evolved into a powerful gun lobby that cultivates a paramilitary image of fear and paranoia. Its goals are clear: to increase gun sales by resisting all legislative efforts to make gun controls in America safer and more comprehensive.
Note: much of the information from this posting came from Adam Winkler's helpful book on the subject, Gun Fight (Norton, 2011), and I would highly recommend it to anyone who would further study this subject.