National Rifle Association (NRA)

The National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in 1871 by two Civil War–era generals who, critical of their own troops’ marksmanship, wished to start a group whose goal would be to ‘‘promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.’’ The NRA built its first practice ground on Long Island, with a grant of $25,000 from the State of New York. From these humble beginnings, the NRA has transformed into a powerful organization boasting a membership of nearly four million and which proclaims itself ‘‘America’s foremost defender of Second Amendment rights.’’

Before mid-century, the NRA was largely a hunters’ and sportsmen’s club. The NRA organized shooting clubs around the country (including at colleges, universities, and military academies), built shooting ranges, conducted hunter education programs, published member magazines, and organized large-scale shooting matches at its facilities. In the mid-1950s, the group also conducted firearms training for law enforcement officers, although the collaborative relationship between the two came undone when national police organization supported restricting armor-piercing bullets and assault weapons. Nevertheless, the NRA claims to have trained over 1.5 million police officers as well as 17 million hunters. The group still conducts civilian gun training program and initiated the ‘‘Eddie Eagle® Gun Safety Program’’ to teach gun safety to children.

The NRA is perhaps most visible in its legislative action and lobbying capacity, which has expanded considerably beginning in the 1950s. The passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968 in the wake of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. precipitated a split in the NRA that set it on a course for more vigorous legislative advocacy of gun rights. The NRA leadership at the time supported handgun ownership for self-defense, but viewed the organization’s primary role as being to support recreational use of guns for sporting purposes. A reaction to increasing federal assertiveness in pushing for gun control legislation, a new group of leaders took control of the NRA in 1977 in what became known as the ‘‘Cincinnati revolt.’’ Since this time, the NRA has actively propounded its absolutist view of gun rights.

The Institute for Legislative Affairs, created in 1975, is the main instrument of the NRA’s lobbying campaign to oppose any national or local statutes limiting the Second Amendment rights of American citizens. And its story over the past thirty years has largely been one of success, although it has seen some setbacks. The group has enjoyed the membership of Dwight Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush, while Ronald Reagan, also a member, was the first sitting president to address an NRA annual meeting. Through aggressive fund raising, marketing, and outreach efforts, the NRA nearly tripled in size, from 940,000 members in 1977 to its current size. As a single-issue organization, it can levy the entire weight of its political machine to great effect against politicians seen as being unfriendly to gun rights. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, the NRA managed to defeat every major attempt at federal gun control. The NRA lost ground in the late 1980s and1990s, as Congress passed restrictions on handguns, while the Brady Bill of 1994 mandated background checks and waiting periods for the purchase of certain firearms and placed restrictions on automatic and semiautomatic weapons. The NRA has enjoyed some success on the state level in encouraging state governments to pass ‘‘concealed-carry laws’’ that permit individuals to obtain licenses to carry concealed weapons.

Although the NRA does not oppose reasonable gun licensing or existing limitations on gun ownership by minors, for example, it understands the Second Amendment to confer upon law-abiding Americans a right to bear arms for the purpose of self-defense. They decisively reject the ‘‘collective rights’’ arguments of gun control advocates who posit that the provision must be read as providing a right only in connection with organized military units. The NRA’s view is rooted in the belief that the framers of the Constitution intended the right to bear arms to accrue to individuals as a means of defending themselves against other citizens, as well as their own government. The provision was meant as a check against the tyranny of the state, and to provide for an armed citizenry from which a militia may be drawn. Under this construction, the ‘‘well-regulated militia’’ language is incidental to rather than a qualifier of the individual right. The NRA points to Court decisions such as United States v. Miller (1939) and United States v. Emerson (5th Cir. 2001), both of which appear to support the individual rights approach, as evidence of the correctness of their position. The NRA received a further boost recently when Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum in December 2004 favoring the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment.

ANDREW FINKELMAN

References and Further Reading

  • Crooker, Constance Emerson. Gun Control and Gun Rights. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.
  • Reynolds, Glen Harlan, A Critical Guide to the Second Amendment, Tennessee Law Review 62 (1994–1995): 461.
  • Sugarmann, Josh. National Rifle Association. Washington, D.C.: National Press Books, 1992.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • United States v. Emerson, 270 F.3d 203 (5th Cir. 2001)
  • United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939)

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