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How the NRA Became an Organization for Aspiring Vigilantes (Part 2) | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

How the NRA Became an Organization for Aspiring Vigilantes (Part 2)


Ronald Reagan in the 1953 film Law and Order. (AP Photo.)

In 1972, the Republican platform supported gun control, abiding by a simple proposition with which many of us in the reality-based community agree: less guns, less crime.

We pledge a tireless campaign against crime—to restore safety to our streets, and security to law-abiding citizens who have a right to enjoy their homes and communities free from fear. We pledge to…[i]ntensify efforts to prevent criminal access to all weapons, including special emphasis on cheap, readily-obtainable handguns…with such federal law as necessary to enable the states to meet their responsibilities.

Which shouldn’t be all that surprising given that, despite the beginnings of the movement in the other direction I documented in my last post, the National Rifle Association supported the same sort of gun control, too.

But by 1980, the Republican platform said this:

We believe the right of citizens to keep and bear arms must be preserved. Accordingly, we oppose federal registration of firearms…. We therefore support Congressional initiatives to remove those provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 that do not significantly impact on crime but serve rather to restrain the law-abiding citizen in his legitimate use of firearms.

That same year, for the first time in its 109-year history, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate: the Republican nominee, of course, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan, they said, would see to it that the Justice Department “will pursue and prosecute those in government who abuse citizens for the political ends of gun control.” (How’s that for paranoia?)

What happened in between? For one thing, as I suggested in my last post, gun-toting was no longer associated with the far left—with Black Panthers and other aspirants to armed revolution. More importantly, though, the culture of Americans who owned guns had evolved more and more toward what some have been mistakenly associating with the 1990s: the “tactical turn”—a moral vision of the world in which good guys and bad guys are obviously distinguishable, and the self-declared good guys wash themselves in fantasies about good guys overpowering bad guys via stockpiles of increasingly powerful weaponry. Joined, of course, by fantasies of liberal Gestapos ever poised to take those stockpiles away.

Start this story with the debate over the “Saturday night specials.”

The Gun Control Act of 1968 referred to in the 1980 Republican platform, among other things, banned the sale of firearms by mail, and established a federal system of licensing individuals and companies who bought and sold guns—“the Communist line,” according to the NRA’s magazine American Rifleman. It also included a “sporting purpose” test to attempt to ban guns known as “Saturday night specials”: cheap, throwaway guns some believed all but useless for anything but the commission of crimes. That statutory formula (no guns with short barrels, small calibers and non-adjustable sights) did not work. Saturday night specials stayed on the streets. And by the 1970s one of the most active lobbies in new attempts to control them was… the NRA. In 1971, their director said, “We are for it 100 percent. We would like to get rid of these guns.” In 1973, their man in Congress, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, introduced the latest bill to ban them.

In 1975, the NRA moved more aggressively into lobbying, with a new Institute for Legal Action. But suddenly, the tenor of their lobbying had radically shifted. Their new legislative shop was headed by a right-wing former border control agent named Harlon Carter whose claim to fame was leading a 1950s operation called “Operation Wetback.” Ban Saturday night specials? No way. Harlon Carter was a fan. “A lot of famous people I have talked to have referred to the so-called Saturday night specials as a girl’s best friend,” he told the Associated Press. “They’re small enough to fit into a woman’s purse or be at her beside at home.” (Maybe one of those famous people, incidentally, was Ronald Reagan. The future president, it happened, practiced what he preached: Shortly after the 1980 election, Nancy Reagan admitted she kept a “tiny little gun” in a bedside drawer that her husband had taught her to use.) The NRA, Carter insisted, would oppose legislation aimed at “inanimate objects instead of the evildoer.” Boasting of working seven days a week, he helped kill the very bill the NRA was instrumental in introducing.

“Evildoers”: pay attention to the word.

Shortly after opening Harlon Carter’s lobbying shop, however, as Jill Lepore has reported in The New Yorker, the powers that be in the NRA chose to move away from the politics of crime and gun control and back to their identity as a sportman’s organization. Plans were laid to move their headquarters from Washington to bucolic Colorado Springs. The hardliners, however, weren’t having any of that: those in favor of the NRA going “soft on gun control,” as the muckraking liberal columnist Jack Anderson paraphrased the hardliners’ position, “worried about its image, becoming too involved in conservation causes, and looking for liberal money”—no fit image for an organization of hard men with guns.

There was, at that, another reported reason for the move to Colorado: Washington street crime. “A lot of people poked fun at this,” Anderson reported. And hard men with guns don’t like being poked fun at. And so they readied for bureaucratic war.

In 1977, Carter’s faction packed the national convention in Cincinnati and effected what one of the ousted officials called a “gentlemanly bloodbath.” Said one of the coup plotters, “People who are interested in conservation can join the Sierra Club. If they’re interested in bird-watching there’s the Audubon Society. But this organization is for people who want to own and shoot guns.” Immediately the announcement went forth: “the National Rifle Association is cutting back on its conservation and wildlife programs to devote most of its energies to fighting gun control.” The next year Jack Anderson followed up: “the most extreme of the extremists have formed a tight little clique which pulls strings inside the organization. They operate with great mystery and secrecy, referring to themselves cryptically as the Federation. Let a timorous official show the slightest weakness, and his name will go down on the Federation’s secret ‘hit list.’ ”

That 1977 coup has been widely written about of late. What most of us don’t know about, however, is Ronald Reagan’s role in laying the ideological groundwork for the historical transformation.

In 1975, after eight years as governor of California, Reagan took a job delivering daily five-minute radio homilies on the issues of the day. By June of that year he was on some 300 stations. And that month, in that frighteningly persuasive Ronald Reagan way, he addressed himself in a three-part series to a new proposal by Attorney General Edward Levi to pass a gun control law specifically targeted at high-crime areas. What follows are never-before-published Reagan quotes from my own research listening to dozens of these broadcasts archived at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for the book I’m working on about the rise of Reagan in the 1970s. They show Reagan bringing the NRA hardline faction’s worldview to the broader public.

“Now, that’s funny,” he said of Levi’s proposal. “It seems to me that the best way to deter murderers and thieves is to arm law-abiding folk and not disarm them…. as news story after news story shows, if the victim is armed, he has a chance—a better chance by far than if he isn’t armed. Nobody knows in fact how many crimes are not committed because criminals know a certain store owner has a gun—and will use it.” So the attorney general of the United States, Reagan said, “should encourage homeowners and business people to purchase them and learn how to use them properly.”

He concluded that first broadcast foreshadowing so much NRA rhetoric to come: “After all, guns don’t make criminals. It’s criminals who make use of guns. They’re the ones who should be punished—not the law-abiding citizen who seeks to defend himself.”

Good guys, bad guys, never the twain shall meet—despite all the evidence, which I’m sure was available even then, that the people most likely to be victim of a gun in the home are people who live in that house. Or the moral evidence of the entire history of the human race: that the boundaries between “good people” and “bad people” are permeable, contingent, unknowable; and that policy-making simply can’t proceed from the axiom that one set of rules can exist for the former, and one for the latter.

Conservatives don’t think that way. For them, it’s almost as if “evildoers” glow red, like ET: everyone just knows who they are. My favorite example from studying Reagan was the time the time news came out that Vice President Spiro Agnew was being investigated for bribery. The Governor of California told David Broder, “I have known Ted Agnew to be an honest and and honorable man. He, like any other citizen of high character, should be considered innocent until proven otherwise.” Citizen of high character: I don’t remember that line in my Constitution. That same week, he said of an alleged cop-killer, not yet tried, that he deserved the electric chair.

And it wasn’t just political demagogues, in 1975, who were saying so. “Wicked people exist,” wrote the late James Q. Wilson in an influential policy book that year, Thinking About Crime. “Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people.”

Have you ever met an “innocent person”? The Bible I’ve read suggests that there are none.

Now that silly view is hegemonic. “The truth is,” another conservative said not too long ago, “that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters. People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons, that no sane person can every possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every single day.” That was Wayne LaPierre explaining “law-abiding citizens” need to have as many guns close to hand as possible, the better to fuel the fantasy that more, bigger guns, everywhere, are what can save us from future Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedies.

At that, what is a “law-abiding citizen”? A law-abiding citizen is law-abiding only until they violate the law. At which point, they are a criminal, and outside conservative graces—but if conservatives have their way, they may be a criminal with an assault weapon, purchased back when they were a law-abiding person, because law-abiding citizens can never be denied any gun. Oops. But you can’t take that assault weapon away—that’s thanks to people like LaPierre.

Our stockpiles of course can also save us, according to that other constitutive gun nut fantasy from a tyrannical government—from “those,” as Reagan put it in a guest article in the September 1975 issue of Guns & Ammo, “who see confiscation of weapons as one way of keeping the people under control.”

Yes, the man who signed the Mulford Act in 1967 outlawing the carrying of weapons in public, back when the target was Black Panthers, was also an early adopter of, and crucial propagandist for, the theory that armed citizens should imagine themselves taking on the state—once the likes of the Black Panthers were defunct. As he put it in the the third part of his radio series that June, what the authors of the Second Amendment “really feared was that government might take away the freedoms of the citizens in their newly created free state. Each of those first ten amendments guarantees a freedom. the Second Amendment guarantees the right of the citizen to protect those other freedoms. Take away the arms of the citizen, and where is his defense against not only criminals but also the possible despotism of his government? In police states they take away the citizens’ arms first. This ensures the perpetuation of the state’s power, and the ability of police to deal with dissenters, as well as criminals.”

“So isn’t it better for the people to own arms than to risk enslavement by power-hungry men or nations? The founding fathers thougt so. This is Ronald Reagan. Thanks for listening.”

What makes us Americans, or even just participants in a civilization, is precisely that we surrender the horrifying conception of life is nothing but a violent war against all, resolving to live by legitimately constituted authority instead. To give up that conviction is democratic heresy. That heresy was another of Ronald Reagan’s gifts to us.

Rick’s first post on NRA history talked about the radical left’s initial role in promoting gun ownership, before the right took over the movement.

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