“God Guns & Guts Made America Free”

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Among the most common mechanical possessions in the households of America, outnumbering even the motor vehicle and possibly outnumbered itself only by the flush toilet and the television set, is a device which, having won the West and championed liberty over the years, some householders would now proscribe as the instrument of our collective undoing. In short, the gun. I mean rifles, shotguns, pistols, and revolvers, at least 150,000,000 of them tucked away in bureau drawers and attic cupboards or racked splendidly above mantel-pieces. There are big ones and little ones; Krags and Enfields, Springfields and Mausers, Mannlicher-Carcanos and M-1 Garands, Remingtons and Winchesters and Brownings and Berettas and Rugers and Lugers and Colts; guns for all seasons and reasons; guns to punch holes in targets and tin cans, coots and Kodiak bears; guns for their own sake, guns never used; guns as last line of defense against burglars and rapists, looters and lunatics; guns to be stolen by burglars and lunatics; guns for irate lovers, quiet patriots, raving assassins, earnest sportsmen, feisty poachers, gentle collectors; guns for the people who passionately believe that the U.S. Constitution gives them a personal right to keep and bear arms.

 

A number of institutions operate in behalf of the gun owners of America. These include the arms industry, the hook-and-bullet press, hunters’ groups functioning at the state level, and some half dozen national membership organizations whose involvement in the preservation of personal weaponry is often secondary to some other interest, such as the propagation of game species in order that hunters might have something better than tin cans on which to exercise their right to bear arms. In addition, gun owners are staunchly represented on Capitol Hill, in most statehouses, and generally throughout those rural jurisdictions where sheriffs still prevail along with rocking chairs and Bull Durham tobacco. It is a diverse constituency, this gunnery. With overlapping subgroups, it embraces 16,000,000 licensed hunters, most of the nation’s farmers and ranchers, countless edgy urban shopkeepers, and, by some estimates, as many as four of every ten heads-of-household in the land. No one institution could possibly speak for every Tom, Dick, and Harriet of them. And only one tries—the National Rifle Association of America, better known as the NRA to friend and foe alike, of which there are plenty.

The National Rifle Association was chartered in New York State in 1871, just over nine years after regiments of raw Union recruits were marched to the fields of Shiloh to match their marksmanship with General P.G.T. Beauregard’s finest Confederate squirrel shooters. The Northerners were armed for the most part with new, muzzle-loading Springfields. In the Union’s haste to bring the war to a speedy end, there had not been time enough to instruct the rank and file in the rifle’s proper use. As a result, some of the Springfields at Shiloh were recovered by Beauregard’s men in mint condition: dropped in the field and never fired. Similar humiliations occurred at Gettysburg and other Union shrines. After the war, commands not otherwise engaged in Southern reconstruction or Indian removal in the West promptly reverted to antebellum type, with much emphasis on close-order drill and nary a round at the rifle range. Some retired officers, however, remembered the lesson of Shiloh and began to speak of America’s need for straight shooters. These officers were the founders of the National Rifle Association.

Over the past century, pursuing its charter mandate, the NRA has served with distinction as the undisputed alma mater of American marksmen. It has nurtured affiliate rifle clubs in every state, elevated competitive shooting to the level of true sport, encouraged excellence at arms in the military services, and prepared many a peacetime citizen for the difficult role of wartime rifleman. It has swelled from a modest cadre of Union veterans reminiscing in wall tents to an organizational colossus of 1,200,000 dues-paying members, 300 employees, $26,400,000 in securities, a multimillion-dollar headquarters building in Washington, D.C., 37,707 acres of New Mexican real estate, and (in 1976) an expense budget of more than $16,500,000, of which almost a quarter was spent by the NRA’s aggressive lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. The priorities of the NRA are reflected in this budget, and they are quite different from the pressing martial concerns of a century ago. For every dollar spent directly in 1976 on such placid programs as hunter safety education and competitive shooting matches, two were shelled out in the volatile arena where gun-owner “rights” and NRA goals are under constant attack by proponents of gun control.