“God Guns & Guts Made America Free”

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More recently, an irrational fear of communism has been upstaged by a new bogy-the People Control Conspiracy, in which a corrupt federal government, abetted by land-use planners and gutless judges, will seek to disarm the populace through gun registration. During the Conyers hearings in 1975, more than fifty measures were introduced in the House and Senate to curb easy access to firearms by persons who might misuse them. Most of these bills were directed specifically at the Saturday Night Special. None advocated total confiscation of all firearms. And none suggested that it would be in the public interest to disarm the police. But that, apparently, was not the interpretation of the executive staff of the NRA.

So the NRA sat right down and wrote its friends a letter. It ran four pages over the signature of General Maxwell E. Rich (ret.), then executive vice president (the top staff post) of the NRA, and enclosed with it were a four-part questionnaire billed as “our National Opinion Survey on Crime Control” and a plea for contributions to the “NRA Legislative Fund.” The letter addressed itself to the “terribly serious consequences of what the liberal press refers to as ‘Gun Control,’ ” then went on to state: “My friend, they are not talking of ‘Control’; they want complete and total ‘Confiscation.’ This will mean the elimination and removal of all police revolvers, all sporting rifles and target pistols owned by law abiding citizens.… Tell me, what would the crime rate be if the criminal knew our police were unarmed … ?” And just in case the subtleties of this announcement might have been missed, two enclosures echoed the major message. Question 2 of the so-called National Opinion Survey asked: “Do you believe your local police need to carry firearms to arrest robbery and murder suspects?” The solicitation card offered a check list: “Yes, I agree. If guns are taken from our local police and private law abiding citizens only the criminals will be armed.”

Controversy did not always dog the affairs of the NRA. In the good old days a century ago, the riflemen simply addressed themselves to targets at the association’s range at Creedmoor, Long Island. There were team competitions and shooting tours of Europe and the British Isles. In one annual match, the prize was a Gatling gun, complete with carriage, valued at three thousand dollars. Ulysses S. Grant served one desultory term as NRA president in 1883-84. He was succeeded by General Philip H. Sheridan. Membership, however, remained small, and, by all accounts, the NRA might actually have gone under but for the fortuitous appearance in the U.S. statute books of Public Law 149. Signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, it authorized the sale, at cost, of surplus military small arms and ammunition to rifle clubs meeting specifications of a newly created National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice. One such specification was that, to partake of the government’s generosity at arms, a club had to be approved and sponsored by the National Rifle Association. Two years later, as if to show that it not only could go to the top but also could stay there, the NRA signed up President Roosevelt, Secretary of War William Howard Taft, and Secretary of State Elihu Root as life members. By the 1930’s, the organization was expanding into new fields-police marksmanship training, and later, youth programs in cooperation with agricultural and veterans’ groups. In 1940, after Dunkirk, with Hitler’s armies poised to strike across the English Channel, a plea was issued to NRA members to “send a gun to defend a British home.” And fifteen hundred members came through.

During and immediately after World War II, the NRA experienced a time of rapid growth, both in national prestige and in the size of its membership. President Harry S Truman in 1945 commended the organization for “assistance … in prosecution of the war.” A year later, nearly threescore senators, congressmen, generals, and admirals turned out for the NRA’s Diamond Jubilee dinner, at which General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower praised the group for being “utterly selfless in its aims. …” Such high compliments no doubt were a great boost to NRA recruiters; in 1946, membership practically doubled to 155,000.

If the American public had any perception of the NRA at this time, it was not a controversial one. By and large, the association’s principal activities seemed to remain where they had always been—down on the shooting range. But as the country followed new directions, so, too, did the NRA. By the late 1950’s it appeared that the main action henceforth would be played out not on the range but in the halls of legislative debate. Suddenly in the Congress there were people saying that the Federal Firearms Acts of 1934 and 1938-which had restricted the manufacture and sale of submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns and had regulated interstate commerce in all firearms and ammunition—were not sufficient to deal effectively with the nation’s soaring rate of firearm crime. Some people, in fact, were beginning to demand much sterner stuff: licensing of all gun owners, registration of sporting arms, bans on pistols and revolvers. In response, the NRA’s small and sometime somnolent legislative division, created in 1934 to make sure the federal lawmakers did not extend their restrictions beyond the realm of gangland weaponry, assumed a vigorous new role.