Negotiating Rights Away: The NRA’s History of Compromise

February 14, 2024 

Of all gun lobbies, the National Rifle Association has the most name recognition among American households. When the topic of gun policy is brought up, the NRA is the first organization that usually comes to mind.

Founded in 1871, the NRA initially served as an organization that taught millions of Americans basic marksmanship. Over the past century-and-a-half, the NRA was able to build a broad base of support among competitive shooters, gun collectors, hunters, law enforcement, and other gun aficionados.

During its initial stages, the NRA mostly focused on teaching millions of Americans on how to properly use firearms. It established a reputation as an organization that sponsored various programs dealing with firearm safety for children and adults. The NRA’s “Eddie Eagle” program for K-12 children is among its most famous.

However, over the course of the 20th century, the NRA began adding a political dimension to its activism.  During the Prohibition era of the 1930s, the United States was mired by organized crime. Notable mafia outfits and criminals equipped with machine guns captured national attention and prompted the political class to take action at the federal level. At the time, the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Firearms Act and the 1938 Gun Control Act — the first gun control measures passed at the federal level.

In a Time article titled “When the NRA Supported Gun Control”, Arica Coleman observed that the NRA played an instrumental role in drafting these gun control measures. These gun control laws imposed heavy taxation and regulatory requirements on firearms such as machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and silencers — firearms that were generally associated with organized crime at the time. Additionally, these laws required gun vendors and owners to register their firearms with the federal government.

During a testimony before Congress in 1934, then-President Karl T. Frederick gave the greenlight to these unprecedented gun control measures, stating the following:

“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

The 1960s were a tumultuous decade filled with mass riots in the summer of 1967 and high-profile assassinations of public figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. This wave of gun violence spurred Congress to build upon New Deal-era gun control measures through the passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act.

This law featured minimum age and serial number mandates, and broadened the scope of gun prohibitions to individuals who are mentally ill and are addicted to drugs. On top of that, this legislation placed limits on the shipping of firearms across state lines by only allowing federally licensed dealers to engage in such activity.

The NRA ostensibly road-blocked the strictest part of the law, which would have created a national registry of all firearms and licenses for all individuals who wanted to carry a firearm. Though the gun organization was not completely disturbed by the passage of this legislation as evidenced by then-NRA Executive Vice President Franklin Orth revealing in an interview in American Rifleman — the NRA’s premier magazine — that despite several parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act being restrictive in nature, “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

After the NRA established itself as a political force in the 1970s, it made a point of being an active participant in national policy making, even to the point of compromising on critical gun legislation.

For example, the NRA was able to pass the 1986 Firearm Owners’ Protection Act albeit with a catch: The NRA agreed to a compromise that would result in a prohibition on the future sale of machine guns.

During the 1990s, a renewed push for gun control took place under then-President Bill Clinton’s watch. While the passage of the Brady Act of 1993, which established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, was largely perceived as an anti-gun Democrat project, groups like the NRA have boasted about their role in passing said legislation.

Outgoing NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has previously praised his organization for the role it allegedly played in the establishment of NICS.  “The best kept secret is that the national instant check system wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the NRA,” he claimed.

In a similar vein, CNN pundit S.E. Cupp observed that “we only have background checks because the NRA fought for them as opposed to a five-day waiting period. The NICS system exists because the NRA helped get it passed.”

Curiously, the NRA initially opposed the Brady Act, but ended up being one of the key actors in passing it after the NRA put forward multiple amendments. At first, the Brady Act featured a provision to establish a five-day waiting period to purchase a gun. The NRA ended up agreeing to compromise language that ultimately created the NICS Gun Ban Registry while scrapping the waiting period.

The NRA has also worked with the likes of former Sen. Harry Reid (R-NV), whom LaPierre has described as a “true champion of the Second Amendment.” The NRA Executive VP added that “no one has been a stronger advocate for responsible gun ownership than him [Reid].” Due to outrage from no compromise pro-gun constituencies, the NRA ended up not endorsing Reid in 2010 after much speculation that the organization would have backed the then-Senate Majority Leader.

The NRA would also be active during gun control debates in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Two Senators Joe Manchin (R-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), who enjoyed A ratings from the NRA at the time, introduced legislation that would mandate universal background checks for commercial firearm sales. The aforementioned Brady Act federally imposed background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers since 1994. The Toomey-Manchin bill would have background checks extended to gun shows and all Internet sales.

No compromise gun organizations like the National Association for Gun Rights, warned about Manchin secretly negotiating with the NRA to hammer out a compromise gun control bill.  In an email directed to NAGR members,  President Dudley Brown declared the following:

“It’s happening. . . . According to Politico, Sen. Joe Manchin is in secret negotiations with unnamed N.R.A. officials to sell out our gun rights. I’ve warned you from the beginning that our gravest danger was an inside-Washington driven deal.” In the email, Brown damningly referred to the deal as “the Manchin-N.R.A. compromise bill.”

Because of the pressure from NAGR and other no compromise gun rights organizations, the NRA was compelled to publicly distance itself from the Toomey-Manchin gun control bill, thereby scuttling this legislation.

In 2022, gun control advocates were able to score a victory with the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA). The bill changed the definition of what a “gun seller” is. More specifically, the BSCA made changes to the text of Section 921(a) of Title 18, United States Code. The definition was changed from an individual “engaged in the business” of selling guns from “with the principal objective of livelihood and profit” to a less clear description of “to predominantly earn a profit.”

Furthermore, the BSCA allocated funds through the Department of Justice’s State Crisis Intervention Program (SCIP) to states in order to incentivize them to start implementing “red flag” gun confiscation orders.

The BSCA was ultimately signed into law on June 25, 2022. It enjoyed the support of 15 Republicans in the US Senate. Several of these senators enjoyed A+ ratings — Mitch McConnell (R-KY) & John Cornyn (R-TX) — and A ratings — Mitt Romney (R-UT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), & Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — from the NRA, respectively.

With Biden’s recent 1300 page directive given to the ATF, the NICS Gun Ban Registry is on its way to becoming a full-blown Universal Gun Registration scheme, thanks to the NRA.

Overall, the NRA has positioned itself as the most renowned gun lobby in the US. However, its track record mostly demonstrates its penchant for trying to occupy the national spotlight as opposed to passing clean pro-gun legislation and legitimately rolling back gun control. Grassroots gun rights activists have increasingly referred to the NRA’s acronym of standing for “Negotiating Rights Away,” rather than National Rifle Association.

As a result, a vacuum has emerged for no compromise organizations to fill such as NAGR at the national level and state-based organizations like Texas Gun Rights. In doing so, these organizations have worked to pass legislation such as Constitutional Carry, which has often been opposed by regional NRA lobbyists, even though they inevitably always swoop in to take credit during bill signing ceremonies. Gun owners looking for genuine change in gun policy are largely gravitating to the two aforementioned organizations as the NRA itself is going through a number of internal struggles.

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