Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. In The Second Amendment, Waldman delves into the hidden history behind the gun debate in America. From the NRA’s founding during the Civil War to its radicalization in recent years, he examines the ideological transformation of what was once an organization promoting the safe and sensible use of firearms. Coinciding with the NRA’s increasing extremism was the rise of a Supreme Court majority willing to overturn centuries of precedent to empower the far right. Waldman focuses not only on our moral responsibility to safeguard society, but the balance between individual rights and the role of government under the Constitution.
You can purchase the book here.
The NRA bills itself as “the nation’s longest standing civil rights organization.” That’s not exactly how it started.
During the Civil War, Union officers had grown perturbed at the poor marksmanship of their troops. Previously, guns were inaccurate, and target practice a waste of time. Now new technology—breech-loading guns and metal cartridge ammunition—made shooting a prized skill. In 1871, militia and army veterans created a new organization to train American men to shoot safely and accurately: the National Rifle Association. General Ambrose Burnside—yes, the same gent whose name lives to describe his distinctive whiskers—served as ceremonial president for a year. Government helped: New York State bought the NRA a rifle range to hold contests. The organization nearly collapsed when the state withdrew its support. “There will be no war in my time or in the time of my children,” New York’s governor assured the group’s leader. “The only need for a National Guard is to show itself in parades and ceremonies.” So federal officials stepped in, creating the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice in 1901. It gave away surplus guns to clubs sponsored by the NRA. Between the world wars, the federal government provided 200,000 rifles to NRA members at cost. After the defeat of Japan, with its membership swelled, the NRA began to shift its focus. Its publications dwelled on hunting and sports shooting, not paramilitary activity. The group lobbied, and was based in Washington, D.C., but its principal focus was bagging deer, not blocking laws. In the late 1950s, it opened a new headquarters building to house its hundreds of employees. Metal letters spelled out its purpose in 1958: firearms safety education, marksmanship training, shooting for recreation.
The NRA expressed unease with gun laws. But even as its ranks grew, it did not object to the first federal gun control measure, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 National Firearms Act, which banned machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. Its chief lobbyist testified before Congress. “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” he told a House committee. “. . . I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” A lawmaker asked him whether the proposed law violated any part of the Constitution. The witness responded, “I have not given it any study from that point of view.”
Crime remained low, and political violence minimal, in the years of consensus during World War II and the early Cold War. The tumult of the 1960s fractured that calm. Gun violence began to assume the status of a public controversy.
In March 1963, an advertisement appeared in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine:
LATE ISSUE! 6.5 ITALIAN CARBINE. Only 36″ overall, weighs only 5 ½ lbs. Shows only slight use, lightly oiled, test fired and head spaced, ready for shooting. Turned down bolt, thumb safety, 6-shot, clip fed. Rear open sight. Fast loading and fast firing.
A man calling himself “A. Hidell” clipped the coupon and sent $21.45 to a Chicago-based mail order house to buy the military rifle. Hidell was Lee Harvey Oswald. After the assassination in Dallas, investigations angrily focused on the fact that it was possible to buy a rifle and ammunition sight unseen through the mail. Congress considered new gun laws. An NRA official testified, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” Gun owners, however, contacted Congress to bury the bill. Lawmakers vowed an investigation of the gun lobby itself.