Wait, what? Am I talking about the same group that used to feature Charlton Heston waving a rifle and exhorting people to try and pry it from his cold dead hands? That is always on call, sometimes with armed militia members, to battle any type of gun legislation? That whips its members into a frenzy by telling them that liberal politicians are coming to take their guns away? (And by the way, no President in history, or any major politician to my knowledge, has EVER advocated taking the legally-owned guns of competent, law-abiding citizens. But the fear remains.)
Believe it or not, for most of the NRA’s nearly 150-year history, they were exactly the organization I mentioned in the first paragraph. Founded in 1871 by former Union soldiers alarmed at what poor shots Northerners were compared to their Southern counterparts, the group was dedicated primarily to good marksmanship, and were at the forefront of supporting just about any reasonable gun control bill that came before Congress, in the 1920s, 1930s, and even as recently as the 1960s. Two of the most important pieces of gun control legislation our country has, the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the FederalFirearms Act of 1938, were staunchly supported by the NRA. They even downplayed the importance of the now sacrosanct 2nd Amendment as a defense against gun laws.
So what the hell happened?
What happened is this guy:
This is not Wayne LaPierre, the lunatic Hitler wannabe and CEO of the NRA who has been the face of the gun lobbying organization for the past several decades. He looks like this:
No, the first guy is Harlon “Bullethead” Carter, and he is also a gem of a guy. Ol’ Bullethead was a poster boy for the modern NRA member. The Texan son of a Border Patrol Officer, Harlon Carter was an expert marksman, a passionate lover of guns since childhood, and best of all, had murdered a Mexican teenager with a shotgun when he was 17. He was convicted, then freed on appeal under what might be considered suspicious circumstances.
In 1954, Bullethead, now a card-carrying NRA member and a Border Patrol Officer himself, was one of the those in charge of the charmingly named “Operation Wetback,” (a program praised, by the way, by one Donald J. Trump during the Republican Primary) which rounded up immigrant workers by the hundreds of thousands and dumped them in random parts of Mexico without food, water, their property, or any regard to where in Mexico they actually came from or how they would get back there, and which did little in the long term to resolve the illegal immigration problem.
1976 was the year it all changed for the NRA, and we have Harlon Bullethead Carter to thank. In 1976, there was a schism in the National Rifle Association. Maxwell Rich, the Executive VP of the NRA, wanted to get the NRA out of Washington, DC and away from the lobbying, and move to Colorado Springs to focus on what the NRA was designed for, responsible gun use and ownership. Carter’s faction wasn’t having it. Carter led the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), the NRA’s lobbying arm instituted to fight gun legislation, a faction of the NRA barely tolerated by Rich and the NRA leadership.
The NRA realized that Carter’s group was getting too powerful and gutted it at the end of 1976, firing Carter’s key people and disbanding the ILA. Unfortunately for Rich and the rest of the NRA leadership, a guy nicknamed “Bullethead” was not going to go away quietly. Carter rallied his people and they staged a coup at the NRA’s annual meeting in Cincinnati in 1977. They brought back the ILA and installed Carter as Executive Director. Any idea of moving from D.C. to Colorado Springs was wiped out, and the 2nd Amendment became the NRA’s Holy Word.
The rest is history. The NRA’s conservation and wildlife arm has been systematically all but snuffed out in favor of its lobbying presence. The membership has only gotten larger and more rabid in its opposition to gun control.
Sadly, as they have become more extreme, they have also become more powerful, so powerful that despite the fact that the majority of Americans AND elected officials disagree with the NRA’s stance on gun control, few if any politicians are willing to take them on.
Perhaps if Rich had offered Carter an olive branch, the world would be very different, and many fewer lives would have been cut down by people who had no business having access to guns. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.