Gun Control Advocates Bolster NRA's Fears
Like today, the late 1960s was a time when America’s social fabric seemed to be unraveling. As various American cities suffered race riots, first responders were shot at by snipers. Gun battles raged between black radicals and police. In April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was martyred by a career criminal who bought his deer rifle at a sporting goods store. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in a crowd by a gunman with a .22-caliber pistol.
But didn’t Americans have a right to own firearms? This very question was raised starkly on May 2, 1967 in Sacramento, California. That day, California Gov. Ronald Reagan was hosting a picnic for eighth-graders on the lawn of the state capitol when 30 heavily armed black activists showed up. Led by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, they were members of the militant Black Panther Party. Seale read a manifesto denouncing a pending gun control measure being considered by California’s legislature as a racist attempt to abrogate the constitutional rights of citizens to bear arms.
The measure would make it unlawful to carry loaded weapons in public and it was indeed aimed at curtailing the “Black Panther Police Patrols.” When Seale finished reading, he said to the group, “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” In so doing, the Panthers helped set in motion a series of events that would alter the nation’s gun debate and, in time, radicalize the National Rifle Association. Or perhaps put the NRA in touch with its own historic roots.
The school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 14 children and three teachers dead galvanized the political consciences of high school students in Broward County and around the country, most of whom have focused on stricter gun laws as their answer to this tragedy. Good on them. The more obvious failures at Stoneman Douglas High School were breakdowns in law enforcement, but a new measure rammed through Florida’s legislature takes aim in both directions. The bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed Friday raises the firearms purchase age to 21, requires a three-day waiting period, bans bump stocks, gives law enforcement more leeway in seizing weapons from those deemed a threat, and provides funding to train and arm some educators.
Scott, a Republican preparing to run for the Senate, has termed it “a step in the right direction.” His measured approach stands in glaring contrast to that of another governor, Democrat Dan Malloy of Connecticut. Malloy, as he has in the past, used a tragedy to denounce the NRA as “a terrorist organization.”
This language has become a liberal talking point. Others have echoed it. Claude Taylor, a former Clinton White House aide, online gossip and “bomb thrower” (his description), has been renting billboards across the country asserting, “The NRA is a terrorist organization.”
In Kentucky, another member of the “resistance” hijacked a billboard overlooking Interstate 65 and wrote “Kill the NRA.” Meanwhile, liberal Media Matters produced a hit piece, “23 Reasons Why the NRA Is Racist.” The last one simply points out that the NRA supported Donald Trump in 2016.
Everything else in American politics cleaves along strict partisan lines these days, so why not guns? Hate speech is on the menu, too, along with the usual barrage of fake news from both sides. (My favorite example of misinformation came from a black conservative named Candace Owens. She told a Fox News panel, “I happen to fall into the window of people who knows my history … and I know that the NRA was started as a civil rights organization training black Americans to arm themselves and to defend themselves against the KKK.”)
Well, not hardly, but at least Owens didn’t call on Democrats to be murdered. Nor did she assert on Twitter, as did a bevy of Hollywood types, that Republicans who won’t buck the NRA have “blood on their hands.”
My guess is that such tactics will backfire. Contrary to its critics’ contention that the “gun lobby” exists to make money for firearms manufacturers, the NRA is better understood as a membership organization with between 4 million and 5 million Americans who assert a constitutional right to protect themselves by force of arms.
Gov. Malloy is correct in saying that the NRA has changed mightily since he was an Eagle Scout who took an NRA-certified safety course on his .22 rifle. It was, during his boyhood, a largely apolitical (and bipartisan) organization of sportsmen and hunters. It gradually morphed into something else, but not without reason.
The day after Bobby Kennedy was shot, Congress passed the long-debated Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Later that year, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed and signed into law by President Johnson. It banned interstate shipments of guns between unlicensed dealers; denied felons and those adjudicated as mentally ill access to guns; and curbed the importation of surplus military arms. The NRA leadership didn’t put up much of a fight to these laws, but many of its rank-and-file members thought they should have. By the time Democrats passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 and the so-called Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, fierce NRA opposition was part of the political landscape.
Gun rights advocates arrived at the same conclusion the Black Panthers had a generation earlier. Fashioning itself as a sportsmen’s club might have been good marketing, but there isn’t a Constitutional amendment protecting deer hunting. What the Second Amendment contemplates is resisting organized oppression – from a foreign power, or perhaps a government on these shores that has gone off the rails.
That’s what inspired the formation of the NRA in 1871. The out-of-control government they had in mind was the Confederacy. Still stung by Johnny Reb’s superior proficiency with his musket, two former Union Army officers started the NRA to give New York militiamen firearms training. Their effort was about to peter out when Democratic presidential nominee Winfield Hancock narrowly lost the 1880 presidential race to Republican James A. Garfield.
Instead of moving into the White House, Hancock, a hero of Gettysburg, did what Charlton Heston would do a century later: use the power of his celebrity to revive a moribund NRA. He became the organization’s president.
Personally, I don’t spend too much time thinking about the Second Amendment, let alone defending it. I have a full-time task trying to protect the First Amendment from threats ranging from the thought police patrolling America’s college campuses to Vladimir Putin’s online trolls trying to wreak havoc in U.S. elections.
But somewhere in my attic is an old pump-action .22 rifle. Once owned by my grandfather, it’s more an heirloom than a weapon: I don’t have ammunition for it. However, if the governor of my state called me a terrorist, I’d think about buying some. I know what the government does with terrorists. It kills or imprisons them. If a prominent local activist called me a racist for even possessing it or if a billboard appeared in my neighborhood calling for my death, I might also acquire some bigger guns.
Gun control activists, in other words, would do well to keep in mind President Garfield’s admonition. “Of course I deprecate war,” he once said, “but if it is brought to my door, the bringer will find me at home.”