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How the NRA Went From Best Friend of the Nation's Police to Harsh Enemy of Law Enforcement

As it became more unwilling to compromise over even minor gun controls, the NRA is now on the bad side of police.

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The NRA had unprecedented political victories under Ronald Reagan’s presidency—which adopted its gunslinger ethos—and saw federal gun laws unravel for the first time. But Reagan’s patronage underscored how the NRA’s fortunes are tied to its relationship to government. The NRA’s bullying in that period led to a backlash that started under the next president, Republican George H.W. Bush, and continued into Bill Clinton’s first term when the executive branch and then Congress banned a variety of military-style guns and imposed a waiting period for gun buyers—the same kind of reforms in the Senate bill introduced by California’s Dianne Feinstein on Thursday.

Gun-control politics have a complex history. But a key lesson that emerges from the best books by academics and authors on the topic is that this period of NRA extremism 20 years ago was followed by a political backlash—as if a pendulum reached a limit and then reversed course. The Obama White House is betting the country is in that kind of watershed moment. As the president said in his inaugural address Monday, provoking LaPierre’s angry response, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”  

How Did the NRA Lose the Cops?

Absolutism, spectacle and name-calling aptly describe the contours of the NRA’s about-face and fight with law enforcement a generation ago—a split that has not healed even though the NRA has since spent millions on PR efforts wooing beat-level cops.

The fight between the NRA and police broke into the open in the 1980s, when the NRA went after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But its roots go back a dozen more years. After Congress passed 1968’s gun control law, dealers—an increasingly important part of the NRA’s base—felt they were unfairly scrutinized by the ATF. The agency, part of the Treasury Department, became a favorite target for griping.

In 1971, ATF agents raided the apartment of a lifetime NRA member for illegal military weapons. Initial press accounts reported both sides fired shots. William Leob, a rightwing New Hampshire newspaper publisher and NRA’s Public Relations Committee chairman quickly called the agents, “Treasury Gestapo,” before the police confirmed illegal arms were found. That was the first time that the NRA loudly attacked the ATF as "Nazis."

Other seeds of discontent were sown in the 1970s. Under President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, the White House tried but failed to eliminate the federal Department of Civilian Marksmanship (another program benefitting the NRA), appointed pro-gun control judges and closed some wilderness areas to hunting, wrote Osha Gray Davidson in his 1993 book, Under Fire: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control.

The NRA and organizing through thousands of gun clubs were a key part of the effort that elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980. During his first year, Reagan proposed dismantling the ATF in a speech before police chiefs in September 1981. Stunned police organizations sided with the ATF. To placate police, the White House said it would reassign ATF agents to the Secret Service. Davidson recounts what happened next:

At first everyone (except, of course, ATF executives) was happy with the compromise. It took a while, but soon it dawned on the NRA that if this plan went through, its goose was cooked. Enforcement of gun laws would no longer be in the hands of the low-profile—and low-prestige—Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Instead, the NRA would have to contend with the superstars of law enforcement: the Secret Service. The NRA realized that it wouldn’t be able to call Secret Service agents “jackbooted fascists” and get away with it. Overnight, issuing from the NRA’s black granite headquarters at 1600 Rhode Island Avenue came the sound of furious backpedaling.