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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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After Reagan’s staff dropped the idea, the NRA and Republicans in the Congress started pushing for a loosening of federal gun controls. During the start of that effort, which took six years to get past Democrats who ran the House, a former New York City policeman-turned-congressman, Mario Biaggi, proposed a bill to ban armor-piercing bullets. These were Teflon-tipped and could go through metal. That worried New York City’s police union, which asked Biaggi to sponsor the bill.

Nationwide police organizations soon backed Biaggi, who had been shot 10 times during his police career, saying they did not want to be outgunned by criminals. The “cop-killer” bullets, as they were called, were not yet available to the public. Historians say Biaggi was responding to a threat that didn’t really exist at that time. But the NRA’s leaders would not entertain even the slighest compromise to appease the police.

NRA newsletters blared that Biaggi’s 1982 bill “was a Trojan Horse waiting outside gun owners’ doors” from “anti-gun forces... who will go to any lengths to void your right to keep and bear arms.” Congress eventually banned the bullets in 1986 after Reagan’s Attorney General, Ed Meese, came up with legal language that limited the ban. The NRA reluctantly accepted the compromise.

But that same year came another call by police to ban a new type of gun. Jack Anderson, a muckraking nationally syndicated columnist, wrote a series of pieces about a new gun with plastic parts that could not be seen by airport x-ray detectors—the Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol. Police groups quickly urged Congress to ban these guns. This drama unfolded as the NRA’s champion in the House, Missouri Republican Harold Volkmer, after years of trying finally gained enough petition signatures to bypass Democratic leadership and bring a major bill to the floor deregulating gun controls.

The NRA claimed that national police groups supported the Volkmer bill—which they didn’t. As Baltimore’s Police Chief Neil Behan said, “The organizations throught it was a good idea to get together to protect ourselves from being misrepresented by the NRA.” As Behan and other city police chiefs started speaking out against the bill, the NRA bought ads in local newspapers attacking the chiefs as soft on crime. It started listing pro-gun control police chiefs on NRA hit lists that previously had been reserved for elected officials. The NRA said the chiefs did not represent local rank-and-file cops.

“There was a clear split,” said Robert Spitzer, political scientist and gun historian. “There was a famous moment when cops lined up with their hands behind their backs as House members walked into the Capitol to vote on the bill. They [the police] had no idea that they would have such little influence.”

The passage of Volkmer’s bill, the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act, was a big defeat for gun-control supporters. The law created what’s today called the "gun show loophole" allowing people to buy and sell guns without licensing. It also limited how the ATF could investigate gun dealers, who ranged from store owners to people selling guns from the trunks of their cars. Even worse from the police perspective, one year later Attorney General Meese derailed a proposed bill banning guns with plastic parts.

These developments prompted some members of Congress and the media to ask who was writing gun laws, the NRA or Congress? The NRA didn’t know it, but by this point it had pushed its luck too far. In February 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush showed up at a New Hamphire presidential campaign rally, pulled out a plastic .22 pistol and said guns had to be detectable. That spring, Meese returned with a bill to ban some guns with non-metal parts. Congress passed and Reagan signed it after Election Day.