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

Human Rights

For years, the National Rifle Association cultivated a reputation as an unbeatable political powerhouse—a legacy that was challenged on Thursday with the introduction of major new gun control legislation in the U.S. Senate banning more than 100 military-style guns.

But the NRA’s tough reputation unwinds if one delves into the history behind its harshest rhetoric—which began in the 1970s and escalated as former allies, notably America’s police, rejected its increasingly militant demands. What today’s NRA would like to forget is how its unbending extremism led to a losing streak in Congress two decades ago, a period whose gun politics echo today but gun controls nevertheless passed.

Perhaps the best way to understand how the NRA is not the all-powerful lobby it seeks to portray itself as is to look at how the organization went from being a "best friend" of the nation’s police to a political enemy of law enforcement, from federal agents at the top of the ladder to local police chiefs and police unions below. As it became more outspoken and unwilling to compromise over insignificant gun controls, it became the group it remains today, vainly claiming to be the last line against impending government tryanny.

“Once you go down that road, how do you walk that rhetoric back?” said Robert Spitzer, a gun rights historian and SUNY-Cortland’s political science department chairman.

“Obama wants to turn the idea of absolutism into a dirty word,” NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre said in a speech to Nevada hunters on Tuesday, responding to Monday’s inaugural address in which the president chastized groups like the NRA for their unending hyperbole and vitriol. “He wants to put every private, personal firearms transaction right under the thumb of the federal government… And anyone who says that’s excessive, President Obama says that’s an absolutist.”

Pro-Government Before Anti-Government

In the heat of today’s political fights, where excessive emotion, exaggerated threats and hyperbole are routine, it’s easily forgotten that the NRA once stood with government.

For much of its 143-year history, the NRA’s survival depended on a cozy relationship with the government. It relied on state subsidies at its founding and then federal subsidies for marksmanship contests for generations. The U.S. military provided free guns or sold them at cost to NRA members for decades. Thousands of soldiers helped run annual shooting contests. Local police departments turned to the NRA for training.

In the late 1960s, that relationship began to change—and so did the NRA. Democrats in Congress threatened to end a $3 million shooting competition subsidy, asking why it was needed at the height of the Vietnam War. In 1968, Congress increased the regulation of guns sales and dealers in response to that decade’s urban riots and the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. By 1977, these perceived slights allowed libertarian hardliners in the NRA to wrest control, ousting old-school sportsmen and claiming that America’s gun owners needed aggressive new defenders.

Today, many people forget how the NRA started calling agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who were charged with enforcing federal gun laws, “Nazis” in the early 1970s and again after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by NRA member Timothy McVeigh. They forget that when District of Columbia proposed a ban on handguns, an NRA member on its city council said the ban would help revive the Klu Klux Klan in nearby Maryland and Virginia. They forget that the NRA opposed banning bullets that could pierce police vests, opposed banning guns with plastic parts that were not seen by airport x-ray scanners, and launched vicious PR campaigns aimed not just at members of Congress who supported gun controls but likeminded city police chiefs. 

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.

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.

The Backlash

Today, the conventional political wisdom is that the two gun-control laws passed by Democrats and signed by President Bill Clinton in his first term—an assault weapons ban in 1993 and a week-long waiting period for gun buyers in 1994 (the Brady Bill)—led to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 with the help of a vengeful NRA. That narrative has frequently been cited by a generation of congressional Democrats who didn’t want to support new gun laws and invoke the NRA’s wrath.

But that storyline is missing some big historical elements, namely, that the backlash against the NRA’s uncompromising tactics and rhetoric included key Republicans, from House members who were put off by shrill NRA mailings to their districts to the George H.W. Bush administration, which started the push for banning assault rifles.

Nearly a year before Bush became president in 1989, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, who would become President Bush’s drug czar, proposed banning military-style semi-automatic weapons. These were not as fully automated as machine guns, which were illegal, but they could rapidly fire a stream of single bullets. At this same time, the first version of the Brady Bill was introduced in the House, creating a one-week waiting period for gun buyers to pick up a gun. The idea was to prevent someone from buying a gun in a passionate moment and then using it.

In typical fashion, the NRA sent overly shrill letters to its members in congressional districts of representatives who supported the bill. The letter to Wisconsin Republican F. James Sensenbrenner Jr.’s district said the proposed bill would “impose total, strict gun control on all America.” Sensenbrenner was so annoyed he wrote a letter to all House members calling the NRA mailings “misleading” and “inflammatory.”

Then, three days before George H.W. Bush’s inauguration in January 1989, that era experienced its version of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre: a lone gunman walked into a grade-school playground in Stockton, California, and began firing a civilian version of the AK-47 military rifle, killing five children. The incident prompted immediate calls for state and federal bans on this type of weapon.

Then, as today, the NRA said the problem was not access to military-style rifles, but a criminal justice system that did not identify and lock up the shooter. But what began that spring led to the final passage of the Clinton-era assault rifle ban. State legislatures and city councils were quicker to act than Congress and started passing laws banning this category of gun. The supposedly all-powerful NRA was powerless to stop them.

On his first day on the job as Bush’s drug czar that spring, Bennett and the Treasury Department ordered a ban on importing 29 types of assault rifles. That blocked 80 percent of this style of gun coming in from overseas (although most in Americans’ hands were made domestically). Within days, the gunmaker Colt said it would stop making the AR-15, the civilian version of its M-16 rifle used in Vietnam. The Bush administration later expanded its import ban to 43 models. First Lady Barbara Bush said the assault weapons “absolutely” should be banned.

While this was unfolding, Dennis DeConcini, a Democratic Arizona senator who was a former prosecutor and had a top NRA rating, was asked by police organizations to co-sponsor a bill that would ban and confiscate the assault-style guns from current owners. DeConcini, whose father was a state Supreme Court judge, declined, but as Davidson writes, he was forced to decide who to back: the police or the NRA. In April 1989, he sponsored a bill banning future sales of several semi-automatic guns, domestic and imported, but allowed current owners to keep their guns. (Sen. Feinstein's bill introduced Thursday follows this template.)

Before the Senate voted on DeConcini's bill in June, top conservatives such as Barry Goldwater, a lifetime NRA member who had appeared in the NRA's pro-gun ads, told the Washington Post that assault guns “have no place in anybody’s arsenal. If any SOB can’t hit a deer with one shot, then he ought to quit shooting.”

The NRA did not see the backlash that was coming. Needless to say, the Senate passed DeConcini’s proposal 51-49 in June 1989 as part of that year’s federal crime bill. It did not become law because Bush vetoed the bill, saying it wasn’t tough enough. The NRA was believed to be behind that action. While it would be five more years before Congress passed another assault weapon ban, which was signed into law by Bill Clinton, the effort started with former NRA supporters who no longer bought the gun lobby’s rhetoric.

The Backlash Continued

Meanwhile, the Brady Bill—named after Reagan's press secretary who suffered permanent brain damage in a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan—resurfaced. In May 1991, NRA icon Reagan attended a press conference at a Washington hospital with James Brady's wife and backed the waiting period for gun buyers. “It’s just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to purchase handguns,” the ex-president said.

The NRA did its best to discredit Reagan in a recorded phone call telling members, “For more than 30 years, a liberal left has been discrediting Reagan as stupid, lazy, reactionary and a troglodyte. But for the next few days he’s going to be praised as wise, courageous and visionary.”

Reagan’s remarks did not assure the bill’s passage. That finally came three years later. But it was part of a political tide that turned against the NRA’s absolutist positions and hyperbolic rhetoric. History showed that reasonable gun controls were warranted and acceptable to both parties and that the moral high ground was with public safety—not unbending rights to firearms. This is the same calculation President Obama is making in 2013 after the Newtown shooting.

One day after Obama chastized the politics of extremists in his second inaugural, it was telling that NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre tried to punch back hard, doing what the NRA has always done: exaggerate the threat and wave the flag. He was the NRA’s top lobbyist 20 years ago when the NRA went after police chiefs and Republicans in Congress, and the Bush- and Clinton-era gun controls were adopted. LaPierre’s remarks on Tuesday to a hunting convention in Nevada echoed what he said 20 years ago, saying the federal government was ready to seize or tax all guns, hurting honest citizens and helping criminals.

As was the case two decades ago, the NRA hasn’t changed. But the country, then and again in 2013, has.  

Author’s note: The sources used for this article include several books, notably Under Fire: The NRA And The Battle For Gun Control, by Osha Gray Davidson; Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America, by Adam Winkler; and Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture And American Democracy, by Joan Burbick; as well as the many footnoted sources in those books, and interviews and e-mails with the authors and other experts.

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