David Frum

01.15.13

The Lost History of the NRA

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images ()

Salon reminds us:

In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA’s leaders helped write and lobby for the first federal gun control laws—the very kinds of laws that the modern NRA labels as the height of tryanny. The 17th Amendment outlawing alchohol became law in 1920 and was soon followed by the emergence of big city gangsters who outgunned the police by killing rivals with sawed-off shotguns and machine guns—today called automatic weapons.

In the early 1920s, the National Revolver Association—the NRA’s handgun training counterpart—proposed model legislation for states that included requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon, adding five years to a prison sentence if a gun was used in a crime, and banning non-citizens from buying a handgun. They also proposed that gun dealers turn over sales records to police and created a one-day waiting period between buying a gun and getting it—two provisions that the NRA opposes today.

The NRA's history has been lost, by the way, in much the same way that the history of the Republican party has been lost.

Conservative polemicists often recall that the 19th and early 20th century Democratic party was home to the racists populists of the South. (Here's Jeffrey Lord doing it again today. This is the same Jeffrey Lord, by the way, who once denied that lynching could ever be accomplished by any means other than hanging.)

What is omitted to mention, in this kind of party-centric history of America, is how many Republicans, in those days, espoused a politics of government action in the service of social reform. The early NRA was very much a Republican institution: founded by former Union officers, even. I've made this joke before, and now I'll make it again: if Ambrose Burnside, the most important NRA founder, were alive today to hear NRA members talk about turning guns on the federal government, he'd want to hang them. Literally. As commander of the Department of the Ohio, Burnside arrested newspaper editors and even a member of Congress for speech that he regarded as insufficiently loyal to the Union cause. His famous General Order 38 declared, " It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department." Fortunately, President Lincoln over-ruled Burnside on the death sentences bit.