Perry on Politics: How the NRA lost its aim

Published by Tim McNulty on .

By James M. Perry

The first president of the National Rifle Association, founded in 1871, was General Ambrose Burnside, a really bad Civil War general (he knew it, too), losing disgracefully to the Confederates at The Crater in Petersburg and at Fredericksburg. Great whiskers, though.


The one smart lesson Burnside (above, obviously) took from the performance of Union soldiers in the war was that their marksmanship was so bad most of them couldn't hit "the broad side of a barn." He said they didn't bother to aim their weapons at the enemy, they just fired in their general direction.

Burnside's deputy at the NRA was another Union general, George Wood Wingate, who steamed off to Europe to see how armies there taught their soldiers to shoot straight. The result was the opening of a professional shooting range at Creedmore, Long Island. Wingate wrote the manual.

And so it was that the NRA's first priority was marksmanship -- teaching young Americans how to shoot breech-loading rifles accurately.

It was a perfectly respectable organization. Grant was the eighth president, Sheridan was the ninth. Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were members.

The NRA actually supported legislation that would be viewed today as unthinkable -- restricting the sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns ("gangster weapons") in 1934 and requiring all manufacturers of guns to be licensed by the Federal government in 1938. They supported important parts of another gun-control law in 1968.

The turnaround came in 1978 at the organization's annual meeting in Cincinnati, when hard-liners, more interested in defending their Second Amendment rights than in promoting the moderate agenda of the NRA's old guard, staged a coup and took over the organization.

It is not clear (not to me, at least) when so many NRA members became convinced that liberal Americans were hell-bent on taking away their guns. Surely these fears were in full flower by the time Bill Clinton took office.

This paranoia may have climaxed at the NRA's convention in 2000 when the president, the actor Charlton Heston (once thought to be a Second Amendment moderate), told the cheering throng that no one was going to take away his guns:

'I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you Mr. Gore [the Democrats' presidential candidate]: 'From my cold, dead hands!'

Just to make sure no one missed his point he waived a replica Civil War rifle over his head.

There's no doubt the NRA's lobbying arm is a powerful force on Capitol Hill today. Just see how they whipped members into line to defeat gun-control proposals put before them following the gruesome, horrifying deaths of all those school children in Newtown, Ct.

It's a little more difficult to nail down just how effective the NRA is in defeating their opponents in federal joeclarkelections.

My first campaign in which the NRA was an issue was the race between Pennsylvania Senator Joseph S. Clark (right) and Republican Congressman Richard Schweiker in 1968. Schweiker won, and he was, in fact, supported by the NRA, which has thousands of members in the state. But the NRA wasn't Clark's only problem. He opposed the war in Vietnam, and lots of voters wouldn't forgive him for that. And he was a liberal -- he was president of the World Federalists after he left office! -- and voters didn't like that. Then, finally, he came across as a Philadelphia blueblood -- his mother was part of the family that owned Avery Island, where they make Tabasco sauce. He was a quintessential Harvard man, and I didn't like that. Joe Clark was a candidate waiting to be sent home.

(A diversion here. I have sometimes wondered what evangelical Christians made of that race. Clark was a Unitarian-Universalist. Schweiker is a Schwenkfelder.)

Last year, the NRA spent millions to defeat Barack Obama, dragging out all the Second Amendment arguments. Obama won, easily.

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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