The National Rifle Association (NRA), the main gun lobby, has refused to consider any common sense gun reforms following several mass shootings. It has instead chosen to be the primary group working to block reforms.
But the NRA wasn’t always so extreme. In fact, for the majority of its 141 year history, the organization backed gun regulation and rarely if ever claimed that regulations were unconstitutional.
In 1934, the group’s president Karl T. Frederick testified in support of certain gun regulations that later made it into the National Firearms Act of 1934, one of the first federal gun laws. The law regulated “gangster weapons” used by organized crime, such as machine guns and short barrel shotguns.
During the testimony, Congressman Clemon T. Dickinson of Missouri asked Frederick if he thought anything being debated was unconstitutional. Although Frederick replied that he thought firearm regulation was a state issue, he also said he had not “given it any study from that point of view” that regulating guns may be unconstitutional.
Frederick also explained his view about practical gun ownership, one that would be heretical among NRA leadership today:
I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. I have when I felt it was desirable to do so for my own protection. I know that applies in most of the instances where guns are used effectively in self-defense or in places of business and in the home. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.
Frederick did caution against over-regulating weapons during his testimony, but as the transcript above demonstrates, did not oppose all new gun regulations.
The NRA also went on to support the Gun Control Act of 1968. In fact, then-president Harold W. Glassen testified that his organization had long supported “sensible” gun regulation (although he resist what he believed to be overregulation).
But in 1977, things changed. NRA leadership had an internal revolt at its Cincinnati meeting that forced out individuals within the organization who wanted its primary purpose to be promoting sportsmanship and gun safety.
Its new Executive Vice President Harlon Carter scorned the moderate views the NRA held in the past:
Now someone says to me…, “Yes, but we took positions back five or six years ago, and we made statements some years ago,” [...] any position we took back at that time is no good, it is not valid, and it is simply not relevant to the problem that we face today. The latest news release from NRA embraces a disastrous concept… that evil is imputed to the sale and delivery, the possession of a certain kind of firearm, entirely apart from the good or evil intent of the man who uses it and/or (2) the legitimate use of a handgun is limited to sporting use
Carter realigned the organization, and it began to aggressively challenge handgun bans and invoke the 2nd amendment to challenge gun laws in court. And to this day, the NRA has failed to support a single major piece of gun reform legislation.