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Evolution of the NRA

The issues the NRA chooses to focus on have changed since its conception.

Roughly six years after the end of the Civil War, Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate founded the National Rifle Association. They were Union veterans who were frustrated with their troops’ weak shooting skills. Because of this, they created the NRA as a nonprofit organization after being granted a charter by the state of New York, in hopes that it would help improve shooting knowledge and skills.

Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland, didn’t have any interest in the NRA or gun control until roughly thirty years ago. A friend of his asked him to write a chapter in his book, which talked about controversial social issues in society such as gay rights, civil rights, and abortion. Robert chose gun control because it was one of the few issues that were left and it was one he wanted to know more about.

He researched the issue and and became very interested from an academic standpoint.  In 1995, Robert registered as a member of the NRA. The NRA isn’t the only organization Robert joined, though. He is also a member of the Brady Coalition, a pro-gun control organization with a mission statement of cutting gun deaths in half by 2025.

However, the organization that Robert became a part of wasn’t the same organization it had been at its conception.

Looking Into the Past:

“Promoting rifle shooting on a scientific basis” was the association’s main goal at its start, according to the association’s website. Col. Church and Gen. Wingate wanted the association to help improve marksmanship among young American men, so the association opened a rifle range for annual shooting matches. It held annual matches for roughly thirty years before the secretary Albert S. Jones encouraged the presence of rifle clubs at major universities and academies. Jones’ promotion worked, and more than 200 boys were competing in the shooting matches after only a few years.

The matches became so popular that the NRA had to open a second range to accommodate the shooting programs. The new range was on the shores of Lake Erie and became the regular venue for the matches in pistol and rifle shooting with 6,000 people participating annually, according to the NRA’s website.

Keeping its commitment to training and marksmanship, the association helped develop training materials for the United States Military and offered the government use of the shooting ranges during World War II. The organization also provided Britain with more than 7,000 during the war to help defend themselves against Germany, according to the website.

After the war, the NRA focused on hunting. The association and the state of New York joined to create the first hunting-education course. These types of programs are now used nationwide. The organization continues its presence in hunting by publishing The American Hunter and maintaining its Youth Hunter Education Challenge program.

The NRA also focused on law-enforcement training. It became the only national trainer of law enforcement officers with the introduction of its NRA Police Firearms Instructor certification program in 1960, according to the association’s website. The organization’s influence in law enforcement training is maintained today with over 13,000 NRA-certified police and security firearms instructors.

The NRA has maintained some of these goals and missions throughout the years, such as safety and training. But in other ways, it’s become something different.

Changing the Mission:

The January 2017 edition of America’s 1st Freedom, an NRA monthly magazine, features a cover story titled “Taking Back America: Why Winning Really Matters.” The story says it’s important that Donald Trump won the election because of his pro-gun rights views and support for the second amendment.

At the end of the story is a call to action. It encourages gun owners to “stay strong” in their pro-gun beliefs. It also encourages pro-gun believers to show commitment by joining the NRA.

Today the association takes a strong political stance on gun-control issues and second amendment rights instead of the shooting skills of young potential soldiers, but the change wasn’t something that just started because of the polarization of the last election.

Change in the NRA started in 1934 when the association formed the Legislative Affairs Division. The division was created after the National Firearm Act of the same year. The act taxed the making and transfer of shotguns and rifles with barrels less than eighteen inches in length, machineguns, and silencers and mufflers. This was the start of the organization’s political evolution.

After the assassination of President Kennedy and the street violence involved with the civil rights movement, the government passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. The NRA vice president at the time, Franklin Orth, felt that the law was restrictive, but tolerable.

A few years later, after Orth’s death, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) was formed. During this time, the association took a risk by leaving its old ways of annual shooting competitions and taking a political stance.

The association began to reach out to its members in the amendment’s defense. The NRA didn’t lobby directly at this time but still wanted to take action against the government for gun laws by mailing out legislative facts and analyses to members.

According to Robert, the organization struggled with who would take control during the 1970s. The party that won was more political and extreme in their beliefs and values. The group that gained more control over the organization and influenced its political opinions was the Institute for Legislative Action. This part of the NRA was created in 1975 for the sole purpose of defending the second amendment, according to the website. The association considers ILA to be the lobbying section of the organization with a mission of protecting the second amendment and gun rights.

After deciding to take a bigger role in politics, the NRA started giving money to chosen campaigns. Over the past year, the NRA spent a total of 2,530,000 dollars on lobbying for gun rights, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is just 200,000 dollars more than what the association was spending on lobbying in the late 90s, a few years after Robert joined.

Jagdish Khubchandani, an associate professor of health science at Ball State University, believes that the NRA is using lobbying for more than defending a belief. He believes it’s a way of selling their “product.” The association, like any organization, needs money to run. Khubchandani says that by spending money on political campaigns, they are finding politicians to be the face of the organization.

While the NRA still publishes its traditional magazines and continues its training programs, the main focus of the organization has been making pro-gun statements and supporting politicians with the same views. It was not a political organization at the start, but today it focuses on being one of the strongest supporters for second amendment rights.

Accepting the Differences:

As Robert continued to research and write the chapter for his friend’s book, the NRA piqued his interest. A small influence on his decision was the credibility of saying he was a member when he mentioned the association in the chapter. The political extent of the organization wasn’t something that he fully understood when he first joined.

Twenty years ago the organization supported some measures of gun-control laws, and today it hardly supports any. It was one of the few important interest organizations to endorse Donald Trump during the election. To Robert, the biggest change in the NRA is how extreme it has become.

The organization’s focus has changed since its start. While it still actively participates in the sportsmanship side of its original purpose, its main focus is gun rights. According to Khubchandani, the NRA has gone from saying guns are made for hunting, to saying they’re made for safety.

The advocacy of the association has also influenced the reason Americans own guns. According to a Pew Research survey in 2013, almost half of gun owners said they owned a gun for protection. One third of owners said they owned a gun for hunting. From the survey conducted in 1999, half of gun owners said they owned guns for hunting while only 26 percent said they owned a gun for protection. Gun owners’ reasons for owning firearms changed in correlation with the focus and promotion of the NRA.

The NRA is an organization that has helped change people’s gun-control views, but it has also changed because of the people’s gun-control views. Its alteration was greatly influenced by the views of the groups that control it. The more controversial gun-control issues become, the more extreme pro-gun stance the organization has taken. It’s an organization that has changed because of its leadership and the decisions made concerning the second amendment.

While the NRA is one of the most influential interest groups for pro-gun rights, its membership only accounts for roughly six percent of all gun owners in America, according to Robert. The majority of gun owners are not active members. This could be because people are divided on whether the association holds too much influence over gun rights, according to a Pew Research survey.

Robert, being an NRA member and a member of a pro-gun control organization, thinks that a big reason most gun owners are not members of the organization is because they believe it to be too extreme.

The NRA has become more political in its mission, but that doesn’t matter to most gun owners in America. If people agree with the association and want to register as members, Robert doesn’t see any reason for them not to, but the reality is that most people own firearms regardless of the political extremity of the NRA.

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