In 1871, six years after the Civil War ended, a group of former Union Army officers met in New York to discuss the poor shooting skills they had observed on the battlefields; as battles in Europe heated up, they worried how American troops would fare in a European war.
That was the dawn of the National Rifle Association, a nonprofit initially created to support the US military and help Americans develop high-level shooting skills. Today, the organization, which has more than five million members, looks nothing like the original group, which long supported gun control and was one of the greatest proponents of the wildlife conservation movement.
In his new book, The NRA: The Unauthorized History, journalist Frank Smyth traces the evolution of the group from a training organization to one of the most powerful, and polarizing, political lobbying groups in America. Smyth, a former arms-trafficking investigator for Human Rights Watch and gun owner himself, has reported on the group for decades for the Village Voice, Mother Jones, the New Republic, and other outlets.
Since the late 1970s, the NRA has dug into protecting gun rights despite increasingly regular mass shootings, insisting that more guns, not fewer, would prevent gun deaths. In 1999, the NRA organized a rally in Denver after the Columbine shooting. In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, it called for schools to arm themselves. (Lawmakers were appalled.) And after the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting, the NRA released a video claiming the media “loves shootings” because they help boost ratings.
Now, the NRA is embroiled in new controversies. New York State is conducting a civil investigation of the group, claiming it has improperly used nonprofit funds. In the meantime, Wayne LaPierre, the group’s chief executive, is under pressure internally, as former NRA president Oliver North has spearheaded a movement against him.
Vox talked with Smyth about his belief that the NRA is “rewriting history,” how the organization moved from the fringes of the Republican Party to the center beginning with Trump’s campaign, and more. (Two requests to the NRA for a response on Smyth’s reporting and book went unanswered at press time.) The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you first become interested in reporting on the NRA?
In 1994, I was working as a freelancer for the Village Voice. At the time, the NRA was running ads in a number of different states reporting that Congress was going to release 10,000 drug dealers from prison, not saying that it was first-time, nonviolent offenders. Not saying anything about guns and not saying that the NRA had anything to do with the ads. I wondered: Why would the NRA act in such a sneaky manner on such an important issue? I started investigating.
[It turned out to be] part of an attempt to defeat the entire crime bill, which in the end included the “assault weapons” ban. So it was a convoluted strategy that, in the end, failed. But it still had the effect of shutting off the safety valve to let first-time, nonviolent drug offenders out of prison.
I was focused on human rights and organized crime stories in the 1990s, including the arming of Rwanda after the slaughter, which I wrote while working for Human Rights Watch. These stories helped me investigate the NRA, which I did for over 26 years. It was more challenging than any group I have covered — no group, including a number of foreign military and intelligence entities, is as secretive as the NRA.
What did the original NRA look like and how has it evolved?
The cofounders were concerned about what they saw as the rising powers in Europe, mainly the Prussian forces, who had defeated the Austrians and then the French. The Prussians won because they had better rear-loading rifles, quicker to reload than front-loading muskets. They spent time training their sharp-shooters how to shoot a target from a considerable distance — which is not how the Union or Confederate forces in the US trained. The men who founded the NRA were not convinced that the US military could improve the training on their own, so they founded a private organization to improve marksmanship among military forces as well as civilian shooters who could end up joining the military.
Hunters began to dominate the ranks of the NRA after WWII, so that changed the character of the organization, but the real shift occurred when the NRA embraced gun rights as its unyielding and absolute beacon for everything it does.
The modern NRA doesn’t want the public or its membership to realize how much the NRA has changed. From the early 1920s through the early 1970s, the NRA continued to support gun control and participate in public sessions — they were willing to reach compromises, including for the nation’s first major federal gun control law in 1934 outlawing submachine guns that were in vogue with gangsters like Al Capone, and then the 1968 Gun Control Act, which was prompted by the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bob Kennedy that outlawed the interstate sale of long guns.
The modern NRA tried to rewrite history. One of the myths they’ve put out is that the NRA is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. This simply is not true.
The NRA didn’t embrace gun rights till the Sullivan Law — the nation’s first gun control law, which mandated licenses for concealed firearms — was passed in New York in 1911. And they didn’t start to articulate a position until the 1920s. They didn’t reference the Second Amendment until 1952, and they didn’t embrace the notion of the right to keep and bear arms, the mantra of the modern NRA, until 1959.
What caused this big shift in focus?
There was a split after the Gun Control Act of 1968, which the NRA had supported. The hard-liners thought the act took away gun owners’ rights; it didn’t matter that there was a benefit to public safety. What mattered was that the rights of gun owners were encroached upon, as they saw it. They thought the compromise the NRA had made was a betrayal of their principles. That was a purely ideological viewpoint, which has defined the NRA ever since.
So what they did was they remade the organization into America’s premier gun rights organization. The NRA became the nation’s strongest gun rights organization overnight.
It also became the vanguard for the gun rights movement, which also includes groups like white power organizations, neo-Nazis, and neo-Confederates. The NRA has done a balancing act by leading this movement while trying to keep those overt racists at bay. In the ’90s, you could see these people at NRA meetings. Now, the NRA has done a better job of keeping them out.
What do Americans think about gun control now? Has the NRA shifted public opinion?
The public has been supportive of gun control measures for over 50 years. What the NRA has done since 1977 is invented an ideology of gun rights and distorted and tried to rewrite different aspects of American history to support this ideology.
The ideology is as simple as what President Trump said in August 2019 [following mass shootings that had killed 31 people] when he told reporters, “They call it the slippery slope” — referring to the dangers of increasing gun control measures. The slippery slope is what the NRA has been feeding to its members and the public, that even if you have a minor form of gun control, like background checks, that won’t work unless you have gun registration, and if you have that, it invariably will lead to gun confiscation. And once guns are confiscated, that opens the door to tyranny, which could lead to some kind of genocide. This is a lot of conditionals, and there’s no historical evidence to support this. But the NRA has been able to put this out there to make people feel that the only thing keeping tyranny at bay in the United States is the guns they have stockpiled in their basements or their garages. Other countries support gun control. This ideology that guns are keeping you free — that’s unique to the United States.
The NRA used to be on the fringe of the Republican Party, but you argue that it has become central in the Republican Party during the Trump administration. How did that happen?
In the late 2000s, when Bush was president, and into the first Obama years, the most frequent keynote speaker at the NRA meetings was Glenn Beck [then a Fox News host]. He was the biggest speaker they could get. But in 2016, the NRA chief lobbyist, Chris Fox, became the first NRA representative to give a speech to a major political party’s convention in Cleveland. The NRA had been at GOP conventions, but they’d never been given the floor. After Trump’s election, you saw the president speak at every annual meeting of the NRA. And so has Mike Pence and a number of other figures, like Ted Cruz. Very quickly, the rise of Trump has helped the NRA, rather than being on the fringe of the GOP, set the tone from the center of the party itself.
You saw in the election cycle in 2016 increasingly right-wing views that had not been articulated so plainly within the mainstream of the Republican Party, finding resonance with candidates like Ben Carson, who floated the idea that “If the Jews had been armed in Nazi Germany, the Holocaust would not have happened” — which was immediately debunked by scholars. And Hillary Clinton’s campaign seemed to represent everything that conservatives despised. That allowed for the polarization of the electoral cycle so that Republicans could rally around Trump.
The polarization has really benefited the NRA. Now that the GOP is defined as “Trump’s party,” that works very well for NRA leadership because they can maintain this hard-line view. There’s no issue that’s more divisive across the nation than gun control.
You’ve written that the inside battles in recent months constitute “the most tumultuous internal struggle the NRA has seen in more than 40 years.”
LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA since 1991, maintained stability and achieved remarkable success. But now LaPierre is under siege from a new generation of leaders, and, more importantly, the organization’s publication wing — the Oklahoma City-based PR firm Ackerman McQueen. They’re accusing each other of stealing money from members. Some of the octogenarians who are still on the board have come out in favor of LaPierre, and some of the younger generations are in favor of Oliver North, who’s leading the campaign against LaPierre. This controversy got into the press, which is rare and is still unresolved.
It’s not like whoever wins this fight will determine which way the NRA goes politically. What’s on the table is whether the NRA will survive the investigations. Not only are the two camps at each other’s throats, accusing each other of financial impropriety; you have the issue of New York State, under Governor Cuomo, investigating the nonprofit status of the NRA — whether NRA foundations, which were set up as tax-exempt entities, have illegally funneled funds through tax-exempt entities to the NRA operating budget, which is set up under a different tax code.
This is a real fight over money and power and personality, and the entire organization is under threat. If the NRA is charged with financial impropriety, who will pay the price? It has already made NRA leaders like LaPierre more defiant.
Hope Reese is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky, currently living in Budapest. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, and Vice.