History of the NRA

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June 12, 2021
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History of the NRA

The National Rifle Association has gone through a metamorphosis since its founding after the Civil War. Created to improve marksmanship among soldiers and recruits, it at first cooperated with the federal government on concealed weapon permits and other laws regulating firearms.

But over time it grew into a powerful organization that opposed almost all gun control measures. It created a lobbying arm, raised a substantial war chest, and developed unrivaled influence over lawmakers. For example, the NRA helped to block efforts to ban assault rifles after the devastating attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six staff members.

Today its dominance is under threat. Gun control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and March for our Lives are challenging its primacy among politicians and at the polls, and New York Attorney General Letitia James is demanding its dissolution. The state lawsuit charges that the face of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, and other top leadership diverted funds for their personal use. Here are some key dates in the history of the NRA, from its founding to its current court battles. Stacker compiled the information from historical records, and news and legal accounts.

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1871: National Rifle Association is created

Two Union Army veterans—Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate—worried about the poor marksmanship among their troops, created the National Rifle Association to teach rifle skills. Another Civil War veteran as well as a former governor of Rhode Island and a U.S. senator, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, became the first president. The organization is chartered by the state of New York.

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1872: NRA buys first rifle range

With $25,000 from New York state, the NRA bought part of what was the Creed family farm to use as a rifle range for the New York State National Guard. Renamed Creedmoor, the range opened a year later and annual matches were held there. Nearby streets are named after weapons: Winchester Boulevard, and Range, Musket, Pistol, and Sabre streets. The range was closed in 1907 after it was bought by the state.

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1920s: Arm of NRA proposes requiring permits

The National Revolver Association, which was part of the NRA, proposed requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Other aspects of the NRA’s legislation: adding five years prison time if a gun was used in a crime, prohibiting the sale of a gun to a non-citizen, imposing a one-day waiting period before a purchaser could take possession of a gun, and opening records of gun sales to police. Nine states adopted the legislation.

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1934: NRA helps draft National Firearms Act

The NRA helped President Franklin Roosevelt draft the National Firearms Act, a response to Prohibition-era violence. Machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and other weapons were taxed and were required to be registered. “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” the NRA president, Karl T. Frederick, told Congress. “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” But he refused to go along with restricting the sale of pistols.

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1938: NRA backs Federal Firearms Act

The NRA again supported the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 , which required manufacturers, importers, and gun dealers to get a federal license, prohibited felons from buying guns, and demanded gun sellers keep records.

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1967: California bans open carry

The NRA supported a California law, the Mulford Act, which banned the open carry of firearms. The law was passed after armed Black Panthers began patrolling to guard against police brutality. Two dozen Black Panthers carrying weapons entered the state Capitol in May as lawmakers considered the legislation before being disarmed by the state police.

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1968: NRA limits Gun Control Act

Congress, following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Robert Kennedy, and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., imposed new restrictions on gun sales in the Gun Control Act. The new law limited mail-order gun purchases, required all weapons to carry serial numbers, and restricted felons, those who abused drugs, and those who were mentally ill, from buying weapons. Provisions it did not include: a national gun registry or licenses for all gun carriers. The NRA had opposed them, raising President Lyndon B. Johnson's ire, who called it “a powerful lobby, a gun lobby.”

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1971: NRA creates lobbying arm

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or the ATF, killed a member of the NRA who was hiding a cache of illegal weapons. In response, the NRA for the first time created a lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. A Texas lawyer named Harlon Carter, who had led the Border Patrol in the 1950s, was chosen to head it.

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1977: Hardliner takes control of NRA

A hardliner, Harlon Carter ran up against older members of the NRA, who tried to curtail his power by cutting his staff. He organized a take over at the NRA’s annual convention in 1977 and became the group’s executive vice president. Another hardliner, Neal Knox, took over the Institute for Legislative Action. Now the group opposes all types of gun control. "You don't stop crime by attacking guns,” Carter said. “You stop crime by stopping criminals.”

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1980: NRA backs Reagan for president

The NRA made its first endorsement for president and backed a winner, Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who as governor of California had signed the Mulford Act into law. He was a lifelong member of the NRA but supported some gun control measures—particularly after the attempt on his life that wounded his press secretary, Jim Brady.

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1986: NRA wins roll back of gun sale restrictions

The NRA saw years of lobbying succeed with the passage of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act. It rolled back restrictions on buying, selling, and transporting weapons across state lines that were included in the 1968 Gun Control Act. The NRA had donated $1.4 million to candidates for Congress during the 1984 elections.

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1993: NRA challenges passage of Brady Bill

When John Hinckley tried to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981, he also shot press secretary Jim Brady, in the head. Twelve years later, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act passed, and required a background check for those buying firearms. The electronic National Instant Criminal Background Check System went online in 1981. The NRA argued unsuccessfully in court that the Brady Act and the NICS were unconstitutional infringements on states’ rights.

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1994: NRA opposes restrictions on semiautomatic weapons

The NRA opposed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which banned the manufacture, ownership, or transfer of AR-15s and other semiautomatic weapons. Another provision limited magazines to 10 bullets. It was prompted by a number of mass shootings, including one on the Long Island Railroad in New York and another at a law firm in San Francisco.

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1999: After Columbine, NRA continues to oppose waiting periods

After the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, the NRA continued to oppose a waiting period for handgun purchases and a limit of one gun a month for individual purchases, but said it would consider background checks at gun shows and bar juveniles with felony convictions from buying guns. It also went forward with its annual meeting in Denver, though it was scaled down and was met by protests.

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2000: “From my cold dead hands”

Actor Charlton Heston, the president of the NRA from 1998 to 2003, famously told NRA members at the group’s convention in 2000, “From my cold dead hands,” as he raised a rifle above his head. Heston was rallying them against the candidacy of Vice President Al Gore, then running for president. "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,” he said. “From my cold, dead hands.”

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2004: Federal assault weapon ban expires

The federal assault weapon ban was allowed to expire. Congressmen and women who voted for the ban were opposed by the NRA at the polls.

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2005: NRA helps win immunity for gun manufacturers

The NRA pushed for immunity for gun manufacturers from civil lawsuits rising out of crimes committed with guns. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was signed by President George W. Bush and derailed attempts to hold manufacturers liable for the crimes. The NRA praised the law as “a vitally important first step toward ending the anti-gun lobby’s shameless attempts to bankrupt the American firearms industry through reckless lawsuits.”

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2006: NRA opposes confiscating guns during emergencies

The NRA challenged an order from the New Orleans police chief to his officers to confiscate firearms from residents after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. The NRA won a temporary injunction. Later the Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act barred the seizure of firearms during emergencies.

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2012: NRA rejects gun controls after Sandy Hook massacre

After 20 first-graders and six adults were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by a gunman using a semiautomatic weapon, the NRA again rejected demands for more gun controls. The group’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, instead called for armed police officers in every school in the country and announced an NRA training program. The Washington Post reported some senior officials in the group thought it should take a less confrontational approach.

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2013: NRA blocks assault weapon ban

Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, President Barack Obama wanted to reinstate the ban on assault weapons. Although a majority of Americans backed tighter gun controls, the NRA instituted a campaign to “Stop the Gun Ban.” The U.S. Senate voted it down, 60 to 40.

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2018: “March for Our Lives” confronts NRA

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the NRA released a video saying “the mainstream media love mass shootings” and use them “to juice their ratings and push their agenda.” It again resisted calls for stricter gun laws. But a student-led group, March for Our Lives, grew out of the tragedy to challenge the NRA and organized a massive protest in Washington, D.C., and across the country calling for new gun control laws.

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2019: NRA faces upheaval in leadership

Retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North accused the executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, of ousting him as president. North had alleged financial misbehavior by the group’s leadership. LaPierre in turn accused North of threatening to release “damaging” information about him in a letter to NRA board members, some of whom subsequently resigned. Meanwhile the attorney general of New York, Letitia James, began investigating the organization’s tax exempt status and its charitable foundation.

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2019: Russian activist tries to infiltrate NRA

Also that year, a Russian gun rights activist, Maria Butina, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring with a Russian official to infiltrate the NRA. The FBI said her goal was to use the NRA to establish contact with officials and influence U.S. foreign policy in favor of Russia. She was released in October and deported to Moscow.

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2020: New York attorney general seeks to dissolve NRA

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, accusing its leaders of diverting millions of dollars from the organization to pay for their lavish lifestyles. Their failure to manage the NRA’s funds had contributed to a loss of more than $64 million in only three years, she charged. Among the alleged misappropriation of funds: trips to the Bahamas and private jets.

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2021: NRA fails in bankruptcy bid

The NRA tried and failed to use bankruptcy laws to evade Letitia James’ attempt to shut the group down. A federal bankruptcy judge ruled in May that it could not use a bankruptcy claim “to address a regulatory enforcement problem.” Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said the NRA would keep fighting for gun rights. James tweeted: "The @NRA does not get to dictate if and where it will answer for its actions, and our case will continue in New York court... We sued the @NRA to put an end to its fraud and abuse, and now we will continue our work to hold the organization accountable."

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