By Robert Spitzer
The mass shootings at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, just 10 days apart, are stirring the now-familiar national debate over guns seen after the tragic 2012 and 2018 school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida.
Inevitably, if also understandably, many Americans are blaming the National Rifle Association for thwarting stronger gun laws that might have prevented these two recent tragedies and many others. And despite the proximity in time and location to the Texas shooting, the NRA is proceeding with its plans to hold its annual convention in Houston on May 27-29, 2022. The featured speakers include former President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican.
After spending decades researching and writing about how and why the NRA came to hold such sway over national gun policies, I’ve seen this narrative take unexpected turns in the last few years that raise new questions about the organization’s reputation for invincibility.
The NRA’s more than 150-year history spans three distinct eras.
At first the group was mainly concerned with marksmanship. It later played a relatively constructive role regarding safety-minded gun ownership restrictions before turning into a rigid politicized force.
The NRA was formed in 1871 by two Civil War veterans from Northern states who had witnessed the typical soldier’s inability to handle guns.
The organization initially leaned on government support, which included subsidies for shooting matches and surplus weaponry. These freebies, which lasted until the 1970s, gave gun enthusiasts a powerful incentive to join the NRA.
The NRA played a role in fledgling political efforts to formulate state and national gun policy in the 1920s and 1930s after Prohibition-era liquor trafficking stoked gang warfare. It backed measures like requiring a permit to carry a gun and even a gun purchase waiting period.
And the NRA helped shape the National Firearms Act of 1934, with two of its leaders testifying before Congress at length regarding this landmark legislation. They supported, if grudgingly, its main provisions, such as restricting gangster weapons, which included a national registry for machine guns and sawed-off shotguns and taxing them heavily. But they opposed handgun registration, which was stripped out of the nation’s first significant national gun law.
Decades later, in the legislative battle held in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and amid rising concerns about crime, the NRA opposed another national registry provision that would have applied to all firearms. Congress ultimately stripped it from the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Throughout this period, however, the NRA remained primarily focused on marksmanship, hunting and other recreational activities, although it did continue to voice opposition to new gun laws, especially to its membership.
A sharp right turn
By the mid-1970s, a dissident group within the NRA believed that the organization was losing the national debate over guns by being too defensive and not political enough. The dispute erupted at the NRA’s 1977 annual convention, where the dissidents deposed the old guard.
From this point forward, the NRA became ever more political and strident in its defense of so-called “gun rights,” which it increasingly defined as nearly absolute under the Second Amendment.
One sign of how much the NRA had changed: The Second Amendment right to bear arms never came up in the 166 pages of congressional testimony regarding the 1934 gun law. Today, the organization treats those words as its mantra, constantly citing them.
And until the mid-1970s, the NRA supported waiting periods for handgun purchases. Since then, however, it has opposed them. It fought vehemently against the ultimately successful enactment of a five-business-day waiting period and background checks for handgun purchases in 1993.
The NRA’s influence hit a zenith during George W. Bush’s gun-friendly presidency, which embraced the group’s positions. Among other things, his administration let the ban on assault weapons expire, and it supported the NRA’s top legislative priority: enactment in 2005 of special liability protections for the gun industry, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
Having a White House ally isn’t everything
Despite past successes, the NRA has suffered from a series of mostly self-inflicted blows that have precipitated an existential crisis for the organization.
Most significantly, an investigation by the New York Attorney General, filed in 2020, has revealed extensive allegations of rampant cronyism, corruption, sweetheart deals and fraud. Partly as a result of these revelations, NRA membership has apparently declined to roughly 4.5 million, down from a high of about 5 million.
Despite this trend, however, the grassroots gun community is no less committed to its agenda of opposition to new gun laws. Indeed, the Pew Research Center’s findings in 2017 suggested that about 14 million people identify with the group. By any measure, that’s a small minority out of nearly 260 million U.S. voters.
But support for gun rights has become a litmus test for Republican conservativism and is baked into a major political party’s agenda. This laserlike focus on gun issues continues to enhance the NRA’s influence even when the organization faces turmoil. This means that the protection and advancement of gun rights are propelled by the broader conservative movement, so that the NRA no longer needs to carry the ball by itself.
Like Bush, Trump maintained a cozy relationship with the NRA. It was among his 2016 presidential bid’s most enthusiastic backers, contributing US$31 million to his presidential campaign.
When Trump directed the Justice Department to draft a rule banning bump stocks, and indicated his belated support for improving background checks for gun purchases after the Parkland shooting, he was sticking with NRA-approved positions. He also supported arming teachers, another NRA proposal.
Only one sliver of light emerged between the Trump administration and the NRA: his apparent willingness to consider raising the minimum age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21 – which has not happened. In 2022, a year after Trump left office, 18-year-olds, including the gunmen allegedly responsible for the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, were able to legally purchase firearms.
In politics, victory usually belongs to whoever shows up. And by showing up, the NRA has managed to strangle every federal effort to restrict guns since the Newtown shooting.
Nevertheless, the NRA does not always win. At least 25 states had enacted their own new gun regulations within five years of that tragedy.
Supreme Court ruling’s repercussions
These latest mass shootings may stir gun safety supporters to mobilize public outrage and turn out voters favoring stricter firearm regulations during the 2022 midterm elections.
But there is a wild card: The Supreme Court will soon rule on New York State Rifle & Pistol Club v. Bruen, the most significant case regarding gun rights it has considered in years. It’s likely that the court will strike down a long-standing New York pistol permit law, broadening the right to carry guns in public across the United States.
Such a decision could galvanize gun safety supporters while also emboldening gun rights activists – making the debate about guns in America even more tumultuous.
Robert Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the Political Science Department at State University of New York College at Cortland.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
David Schaefer says
Ted Cruz and trump you should be ashamed of yourselves please do the American people a favor go crawl into a hole and never come out.
School shootings will get worse because NRA and the politicians are in each other’s wallets.
Drunk driver drives into a crowd of people. Do we ban vehicles or alcohol?
@lin. . . Asinine comment! Why mindlessly post FOX talking points? Are you a Russian BOT?
Why “YES” we do!
1. Ever Hear of Drunk Driving Laws?
2. Drivers training and testing required BEFORE obtaining a “Driver’s License”!
3. Alcohol is BANNED in Texas before the age of 21, but you can buy an assault rifle at age 18!!!
I could continue posting “facts” but, won’t waste my time further on the heartless non-thinking!
LinC: With respect, your comparison is an absurd false equivalency:
* Firearms are manufactured and used to kill and/or destroy.
* Vehicles are manufactured and used for transportation.
Furthermore, liquor is highly governed (DABT) and drivers guilty of DUI’s can have their driver’s license revoked (Fl Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.)
There are no logical arguments to stop judicious gun safety laws.
Firearms are used to hunt and for recreation to target shoot. It becomes a deadly weapon once it’s in the hands of a person intent to commit murder. There are already laws on the books that makes it illegal for a violent felon to possess them, and gun sales from federally registered dealers (where most mass shooters bought their guns, legally, from) are already highly regulated. Driving a vehicle on public roads is a privilege, whereas to bear arms is a Constitutional right. There’s your logical argument for you.
Bill C says
@ Norris If the laws on the books are ineffective then the laws need to be strengthened. The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 barred the “manufacture, transfer, and possession” of about 118 firearm models and all magazines holding more than 10 rounds. People who already owned such weaponry could keep it. The ban went off the books in 2004, after which mass shooting deaths quickly TRIPLED. NRA talking points use the same tactics as the cigarette companies used to keep selling their products- making it not about health, but “freedom”. Back in 1994, one after another, cigarette CEOs testified in congress that cigarettes were not addictive and there was no proven relationship between smoking and cancer, even though they knew there was. Similarly, the NRA misrepresents facts and distracts from the truth. (PS we now have “Tobacco Free Florida”.)
@n. . . Here is what the second amendment actually says:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
1. “Regulations” are written and enforced by “government” officials. Therefore, we need “gun safety REGULATIONS”!
2. “A well regulated militia” would have likely been defined as the “REGULATED” local police and sheriff officers we have today.
3. The constitution does not give “unregulated” individuals the right to have completely “UNFETTERED” rights to “weapons of mass destruction” at any age!
4. If you need a semi or fully automatic weapon of war to hunt “Bambi”, you are a #$%^&*( disgrace to hunting!
5. Gun sales “Highly Regulated” what a completely ignorant and asinine statement!!!! In Texas, at age 18 you can legally buy a weapon that can penetrate armor, walls and doors and kill multiple humans a minute. . . but you must be 21 to buy a beer!
In Texas, firearm purchases through licensed gun dealers require a background check unless the buyer has a license to carry. Gun purchases through private sellers do not require a background check.
Federal law prohibits the possession of a handgun by anyone younger than 18, but does NOT provide a minimum age for the possession of long guns.
Under federal regulations:
Licensed firearms dealers may not sell or deliver a handgun or ammunition to anyone under age 21. Unlicensed individuals may not sell or transfer a handgun or ammunition to anyone under age 18, with some exceptions.
For long guns or rifles: Licensed firearms dealers may not sell or deliver to anyone younger than age 18. There are no restrictions for sales or transfers of long guns or rifles from unlicensed individuals.
Please, just STOP mindlessly posting BS from FOX!
Logical arguments are riddled with belief biases; therefore the arguments often do not ring true. A violent felon’s “constitutional right” to own a weapon of war in a civilized society stops at his finger; and the victim’s human rights from birth to death are lost when he pulls the trigger. When a convicted felon seeks and obtains a weapon restoration, I believe his gun ownership becomes a privilege, a special right.
For the children: Protect their human rights; sign the Letter and share it. Renew the ban on assault weapons.
Norris, you may have missed, or forgotten, the part in your education where we were taught that constitutional rights are not absolute, and yes, there are in fact limits that this country is able to put on them. You have a right to free speech, says the 1st amendment, but just try to exercise that right by screaming “FIRE” in a movie theater without consequences and see how far your free speech right gets you. Did you happen to see the video that has recently been shown on news channels where now deceased, conservative Supreme Court justice Warren was interviewed in the past about the 2nd amendment? Where he says that amendment is just 3 sentences long, and was only intended by the founding fathers to allow each state to set up militias, because that was how they intended America to defend itself in the event of another attack from foreigners? He called what has transformed the 2nd amendment from its original intent to the free for all it has become due to the misinterpretation by conservatives “the greatest fraud” in the history of this country! There is no reason whatsoever why we need to have or should put up with allowing the purchase or possession of military style assault weapons as a “constitutional right” for those who wish to, as you say, hunt and target practice. That right should be limited by common sense reforms enacted to prevent teenagers like the one who just murdered 19 elementary school children and 2 teachers from going into a gun store and coming out with 2 AR-15s, 7 high capacity magazines, and over 300 rounds of ammo. I have been an avid gun owner my entire life, I am retired law enforcement and was a law enforcement firearms instructor for many years before I retired, and I NEVER once even when working had that kind of firepower with me, so why in the world would it make sense to have such lax laws where a teenage high school dropout can get their hands on such an arsenal? Makes NO sense, and we must do SOMETHING to curb this madness!
ON THIS MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND
LET’S TAKE A MOMENT TO HONOR THE SACRIFICE OF OUR BRAVE SCHOOL CHILDREN WHO LAY DOWN THEIR PRECIOUS LIVES TO PROTECT OUR RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS!
Roy Longo says
Sherry, that comment is so egregious, it’s difficult to know where to start. Those children did not “LAY DOWN THEIR PRECIOUS LIVES TO PROTECT OUR RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS!” They were mercilessly massacred by a deranged fanatic. They did not volunteer, nor were they drafted into the armed services. Memorial Day is not about school shootings or theaters or grocery stores even houses of worship.
It is about those that raised their right hands and said:
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God”
AND made the ultimate sacrifice while defending that oath.
I think you completely missed the irony of her facetious comment. It was a point well taken, and I would ask that you read it again, and again, and maybe you will glean a little wisdom from it.
I think most people get what you are saying. It is very sad indeed to even have to make such a comment, isn’t it? I have often thought that America needs to approve a new holiday called gun violence remembrance day or something like that where we can all reflect on the huge losses we have had in this country due to our systemic failure to curb the proliferation of gun violence, the out of control gun nutty culture, and the dehumanization of innocent lives massacred by those with military assault weapons.
I want any young men who buy a gun to be treated like young women who seek an abortion.
Think about it: a mandatory 48-hours waiting period, written permission from a parent or a judge, a note from a doctor proving that he understands what he is about to do, time spent watching a video on individual and mass murders, traveling hundreds of miles at his own expense to the nearest gun shop, and walking through protestors holding photos of loved ones killed by guns, protestor who call him a murderer.
After all, it makes more sense to do this for young men seeking guns than for young women seeking an abortion. No young woman needing reproductive freedom has ever murdered a roomful of strangers.
VERY well said Sherry, both comments!
Thanks so much Toto!
VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! DEMOCRATIC!
Joy! Peace! Love!
On this morning’s news, NBC had the names of the top 10 current politicians in Congress who have taken the most $$$ from the NRA. Just the top `0 have taken in MORE THAN $45,000,000 from the NRA alone, and I’ll give you one guess which party they are affiliated with. Considering there are somewhere approaching 500 congress members and senators, can you just imagine the combined total of NRA contributions spent on lobbying their support for all things guns??? We keep hearing “call your congressman” yada, yada, yada, but no single citizen nor combined group can even come close to having enough lobbying power, outside of a massive, nationwide calling out of those who take NRA blood money as well as voting these obstructionist members of the Republican Party, which is nothing more than an arm of the NRA and gun lobby, out of office and replacing them with people who will actually LISTEN to the American citizens, more than 88% of whom support common sense gun reform legislation. We’re not talking about confiscating guns from law abiding citizens, but there are many, many things that CAN be done. Let’s start with bringing back the federal assault weapon ban, which was enacted into law for several years but was let to expire without being renewed. Almost all of our school shootings have been committed by teenagers who have purchased AR-15 assault rifles. What did the Uvalde teenage school murderer have in his arsenal? TWO recently bought AR-15s, SEVEN 30-round high capacity magazines, more than 60 ammo magazines found either on him, nearby or in his crashed grandmother’s truck, and several hundred rounds of AR-15 ammo. This is nuts! This is insane! We can do something about it, but it starts with our federal elected officials, OR we MUST remove each of them from office if they refuse to put the safety of Americans, especially our school children, first!
Thanks so much for your excellent comments Skibum! Thank you also for your understanding and kind support of my perspective.
We must continue to speak out against the terrible complete madness that has obviously taken over the minds, hearts, souls and morals of almost 40% of our fellow Americans. . . neighbors. . . and, even friends and family. A dreadful, dangerous illness of the soul and mind that is so powerful it is resistant even to proven scientific fact and statistical analysis.
We are in a war with giant 24/7 media machines turning our people against “FACTS”, against “PRINCIPALS”, against “the INTELLECT”, against a moral code of “ETHICS”= against each other, and our democracy itself!
VOTE! VOTE! VOTE! DEMOCRATIC!