Some four decades ago, as a seventh-grader in upstate Idaho, I participated in a basic hunting-safety program the National Rifle Association offered at our school. I carried my NRA safe-hunter card in my wallet all through high school -- and with it, my impression of the NRA as an avuncular group dedicated to the outdoors and to safe, courteous, sportsmanlike hunting.
Which is what it was back then. As recent stories in The Washington Post and Salon have recounted, for most of its history, the NRA was a mainstream organization that promoted marksmanship, conservation and hunting. After the headline-grabbing shoot-outs involving heavily armed, Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, the NRA even helped the FDR administration pass the nation's first gun-control laws in 1934 and 1938. Decades later, it deemed the gun-control act of 1968 something "the sportsmen of America can live with."
So what happened?
Simple: A group of gun-rights absolutists unhappy with the organization's moderate, bipartisan orientation staged a surprise takeover. It started with a floor fight over rules and leadership at the NRA's 1977 meeting in Cincinnati, where the better-organized absolutists prevailed over NRA moderates. As an index of their outlook, Neal Knox, instrumental in the Cincinnati insurrection, thought that the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might be part of a plot to advance gun control. He favored rolling back restrictions on the private ownership of machine guns.
Although there have been some internal struggles since, the hardliners have transformed the NRA into the uncompromising, fire-breathing pressure group that it is today.
The full extent of that transformation came into sharp focus in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when reporters put the NRA under the microscope after the revelation that domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh had once sent an angry letter to his congressman sealed with a decal reading: "I'm the NRA."
The Boston Globe reported in a 1995 series that an important NRA official had met with leaders of the ultra-fringe Michigan militia movement and that the NRA had selected as one of its law-enforcement officers of the year a pro-militia Arizona sheriff who had started his own "civilian posse," which, he declared, he would call upon to fight the federal government if necessary.
The series also reported that as the NRA tried to boost revenues, its rhetoric had increasingly begun to resemble that of the conspiracy-theory-prone militia types, many of whom are convinced that the federal government wants to seize all private firearms and impose totalitarian rule.
One regular source of hyper-heated anti-government rhetoric was Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president and chief executive officer. In a fund-raising letter sent out before the Oklahoma bombing, Mr. LaPierre charged that the ban on assault weapons then in effect "gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure or kill us." He asserted that "in Clinton's administration, if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens." Mr. LaPierre eventually issued a weasel word apology for some of his comments.
Now, one might have thought that the NRA would have changed its tactics and tone after that national embarrassment. But last year, Mr. LaPierre, who earns about $1 million a year for his efforts, was still ranting in similar terms. If President Barack Obama was reelected, "the future of your Second Amendment rights will be at stake," he wrote in an NRA fund-raising appeal. "And nothing less than the future of our country and our freedom will be at stake."
Preposterous as that is, given the extent of right-wing paranoia abroad in the land, some NRA members may actually believe it. It's even possible that Mr. LaPierre and other NRA leaders do. Still, the more likely scenario is that they simply use such apocalyptic tropes as tools to raise the millions needed to fund the NRA's operation and salaries.
It's hard to know which is more troubling, really. But as the debate about curbing gun carnage goes forward, it's important for sensible, mainstream America to realize that this is no longer even remotely your father's NRA.opinion_commentary
Scot Lehigh is a columnist for the Boston Globe (email@example.com).