Because of Black Panthers the NRA supported gun control in the 1960s
How the NRA Became an Organization for Aspiring Vigilantes (Part 2)
The Gun Control Act of 1968 referred to in the 1980 Republican platform, among other things, banned the sale of firearms by mail, and established a federal system of licensing individuals and companies who bought and sold guns—“the Communist line,” according to the NRA’s magazine American Rifleman. It also included a “sporting purpose” test to attempt to ban guns known as “Saturday night specials”: cheap, throwaway guns some believed all but useless for anything but the commission of crimes. That statutory formula (no guns with short barrels, small calibers and non-adjustable sights) did not work. Saturday night specials stayed on the streets. And by the 1970s one of the most active lobbies in new attempts to control them was… the NRA. In 1971, their director said, “We are for it 100 percent. We would like to get rid of these guns.” In 1973, their man in Congress, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, introduced the latest bill to ban them.
In 1975, the NRA moved more aggressively into lobbying, with a new Institute for Legal Action. But suddenly, the tenor of their lobbying had radically shifted. Their new legislative shop was headed by a right-wing former border control agent named Harlon Carter whose claim to fame was leading a 1950s operation called “Operation Wetback.” Ban Saturday night specials? No way. Harlon Carter was a fan. “A lot of famous people I have talked to have referred to the so-called Saturday night specials as a girl’s best friend,” he told the Associated Press. “They’re small enough to fit into a woman’s purse or be at her beside at home.” (Maybe one of those famous people, incidentally, was Ronald Reagan. The future president, it happened, practiced what he preached: Shortly after the 1980 election, Nancy Reagan admitted she kept a “tiny little gun” in a bedside drawer that her husband had taught her to use.) The NRA, Carter insisted, would oppose legislation aimed at “inanimate objects instead of the evildoer.” Boasting of working seven days a week, he helped kill the very bill the NRA was instrumental in introducing.
In 1977, Carter’s faction packed the national convention in Cincinnati and effected what one of the ousted officials called a “gentlemanly bloodbath.” Said one of the coup plotters, “People who are interested in conservation can join the Sierra Club. If they’re interested in bird-watching there’s the Audubon Society. But this organization is for people who want to own and shoot guns.” Immediately the announcement went forth: “the National Rifle Association is cutting back on its conservation and wildlife programs to devote most of its energies to fighting gun control.” The next year Jack Anderson followed up: “the most extreme of the extremists have formed a tight little clique which pulls strings inside the organization. They operate with great mystery and secrecy, referring to themselves cryptically as the Federation. Let a timorous official show the slightest weakness, and his name will go down on the Federation’s secret ‘hit list.’ ”
That 1977 coup has been widely written about of late. What most of us don’t know about, however, is Ronald Reagan’s role in laying the ideological groundwork for the historical transformation.
In 1975, after eight years as governor of California, Reagan took a job delivering daily five-minute radio homilies on the issues of the day. By June of that year he was on some 300 stations. And that month, in that frighteningly persuasive Ronald Reagan way, he addressed himself in a three-part series to a new proposal by Attorney General Edward Levy to pass a gun control law specifically targeted at high-crime areas. What follows are never-before-published Reagan quotes from my own research listening to dozens of these broadcasts archived at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for the book I’m working on about the rise of Reagan in the 1970s. They show Reagan bringing the NRA hardline faction’s worldview to the broader public.
“Now, that’s funny,” he said of Levy’s proposal. “It seems to me that the best way to deter murderers and thieves is to arm law-abiding folk and not disarm them…. as news story after news story shows, if the victim is armed, he has a chance—a better chance by far than if he isn’t armed. Nobody knows in fact how many crimes are not committed because criminals know a certain store owner has a gun—and will use it.” So the attorney general of the United States, Reagan said, “should encourage homeowners and business people to purchase them and learn how to use them properly.”
He concluded that first broadcast foreshadowing so much NRA rhetoric to come: “After all, guns don’t make criminals. It’s criminals who make use of guns. They’re the ones who should be punished—not the law-abiding citizen who seeks to defend himself.”
Yes, the man who signed the Mulford Act in 1967 outlawing the carrying of weapons in public, back when the target was Black Panthers, was also an early adopter of, and crucial propagandist for, the theory that armed citizens should imagine themselves taking on the state—once the likes of the Black Panthers were defunct. As he put it in the the third part of his radio series that June, what the authors of the Second Amendment “really feared was that government might take away the freedoms of the citizens in their newly created free state. Each of those first ten amendments guarantees a freedom. the Second Amendment guarantees the right of the citizen to protect those other freedoms. Take away the arms of the citizen, and where is his defense against not only criminals but also the possible despotism of his government? In police states they take away the citizens’ arms first. This ensures the perpetuation of the state’s power, and the ability of police to deal with dissenters, as well as criminals.”
“So isn’t it better for the people to own arms than to risk enslavement by power-hungry men or nations? The founding fathers thougt so. This is Ronald Reagan. Thanks for listening.”
What makes us Americans, or even just participants in a civilization, is precisely that we surrender the horrifying conception of life is nothing but a violent war against all, resolving to live by legitimately constituted authority instead. To give up that conviction is democratic heresy. That heresy was another of Ronald Reagan’s gifts to us.