The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by a lawyer and a former New York Times reporter. “For much of its history,” writes Jill Lepore in the April 23 issue of the New Yorker, “the N.R.A. was chiefly a sporting and hunting association” that supported many gun-control measures. “In 1957, when the N.R.A. moved into new headquarters,” Lepore writes, “its motto, at the building’s entrance, read, ‘Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.’ It didn’t say anything about freedom, or self-defense, or rights.”
That motto was changed in 1977 to the one the N.R.A. still uses: “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.” The motto is an excerpt from the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; the amendment reads in full: “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.”
The difference between 1957 and 1977, Lepore writes, was the “rights revolution”—a liberal, not a conservative, movement that sought to pursue civil rights through the courts:
In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. than of black nationalists. In a 1964 speech, Malcolm X said, “Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.” Establishing a constitutional right to carry a gun for the purpose of self-defense was part of the mission of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which was founded in 1966. “Black People can develop Self-Defense Power by arming themselves from house to house, block to block, community to community throughout the nation,” Huey Newton said.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the N.R.A. “began advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for the common defense,” and describing gun-safety legislation as an attack on a constitutional right.
Read the rest of Lepore’s article, “Battleground America.”
And for additional insight into America’s obsession with guns, read “New Fashion Wrinkle: Hiding the Gun” (New York Times), about the rise of “covert fashion” designed to conceal weapons.