The National Rifle Association of the United States is a strongly political organization which concerns itself with matters pertaining to firearms and firearm safety and regulations. To a lesser extent they regulate competitive shooting and police firearm instruction certification. Their main focus is supporting the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, and they typically favor less rigid standards of gun control. The members of the NRA come from all walks of life, but are most often white males.
The National Rifle Association had its beginnings in the limited shooting skills of soldiers during the American Civil War. Inspired by the need of sound and accurate military marksmanship, William Conant Church wrote in 1871, "An association should be organized ... to promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis. The National Guard is today too slow in getting about this reform. Private enterprise must take up the matter and push it into life."
Church found a kindred spirit in George Wood Wingate, a captain in the New York National Guard. Both were Union veterans of the Civil War. Their concept of this marksmanship organization was based on the National Rifle Association of Great Britain (founded in 1859 by the volunteer militia). The British organization had founded clubs, built rifle ranges and encouraged militia participation.
On November 17, 1871, the National Rifle Association was granted a charter by New York State to, "promote rifle practice, and for this purpose to provide a suitable range or ranges in the vicinity of New York...and to promote the introduction of a system of aiming drill and target firing among the National Guard of New York and the militia of other states." Ambrose Burnside, a former Civil War general and governor of Rhode Island, became the first NRA president.
One of the main functions of the new organization was to create a practice ground. To raise money for the endeavor, the NRA petitioned the New York State Assembly. A bill passed requiring the state to allot $25,000 for the purchase land for the grounds. The NRA would contribute $5,000 and also manage the facility. Using the money given by the state, seventy acres of land on Long Island was purchased (Creed Farm) and renamed Creedmoor.
In 1873, the National Rifle Association was growing in size and revenue. The year before, they had earned over $37,000, most of which came from the membership of National Guardsmen. But the quick and easy success came to an end when Alonzo Cornell (vice president of the Western Union Telegraph Company) was elected governor of New York. Cornell held the opinion that not everyone favored a private citizen militia as much as the NRA did.
"The only need for a National Guard," said Cornell, "is to show itself in parades and ceremonies. I see no reason for them to learn to shoot if their only function will be to march a little through the streets."
This kind of opposition to organized citizen armies and the promotion of military skills forced the NRA to suspend its operations and deed Creedmoor over to the state in 1892. The organization’s records were put into storage, and the range was moved to Sea Girt, New Jersey, where it fell under the control of the New Jersey State Rifle Association.
But in 1900, national interest in competitive shooting began to grow, and the NRA was reactivated. The "new NRA" vowed to reestablish itself as a nationwide organization, rather than being exclusive to one state. They began instituting new programs, some of which were geared towards introducing American youths to firearms. In 1903, NRA secretary Albert S. Jones urged the establishment of shooting clubs at colleges and military academies. By 1906, over two hundred boys were participating in competitive matches at the Sea Girt range.
With all of the new programs and matches, a new range was needed. A new facility was established on the shore of Lake Erie, in Ohio, called Camp Perry (named after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who defeated the British at the Battle of Lake Erie). It opened in 1907 and was considered by many to be one of the best rifle ranges in the world.
The NRA remained solely dedicated to marksmanship and competitive target shooting until 1911, when it produced its first written statement opposing gun control. It was a response to the passage of New York State’s Sullivan Law, which was enacted after the attempted assassination of mayor William Gaynor. Sullivan Law made it necessary to have a police permit issued before being able to purchase a handgun.
In the May 1911 edition of Arms and the Man (predecessor to the NRA's American Rifleman magazine), an editorial stated:
"A warning should be sounded to legislators against passing laws which... seem to make it impossible for a criminal to get a pistol, if the same laws would make it very difficult for an honest man and a good citizen to obtain them. Such laws have the effect of arming the bad man and disarming the good one...."
After becoming associated with anti-gun control sentiment, the NRA began keeping its members informed of new firearms bills through its various publications (such as The American Rifleman). Members would receive firearms statistics and legislative facts in regular mailings. The Legislative Affairs Division of the NRA was formed in 1934, in response to various gun control measures which the organization felt threatened Second Amendment rights.
At the same time, the NRA continued its training, education and marksmanship programs. During the Second World War, they lent out their ranges and encouraged members to serve as National Guard members. The association also developed training materials for industrial security (such as guarding war plants) and collected more than 7,000 guns for Britain in 1940. It is interesting to note that unlike today’s NRA which supports responsible hunting, before World War II there was little focus in that area. After the war, the NRA, along with New York State, established the first hunter education program.
Things continued in much of the same way until the 1960s, when two contrasting opinions in the National Rifle Association came to light. On one hand was the sportsman who wasn’t opposed to some firearm regulation. On the other was the Second Amendment fundamentalist who was in favor of complete deregulation. During that decade, the two sides of the NRA coin battled it out. Some members of the executive board instituted programs that worked with law enforcement. A special police training school was opened at Camp Perry, and a program to certify police firearm instructors was established. At the same time, people such as Harlon Bronson Carter (head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action in the seventies) were completely opposed to any form of gun control. Carter stated that he would rather criminals have guns than honest citizens have to undergo a waiting period before buying firearms. Unfortunately, ideas like this ended up defining the modern day stereotype of the National Rifle Association.
In 1978 the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund was established by the NRA Board of Directors to support court cases that could establish legal precedents in favor of gun owners. The fund provided legal and financial support to those individuals or organizations that were fighting for the right to keep and bear arms. The fund also provided money for educational programs which focused on the Second Amendment and the legal issues surrounding gun control.
For the most part, the NRA has always supported education and safety programs dedicated to preventing accidents and misuse. In 1990, the association established the NRA Foundation to ensure funding for these programs. The foundation provided a way to raise millions of dollars which went towards educational and safety products and programs. At the same time, much of the legal support offered by the NRA is seen as aiding criminals rather than hindering them. While promoting general safety in the use of firearms, many members oppose background checks and registration, and are against long-term filing of information from firearm purchases.
Another point of contention is the Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program. This program (endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association) is geared towards teaching children from kindergarten to sixth grade that they should stay away from firearms, that guns are not toys, and if they happen upon a gun, they should "STOP! Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult." Critics of the program call it an effort to target children while they are young, and to ensure that there will be future gun supporters, rather than a safeguard against accidental deaths.
Besides its political and educational activities, the NRA also sponsors competitive target shooting, group hunts, a firearm's museum, and special outings geared towards women and young people.
Note:Other countries have had or do have national firearms associations. See also National Rifle Association of Great Britain, Australian National Rifle Association.