In the wake of the deadly Newtown Connecticut shooting in December, President Barack Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to convene a gun violence prevention task force. The National Rifle Association, or the NRA, expressed its disappointment with a meeting it held with Biden, who will release his recommendations on Tuesday.
“We were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the Second Amendment,” the NRA wrote in a statement. “While claiming that no policy proposals would be ‘prejudged,’ this Task Force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearms owners — honest, taxpaying, hardworking Americans.”
While today’s NRA takes hardline positions against even the most modest gun control measures, this was not always the case. Throughout its history, the NRA supported gun control, including restrictions on gun ownership, and was not focused on the Second Amendment.
But the organization had a change of heart in the 1970s when the Black Panthers advocated for an individual right to bear arms. Ironically, the Panthers were the founders of the modern-day gun rights movement, which became the purview of predominantly white, rural conservatives.
The ambiguous reading of the Second Amendment notwithstanding, gun control is as old as the Republic, and the amendment was not interpreted as an absolute in the early days of the United States. There was a balance between individual rights and public safety.
For example, slaves and freed blacks were barred from gun ownership, reflecting fears that African-Americans would revolt. At the same time, the founders proscribed gun ownership to many whites, including those who would not swear their loyalty to the Revolution. And contrary to legend, the “Wild, Wild West” had the most severe gun control policies in America.
Meanwhile, the Black Codes of the post-Civil War South were designed to disempower blacks and reestablish white rule.
This included the prohibition on blacks possessing firearms—a law which was enforced by white gun owners such as the Ku Klux Klan, who terrorized black communities. The Northern framers of the Fourteenth Amendment and the first Civil Rights Act viewed gun rights as fundamental to upholding the constitutional protections of the freedmen.
When Prohibition-era organized crime led to the enactment of the National Firearms Act of 1934—the nation’s first federal gun control laws—the NRA not only supported restrictive gun control measures, but drafted legislation in numerous states limiting the carrying of concealed weapons. When NRA president Karl Frederick was asked by Congress whether the Second Amendment imposed any restrictions on gun control, he responded that he had “not given it any study from that point of view.”
Frederick said he did “not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” He helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model law which required a police permit to carry a concealed weapon, a registry of all gun purchases, and a two-day waiting period for firearms sales.