In the 1960s, the NRA continued to support gun control, a wave which was fueled by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the racial strife and violent uprisings in the nation’s urban centers.
The organization actively lobbied in favor of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned gun sales by mail, and enacted a system of licensing those people and companies who bought and sold firearms. Franklin Orth, then the executive vice president of the NRA, said that although certain aspects of the law “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
During that time, the NRA and conservative politicians such as California Governor Ronald Reagan supported gun control as a means of restoring social order, and getting weapons out of the hands of radical, left-leaning and revolutionary groups, particularly the Black Panther Party.
Responding to the perceived failures of the nonviolent civil rights movement, the Black Panthers took a more militant and uncompromising approach of the fallen leader Malcolm X. Led by figures including Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers’ “by any means necessary” approach included a most aggressive gun ownership policy to protect their communities from police abuse.
Beginning in 1966, the Panthers carried out police patrols, in which they rushed to the scene of an arrest with their loaded weapons publicly displayed, and notified those being arrested of their constitutional rights. California state legislator Don Mulford introduced a bill to repeal the state law allowing citizens to carry loaded guns in public if they were openly displayed. Mulford had the Panthers in mind with this legislation.
On May 2, 1967, a group of Black Panthers protested the bill by walking into the California State Capitol Building fully armed. In response, the legislature passed the Mulford Act. And Gov. Reagan, who was a major proponent of disarming the Panthers, signed the bill into law, effectively neutralizing the Panther Police Patrols.
Yet, in the 1970s the NRA began to shift their direction rightward and actively lobby for gun rights. Their chief lobbyist, Harlon Carter, was a former border control agent and staunch supporter of gun rights. In 1977, Carter and his faction staged a coup within the NRA, against an establishment that wanted to shift away from gun control and crime in favor of conservation and sportsmen’s issues.
With the Black Panther Party and other left wing gun control foes out of the picture, the new hardline NRA feared the government would similarly take away their guns. Further, these predominantly white and conservative gun rights advocates in the NRA shared the Panthers’ distrust of the police.
Ironically, Ronald Reagan—who had signed the Mulford Act to disarm the Black Panther Party—changed his stance and advocated for guns as a defense against state power.
“So isn’t it better for the people to own arms than to risk enslavement by power-hungry men or nations? The founding fathers thought so,” Reagan said in a radio commentary in 1975.
In 1980, the NRA endorsed Reagan for president, the first such endorsement by the group. On March 30, 1981, President Reagan and three others were shot and injured by John Hinckley, Jr., 25, outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove