From marksmanship classes following the Civil War, the NRA has grown into a beast that decries any talk of gun control, writes Bette Browne.
As gun massacres mount in horrifying numbers in the US, some Americans are dismayed at the power of the National Rifle Association to block gun control.
But this organisation has always had friends in high places and can count nine current or former US presidents among its members, including John F Kennedy, who himself was assassinated by a gunman.
This cultivation of political clout has helped the NRA evolve from a group founded in 1871 to improve marksmanship after the US Civil War to become so potent it can now destroy the career of any politician who dares challenge its agenda.
Today, the NRA teaches thousands of Americans, from children to college students to police officers, about guns and has its own TV station and a
powerful legislative lobbying arm in Congress.
It boasts at least 5m members and a multimillion-dollar war chest to promote its agenda. Last year, it spent over $30m (€26m) to help elect Donald Trump, who is a current member, as president, along with his vice-president, Mike Pence.
The NRA is governed by a board of directors, usually numbering about 75, which is responsible for selecting the president, from among its members, who acts as the organisation’s
Among the group’s most notable leaders about a decade ago was the late actor Charlton Heston. Today, it is run by executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre, who gets a salary of $972,000. Its annual convention was held in Atlanta this year and was addressed by Trump.
The NRA is based in Fairfax, Virginia, which also houses its museum on the history of firearms in America.
The association’s funds come from contributions by its estimated millions of members, who have contributed nearly $85m in the last decade.
Much of its funding also comes from big corporations, many within the burgeoning gun industry— worth at least $12bn a year, according to 2015 figures from market researcher IBISWorld.
The NRA lists $433.9m for total revenue and other support, along with $475.9m in expenses during 2016.
The first US leader to join the NRA was Ulysses S Grant who went on to become the organisation’s president in 1883, a decade after it was founded.
Its first president was a former Union Army general in the Civil War, Ambrose Burnside, who had been appalled at the poor marksmanship among his soldiers during the war.
The NRA spent its early years organising shooting ranges around the country and established rifle clubs in a number of states.
Soon its expertise spread and many state National Guard organisations sought its advice to improve members’ marksmanship — the NRA marksmanship manual evolved into the US Army’s marksmanship instruction
As it expanded its sphere of influence, the NRA’s power grew — in 1907, its headquarters moved to Washington.
In the decades that followed it began to finesse its advocacy efforts in the capital.
Between the 1930s and 1970s, it began to transform itself from an organisation that focused on sportsmen, hunters, and target shooters into a powerful political lobbying machine.
It formed a legislative affairs division in response to the passage by Congress of the the first federal gun-control law, know as the National Firearms Act of 1934. But, at that point, it was not necessarily opposed to gun-control measures.
Indeed, in contrast to its current position, it appeared almost progressive, judging by a statement at a congressional hearing about the 1934 act by its president, Karl Frederick.
“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one,” said Frederick.
“I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licences.”
The NRA later supported many parts of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which helped create a system to federally license gun dealers and restrict the use of certain types of guns.
But over the next decade, this conciliatory stance ended as some members became alarmed that gun rights were coming under threat from the federal government.
A number of activists, led by Harlon Carter, began to pursue a more aggressive political agenda. Carter became director of the organisation’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, in 1975 and from then on, it grew into the all-powerful group that is is today.
It spent $40m on congressional and state elections in 2008, including $10m in its efforts to defeat Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
But the NRA cultivates members of both parties. In 2012, 88% of Republicans and 11% of Democrats in Congress had received a hefty NRA contribution at some point in their career.
It also gives politicians a grade, ranging from A to F, that reflects their voting record on its agenda.
Indeed, politicians covet these top grades and will sometimes go to bizarre lengths to show their support for gun rights.
In 2015, during his presidential bid, for example, Texas senator Ted Cruz starred in a video in which he cooked bacon by wrapping it around a machine gun, which he then fired.
The NRA boasts on its website that it is a leader in “firearms education”, citing the fact that over 125,000 certified instructors train about 1m gun owners a year. “Courses are available in basic rifle, pistol, shotgun, muzzle-loading firearms, personal protection, even ammunition reloading,” it states.
Americans make up about 4.43% of the world’s population, yet own roughly 42% of all the world’s privately held guns. Indeed, there are enough guns in the country for every man, woman, and child in the population of 323m.
According to the Pew Research Centre, most Americans support background checks, bans on assault-style weapons, bans on high-capacity ammunition clips, bans on online sales of ammunition, and a federal database to track gun sales.
But any attempt to implement such measures have been doomed to failure in a cowed Congress, even in the face of figures from the Congressional Research Service that shows that more Americans have died from gunfire in their own country in the last 50 years than died in all the wars the US has ever fought.
Some organisations such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown movement have tried to take on the NRA but none has really dented its power.
In an impassioned plea after the Texas killings on Sunday, Connecticut senator Chris Murphy said the nation’s “mass carnage” will not abate unless politicians take action.
“The paralysis you feel right now — the impotent helplessness that washes over you as news of another mass slaughter scrolls across the television screen — isn’t real,” he said.
It’s a fiction created and methodically cultivated by the gun lobby, designed to assure that no laws are passed to make America safer because those laws would cut into their profits.”
The NRA’s solution is to insist that the best way to ensure safety to to put more guns in the hands of Americans so they can protect themselves.
And, with each new massacre, it may not be too long before the NRA’s dream of unlimited guns comes true and Americans feel compelled to carry arms to protect themselves from their fellow Americans.
By then, the NRA dream will truly have evolved into an American nightmare.
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