Whether by plan, by necessity, or a combination of both, the NRA feeds a movement that’s bigger than itself.
By Ethan Imaap
A recent article in Newsweek, “NRA Adds About 225K Paying Members Since January, Now Has Over 5M Registered,” suggested through an interview with an anti-Second Amendment activist that it wasn’t the National Rifle Association that held clout anymore, but all the state pro-2A lobbies. Whether by plan, by necessity, or a combination of both, the NRA feeds a movement that’s bigger than itself.
The NRA turns 150 this year. Two Union generals, George Wingate and Ambrose Burnside, founded the organization to address the deplorable marksmanship of Union soldiers compared to their Confederate counterparts. The founders knew that preserving the American culture of small arms proficiency would aid in maintaining the country’s long-term independence and the liberty of its citizens’, David Kopel detailed in a recent article in the NRA’s political magazine, America’s 1st Freedom.
Throughout its history the NRA focused on training. Wingate penned a manual to help high schools develop student marksmanship programs to great success. In the early part of the 20th century, the NRA became synonymous with firearms safety and marksmanship training and was chosen by congress through the Civilian Marksmanship Program to distribute surplus military arms to citizens at low cost. It trained citizens entering the military during the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, and Vietnam. In 1949, the NRA launched the first-ever state-level hunter education course in conjunction with the State of New York, where it was incorporated.
Throughout its existence, the NRA never imposed any kind of discrimination on membership, be it based on race, sex, or politics. Today, the NRA rates politicians based on their follow-through in supporting the Second Amendment; it will support a member of any party, as long as he or she supports the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms. Only in light of the left’s hostility toward the Second Amendment, has the NRA seemingly been pushed farther and farther right. Libertarian-oriented gun owners find fault in this evolution and seek out alternative gun-rights organizations at the local level. They’re not wrong in their desire to want to separate from an organization that’s become so unwieldy it’s as nimble as an aircraft carrier. But what they overlook is that the NRA taught those state-level organizations much of what they know and in certain instances gave them their start.
Take the Gun Owners Action League in Massachusetts. The organization may or may not be divorced from the NRA today, but it began as an NRA-proxy because the idea of the NRA having support in such a firearm-hostile state was anathema to its political progress. Poised as a local organization, GOAL at least gets some respect from anti-gun legislators on Beacon Hill, even if it’s constantly battling the ever-increasing limitations on gun owners and gun sellers in the Bay State. This is not to imply that all state-level pro-2A organizations are NRA proxies; some are brand new and the NRA is in no way discouraged by their lead. Often it is the quiet bargain made out of sight of the public eye that gets things accomplished and not the loudest, most fervent fighter at the podium. The NRA is especially adroit at this. Take the Pennsylvania Sunday hunting bill as an example. The NRA worked tirelessly to ensure the warring factions, namely hunters and farmers, each got something they wanted, not everything, but something.
This is not to say that the NRA deserves our unquestioning support. It’s 75-member board of directors is cumbersome and tainted with in-kind impropriety. Wayne LaPierre succeeded in resisting all attempts to unseat him for the overall good of the organization. The trips to Italy, the fancy suits, the exorbitant PR firm fees, the use of other people’s yachts to hide during mass shootings, shocked and embarrassed a loyal membership that put up with the years of constant cries for donations to support one more last stand. They overlooked the cheap range bag and even cheaper pocketknife gifts when they renewed as they watched the attorney general in the state the organization was founded in attempt to drive it into oblivion. Suits and counter-suits, endless news stories that didn’t get everything right, but got enough right, embarrassing dirty laundry: It was all too much. Donors and members walked away. When Ollie North was president, membership was climbing toward 6 million, but even now its back to its steady 5 million-plus. In other words, the NRA isn’t going anywhere—except to move its incorporation to Texas.
The NRA took an enormous financial hit when, due to the pandemic, it was forced to cancel its yearly exposition in 2020, in addition to all the annual banquets that take place in small towns and big cities across the country. It cut pay levels, laid off workers and furloughed others, and righted its financial ship when it was denied the ability to claim bankruptcy. It continued to lobby effectively, to expand its state-level online hunter education program, and to offer quality content through its magazines and websites, but gone was NRA TV and other slick productions. Will this make the organization more adaptive going forward? Only time will tell.
What has happened, though, is that gun owners and gun haters alike recognize that the Second Amendment is bigger than a movement embodied in a single national-level organization. Whether it’s the NRA, an NRA-backed and -trained proxy, or an independent pro-2A gun comparative newcomer, the power of the Second Amendment’s strength stems from average citizens speaking out in town hall meetings across New England, at state capital rallies in the Mid-Atlantic, or at federal public hearings out West.
The NRA clawed back our rights from the nadir of the late 1960s. Every state allows personal carry, though the may-issue states treat it like a privilege and not the right that it is. You have the God-given right to protect yourself and your family; that is not something granted by the state or the federal government. Collectively, we serve as the check on the government’s natural devolution into tyranny, not because our 9mms or ARs can take down a tank, but because at some point the person driving the tank will need to decide if he wants to execute an unlawful order against a law-abiding citizen. People will need to be brave.
The Second Amendment is indeed America’s First Freedom; without it we are mere subjects. With it, we enjoy a peace that few other countries can boast. Criminals and tyrants must think twice, which curries a healthy respect for the American citizen. It is not natural that a society lives in liberty and peace. The way of human nature is toward enslavement and war. The right to keep and bear arms, whether you choose to exercise that right or not, prevents the government—which is clearly collective now and not representative of any particular party of set of policy ideals—from easily disarming and thereby controlling you. And it allows people who vehemently disagree with each other to live in peace and perhaps find common ground against those who seek to ensnare them both.
Train, support the organizations that have your back at both the federal and state level, and train some more. Support your local gun shop and take any classes they may offer; you can always learn something new. Follow gun legislation at the state level and don’t be too proud to learn from the 150-year-old organization that has beaten the anti-gun lobby at its own game, because in every state it learned how to play politics to support pro-gun measure and block anti-gun measures—all while teaching Americans how to handle their personal firearm, shoot straight, bring home game, and be an active participant in the democratic process of a Republic.