In the wake of the deadly elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., many Americans are once again calling for stricter gun regulation. At an emotional news conference, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr questioned the integrity of senators blocking a vote on HR 8, a background-check measure supported by 90 percent of Americans. Many critics have pointed to the National Rifle Association’s large donations to prominent Republicans as the primary cause of the Senate stonewalling HR 8 and other overwhelmingly popular gun laws.
But understanding the NRA’s influence requires looking beyond spending. For more than a century, the organization’s war against gun control has included everything from legislative campaigns to lawsuits and judicial activism to even casting aspersion on the expertise of everyone from public opinion pollsters to epidemiologists. These varied efforts have enabled the NRA to override popular opinion and scholarly consensus to bend firearms policy in its favor.
Completely obstructing firearm regulations has not always been the NRA’s objective. Instead, up until the late 20th century, it focused on limiting legislation’s impact on “law-abiding citizen” gun owners. This legal agenda was first elaborated in 1911 by Olympic sharpshooter and Harvard-trained lawyer Karl T. Frederick in response to New York’s Sullivan Act requiring licenses for concealable firearms (which the Supreme Court probably may overturn in June).
Frederick himself did not believe in the “general promiscuous toting of guns” and did not oppose all licensing. Yet, when he rose to be president of the NRA in the 1930s, he lobbied to exempt handguns and pistols from the “burdensome” permitting requirements proposed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal for Crime.”
Prominent organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, supported handgun licensing. But Frederick’s D.C. negotiations and a flood of angry telegrams from NRA members swayed Congress. When a last-minute draft bill exempting handguns emerged, it stunned many observers. A representative of the women’s clubs declared, “If a million riflemen can get the feature (handguns and pistols) taken out, two million club women can have it put back in.”
This proved to be untrue, and the first federal gun law, the National Firearms Act (NFA), passed in 1934 without handgun registration.
When Congress drafted the NFA, it was difficult to ascertain exactly how many Americans supported gun registration. But four years later, utilizing the new method of scientific sampling, a Gallup poll found that 79 percent of respondents supported the inclusion of handgun registration in a proposed federal gun law expansion. Nevertheless, lawmakers again excluded the measure from the 1938 Federal Firearms Act.
In the decades since, polls have consistently shown that a majority approve of firearm safety measures. But, in a mismatch that scholars have dubbed the “gun control paradox,” Congress has ignored these public preferences. A communications scientist, Hazel Erskine, wrote in 1972, “It is difficult to imagine any other issue on which Congress has been less responsive to public sentiment for a longer period of time.”