How the NRA Went From Best Friend of the Nation’s Police to Harsh Enemy of Law Enforcement

As it became more unwilling to compromise over even minor gun controls, the NRA is now on the bad side of police.

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January 24, 2013  |  

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For years, the National Rifle Association cultivated a reputation as an unbeatable political powerhouse–a legacy that was challenged on Thursday with the introduction of major new gun control legislation in the U.S. Senate banning more than 100 military-style guns.

But the NRA’s tough reputation unwinds if one delves into the history behind its harshest rhetoric–which began in the 1970s and escalated as former allies, notably America’s police, rejected its increasingly militant demands. What today’s NRA would like to forget is how its unbending extremism led to a losing streak in Congress two decades ago, a period whose gun politics echo today but gun controls nevertheless passed.

Perhaps the best way to understand how the NRA is not the all-powerful lobby it seeks to portray itself as is to look at how the organization went from being a “best friend” of the nation’s police to a political enemy of law enforcement, from federal agents at the top of the ladder to local police chiefs and police unions below. As it became more outspoken and unwilling to compromise over insignificant gun controls, it became the group it remains today, vainly claiming to be the last line against impending government tryanny.

“Once you go down that road, how do you walk that rhetoric back?” said Robert Spitzer, a gun rights historian and SUNY-Cortland’s political science department chairman.

“Obama wants to turn the idea of absolutism into a dirty word,” NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre said in a speech to Nevada hunters on Tuesday, responding to Monday’s inaugural address in which the president chastized groups like the NRA for their unending hyperbole and vitriol. “He wants to put every private, personal firearms transaction right under the thumb of the federal government… And anyone who says that’s excessive, President Obama says that’s an absolutist.”

Pro-Government Before Anti-Government

In the heat of today’s political fights, where excessive emotion, exaggerated threats and hyperbole are routine, it’s easily forgotten that the NRA once stood with government.

For much of its 143-year history, the NRA’s survival depended on a cozy relationship with the government. It relied on state subsidies at its founding and then federal subsidies for marksmanship contests for generations. The U.S. military provided free guns or sold them at cost to NRA members for decades. Thousands of soldiers helped run annual shooting contests. Local police departments turned to the NRA for training.

In the late 1960s, that relationship began to change–and so did the NRA. Democrats in Congress threatened to end a $3 million shooting competition subsidy, asking why it was needed at the height of the Vietnam War. In 1968, Congress increased the regulation of guns sales and dealers in response to that decade’s urban riots and the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy. By 1977, these perceived slights allowed libertarian hardliners in the NRA to wrest control, ousting old-school sportsmen and claiming that America’s gun owners needed aggressive new defenders.

Today, many people forget how the NRA started calling agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, who were charged with enforcing federal gun laws, “Nazis” in the early 1970s and again after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by NRA member Timothy McVeigh. They forget that when District of Columbia proposed a ban on handguns, an NRA member on its city council said the ban would help revive the Klu Klux Klan in nearby Maryland and Virginia. They forget that the NRA opposed banning bullets that could pierce police vests, opposed banning guns with plastic parts that were not seen by airport x-ray scanners, and launched vicious PR campaigns aimed not just at members of Congress who supported gun controls but likeminded city police chiefs.