In today’s political arena the National Rifle Association (NRA) is known as an organization holding extreme ultra right wing views and always, under all conditions, standing in strong opposition to any and all proposals for any type of legislation to control access to guns, gun purchases and even background checks for potential buyers of firearms. Few know, however, that this is absolutely at odds with the principles the NRA was founded on and does not represent what this organization has stood for through much of its history. From its founding until 1977, the NRA was a mainstream group known for its programs supporting marksmanship, gun safety and, yes, even legislation to control firearms.

The NRA was founded in 1871 by Wm. Church and George Wingate, a former Colonel and General respectively, in the Union army during the Civil War. Its founding president was the Union General Ambrose Burnside. Its purpose was to promote “Firearms safety, education, marksmanship, training and shooting for recreation.” There was no advocacy of open gun ownership for all with no restrictions or attacks on the federal government as part of the NRA’s governing provisions. In fact, the NRA, for over a century was the foremost advocate of sensible, common sense regulations on gun ownership in our nation.

In the early 1920’s the NRA, responding especially to the wave of gun violence brought on by passage of prohibition, authored model legislation for states to control gun sales and use. This included support for; outlawing carrying concealed weapons, adding five years onto sentences for crimes that involved use of guns, requiring permits to purchase firearms, denying permits to non-citizens and the mentally ill, requiring sales records of gun dealers to be turned over to police and a waiting period for purchasing firearms.

Eighteen states adopted these proposals, including Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North & South Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Others passed parts of the model legislation.

The NRA worked closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal period, helping draft the language for the 1934 National Firearms Act & the 1938 Gun Control Act. These acts outlawed machine guns and silencers, sawed off shotguns, denied gun ownership to felons and the mentally ill and highly taxed firearms sales. All of these restrictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1939.

Testifying before congress in 1938, NRA President Karl Frederick stated; “I’ve never believed in the general practice of carrying guns. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only allowed under licensing.”

The leadership of the present day NRA would literally go into screaming, insane fits if any of these common sense regulations were proposed today. They’d undoubtedly call them “socialist,” “violations of the constitution” and issue threats to “call out the militia.” Those restrictions on firearms were mild, however, compared to the much more invasive restrictions in most of the “Wild West” towns that today’s NRA leadership so revere.

The 1960’s saw the NRA again rise to support gun control legislation. In ’63, after President John F. Kennedy was murdered with a gun obtained through mail order sales, without background checks, a rising public sentiment pushed for the closing of these loopholes. This resulted in passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, with qualified NRA support.

Writing in the NRA publication, “American Rifleman,” in support of banning unrestricted mail order gun sales, NRA Vice President Frank Orth stated; “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing in this bill the instrument that killed the President of the United States.”

While most Americans and most sane people did not oppose passage of common sense gun legislation, another, possibly not so sane group of NRA rank & filers closely tied to extreme, ultra right wing and racist groups, did object. The leader of the NRA revolt was Harlon Carter. He was a former chief of the Border Patrol from Texas who’d been convicted, as a youth, of shooting and killing a 15 year old Mexican youth. He was then heading the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. In 1977, a group led by Carter and closely affiliated with racist, survivalist and libertarian forces, packed and took over the NRA national annual meeting in Cincinnati. The NRA’s work in gun safety, education and marksmanship was replaced by the in-your-face slogan; “The right of the people to keep & bear arms shall not be infringed!”

Closely associated with conservative forces that moved to take over the national government, those forces have been on the ascendency for the past few decades. With the rising public anger and disgust over the wave of gun killings, this period of unchallenged control may be coming to an end. However, a central part of the strange and convoluted history of guns, and gun control, in our nation has always been wrapped up with racist efforts to control and oppress African Americans. While the right wing conservative forces controlling today’s NRA, as well as their ideological brethren spanning our nation’s history, have called for unrestricted access to firearms, that right has always stopped right before reaching African Americans. In fact, while these forces push for some sort of free, universal, ownership of guns, when it came to African Americans, they’ve always quickly shifted to support for the most invasive, restrictive and punitive of controls.

From our earliest, colonial period, special steps were taken to control Africans held in chattel slavery. In the slaveholding south, participation in slave patrols, as well as gun ownership, was mandatory for white citizens. Ownership or use of firearms by Africans was strictly prohibited and punishable by death. These conditions were in place in the south until the Union victory in the Civil War and institution of Reconstruction.

With the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the occupation of the south by Union forces and beginning of Reconstruction, legalization of gun ownership for the former slaves was on the reform agenda. Union General Daniel Sickles, in charge of Reconstruction in South Carolina issued the order that; “The constitutional rights of all loyal and well disposed inhabitants to keep and bear arms will not be infringed!” The purpose of this order was clearly to establish the right of newly freed slaves to arm themselves for the purpose of self defense against the former slaveholders and Confederates.

Unfortunately, Reconstruction came to an end in 1876 with the withdrawal of Union troops from the south and the effective abandonment of African Americans by the federal government. The former slaveholders and Confederates took over, establishing Black Codes, stripping the former slaves of most of their new rights. Along with being denied voting rights, forced to work for former owners, they were also denied the right to own firearms.

Symbolic of this historic dual personality is the Right’s favorite president, Ronald Reagan. A hero to the NRA’s present libertarian leadership, Reagan was an author and strong supporter of the Mulford Act of 1967 as governor of California. This act banned carrying firearms in public, but in this case the target was not the NRA’s mythical white rural hunter, out protecting his land from, again mythical, government thugs. It was the Black Panthers and their public display of firearms, in this case proposing to actually protect themselves and their community from very real, and racist, police. Reagan went on, in the ‘70’s and later as president, to become a spokesman for the unrestricted right to “Americans” (some Americans) to keep and bear arms.

This racist national schizophrenia is on full display today with the NRA leadership’s hyping of rights for the mythical proud rural white family guy, protecting his land from (nonexistent) government/ UN intruders when thousands are killed in very real, mainly urban settings. The main victims of the ongoing epidemic of gun violence in our nation continues to be young, urban African American youth.

At this point in our nation’s history we have the opportunity to, finally, begin to put an end to this ridiculous, insane national hypocrisy, and to move toward passage of real decent common sense gun regulations. President Obama, responding to the mass murder of children in Connecticut, has put forward proposals for sensible firearms legislation. That is extremely positive, but it can only succeed with support of an independent grassroots people’s actions to put it on the front burner politically.

The present leadership of the NRA doesn’t represent gun owners or sportsmen. They’ve highjacked that organization and its history. We need to be willing to talk with our friends and neighbors, including gun owners, to bring about real change. We are on the side of history!