Top Guns

The NRA: The Unauthorized History BY Frank Smyth. New York: Flatiron Books. 304 pages. $29.

The cover of The NRA: The Unauthorized History

“There are no ‘good guns,’” Charlton Heston once told Meet the Press. “There are no ‘bad guns.’ Any gun in the hands of a bad man is a bad thing. Any gun in the hands of a decent person is no threat to anybody, except bad people.” The merits of Heston’s argument notwithstanding, the dramatic force of his delivery was undeniable, affirming the actor’s status as one of Hollywood’s iconic heroes. Who could speak with more authority of guys good and bad than the man American audiences had grown up seeing in cowboy buckskin, shining armor, military fatigues, and the robes of Moses himself? This rhetoric, a hallmark of Heston’s tenure as president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) from 1998 until 2003, has since been echoed by many in the organization. In 2012, mere days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA’s current chief executive and executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, famously pronounced that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The NRA has long been the opposite of gun-shy when it comes to naming its enemies, enjoining Americans to arm themselves against the ever-present threat of bad guys—including, in LaPierre’s words, “terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers [sic], haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers.” It has also been aggressive—and remarkably successful—in its efforts to persuade Americans to vote against bad-guy politicians who might disarm them or question in any way their prerogative to be armed at all times. Yet as the journalist Frank Smyth observes in his important new book, The NRA: The Unauthorized History, the group’s theatrics and love of the spotlight have coexisted with a melodramatic degree of secrecy about its internal goings-on. Culture warriors like Heston and LaPierre have railed against elites from positions of remarkable wealth, and their outspoken rhetoric has issued from an organization with an almost pathological aversion to transparency. “For decades,” Smyth writes, “the NRA has preserved its own historical treasures in a ‘climate controlled room with restricted access’ logged to the ‘central computer’ of its National Firearms Museum at its headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, that no one—neither NRA members nor the public—has ever seen.” Smyth, of course, has not gained access to this vault. But as a veteran journalist who has covered the association for years, he has gleaned abundant material, from interviews to tax filings to court briefs to archives of the organization’s (numerous) magazines. The fact that no other popular history has ever been written by anyone not on the NRA’s payroll means that Smyth’s book is a worthwhile intervention; it also means that the book’s shortcomings and unevenness are worth studying.

Many Americans associate the NRA with the “heartland,” a mythic place of rural backwaters and postindustrial decay where, as Barack Obama notoriously told a group of private donors in San Francisco in 2008, bitter Americans “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” But, as Smyth relates, the NRA’s origins were in the urban Northeast, in post–Civil War New York City. Its founders, William Conant Church and George Wood Wingate, were Union veterans, men whose patriotism and careers Smyth is candid about admiring. Church was a prolific journalist who covered Union campaigns in Virginia for the New York Times, The Sun, and the Evening Post before a (brief) stint as a brevet lieutenant colonel organizing volunteer militiamen around Washington, DC. Wingate was a lawyer (a firm still bears his name today) and an accomplished marksman whose service in the Gettysburg campaign left him convinced with “bloody clarity that soldiers who could not shoot straight were of little value.”

Smyth documents the NRA’s early years, rich in paradox and incident, with verve. Though deeply invested in American ideologies like manifest destiny and imperial expansion, its founders drew a surprising amount of inspiration from Europe. Impressed by the tactical prowess and technological superiority of the Prussian army in the Franco-German War of 1870, Wingate and Church sought to close the gap in skill between American men and their Teutonic counterparts. The pair assembled an illustrious array of Civil War veterans, almost all involved in the New York City and Brooklyn National Guard, and in 1871 proclaimed that “an association should be organized in this city to promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” As the NRA grew, it modeled itself on another European equivalent, the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom, whose ranges at Wimbledon the NRA founders meticulously replicated on farmland purchased with the support of state funds on Long Island (Creed Farm, suitably renamed, with an Anglophilic nod, as “Creedmoor”).

Illustration of the Grand International rifle match at Creedmoor, Long Island, 1876. A. B. Frost/Harper’s Weekly/Library of Congress
Illustration of the Grand International rifle match at Creedmoor, Long Island, 1876. A. B. Frost/Harper’s Weekly/Library of Congress

It was through competition with European shooters that the NRA made its first real splash. In 1873, the UK’s reigning competitive marksmen, a group from Ireland, issued an open challenge to Yankees in the New York Herald (whose publisher was, Smyth notes, one of the NRA’s first lifetime members). The ensuing showdown on Long Island the following year drew eight thousand spectators. After hours of shooting in sweltering heat, the Irish were one point ahead—931 to 930—when the NRA’s last shooter, Colonel John Bodine, paused to refresh himself with a bottle of ginger beer. The bottle exploded in his hands, sending blood and shards of glass everywhere; Bodine declined the help of his competitors, bandaged his own hand, and then coolly shot a bull’s-eye half a mile away.

In shooting circles, the moment is legendary; a national craze for riflery was born immediately. Soon there were NRA chapters throughout the Northeast, and by 1877 Americans were beating the UK’s best in competitions abroad. Wingate and Church, who had always been well connected, had patrons in Albany and Washington brokering deals to subsidize marksmanship training programs and for the War Department to sell surplus rifles to NRA members at cost. The competition, nationalism, and militarism of this era are symbolized by the elegant trophy the organization commissioned from Tiffany’s, which cost the equivalent of thirty-five thousand contemporary dollars: “a full-size replica of an ancient Roman legionary standard executed in silver, gold, and bronze, bearing on its silver banner the legend: In the name of the United States of America to the Riflemen of the World.” This trophy, Smyth notes, “became the association’s most coveted, legendary prize—until it was discovered missing from the NRA’s own archives in 1954.”

The history of the NRA is bound up with the history of American militarism. In the 1920s and ’30s, the organization’s leadership endorsed various governmental restrictions on firearm ownership, most notably the 1934 National Firearms Act, which banned civilian ownership of fully automatic weapons. As England went to war against Nazi Germany, the NRA collected gun donations from its members to send across the Atlantic to arm the British militia; Smyth writes approvingly that “in a history with many honorable hours, this was one of the NRA’s finest.” For Smyth, himself a gun owner and a believer “that the Second Amendment protects my right to keep arms in my home,” such moments capture the organization’s capacity for reasonableness and patriotism.

Yet, alongside these tendencies, Smyth acknowledges that there were uglier currents. From the start the NRA was shaped by the chauvinism of manifest destiny, for which both Church and Wingate were enthusiastic boosters (“let the word be to whip the Indians,” Church declared). The NRA’s nineteenth-century nativism and imperialism morphed into twentieth-century anticommunism and white-backlash politics. Surveying the NRA’s literature and public statements from the first half of the twentieth century, Smyth notes the increasing frequency of themes that, to a contemporary observer, will be deeply familiar: fear of infiltration by “Bolsheviki,” cynicism about “crooks” flouting the law, and widespread distrust of government. In the 1960s, the Cold War paranoia of the preceding decade was joined by panic over urban uprisings, racist violence, and high-profile assassinations. Even as an “old guard” within the NRA began to contemplate moving its headquarters from Washington to the Colorado Rockies and New Mexico and retreating into an isolationist “hunter-conservationist” identity, harder-right factions pushed for a more aggressive progun platform. The old guard’s compromises with the Johnson administration’s relatively mild Gun Control Act of 1968 led to a long-running schism that came to a head in 1977, when a group of what Smyth calls “insurgents” staged an administrative coup to oust leaders they perceived as insufficiently zealous. From then on, the trajectory of the organization as a culture-wars lobbying group was set.

Smyth’s book is at its best from this period onward. He documents the modern NRA’s remarkable success resisting and overturning gun bans, rolling back and weakening previous gun regulations (including the 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, which undid much of the Johnson-era legislation), and otherwise establishing itself, through its Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), as a kingmaker in Republican circles. Smyth also adeptly narrates the many struggles for power within the organization—palace coups, smear campaigns, purges—and sketches compelling profiles of its leaders. These are men like the NRA executive vice president Harlon Carter, a veteran Border Patrol official and regional commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the Southwest, who was instrumental in the ’77 “revolution” and who tried (for a while successfully) to avoid public scrutiny of his shooting of a Latino teenager in 1931. LaPierre, whom Smyth rightly sees as a mastermind of the organization’s influence campaigns, was a substitute special-education teacher and a former campaign volunteer for Democrat George McGovern. Then there are the women, such as Marion Hammer, a grassroots organizer from the South who grew up farming and hunting for subsistence and eventually rose to the position of the NRA’s first woman president, and Tanya Metaksa (“That’s a-k as in AK-47, and s-a as in semiautomatic,” as she told press), a nonpareil lobbyist who threaded the needle of maintaining cordial relations with both the Michigan Militia and the US Chamber of Commerce.

As a seasoned investigative journalist, Smyth is particularly good at following the money. He skillfully exposes how NRA funds have been used to prop up ersatz advocacy groups and think tanks. “The lack of comprehensive disclosure requirements in the courts, legislatures, and even the press, combined with the NRA leadership’s clever use of conduits to channel funds to proxies, has allowed them to amplify their message without the justices, legislators, press, or the public ever knowing it,” he writes. Undisclosed NRA money has underwritten legal scholarship, more than a few panels of testimony by supposedly impartial “experts,” and amicus briefs that have been pivotal in decisive progun Supreme Court rulings. Underwriting all the NRA’s homespun appeals to imagery of doughty minutemen in tricorn hats, straight-shooting cowboys, and down-home hunters in blaze orange, in other words, have been byzantine maneuvers by lawyers in bespoke suits, well-packaged campaigns by white-shoe ad firms, and gallons upon gallons of ink from more than a few tweed-and-elbow-pad ivory-tower types. The NRA: The Unauthorized History is a must-read for these sections alone.

But it is here also that the reader encounters problems. For all the excellent work it does at dismantling the NRA’s myths about itself, and at laying out the biographies of some of its key modern players, Smyth’s book has some striking blind spots. The high drama of Smyth’s narration of the ’77 “Cincinnati Revolt” offers a case in point. For Smyth, the coup’s leaders were vigilante “insurgents” in revolt against the authority of the old-guard NRA members—men with decorated military service records whom he clearly admires. But many of the NRA board members who supported the insurgents also had close ties to the security state; some, like Byron Engle, the director of the Cold War–era Office of Public Safety, were key architects of modern-day US counterinsurgency warfare and policing. What Smyth disapprovingly describes as a “gun rights revolution” might more accurately be seen as part of a deeper process of American counterrevolution. The coup in Cincinnati simply made explicit what was always already meant by the NRA’s long-standing advocacy on behalf of “God-fearing, law-abiding” Americans.

A bigger issue, though not unique to Smyth’s book, is the tendency to see the NRA as singularly powerful and to overlook its position within a broader network of conservative organizations. Looking at the history of the NRA, Smyth writes, “one stands in awe of an organization rooted in patriotism, steeped in service, long dedicated to the promotion of safe and better riflery for soldiers and citizens alike.” He is right to emphasize the NRA’s success at imposing its legislative agenda and shaping court rulings. But the association is only one of many institutions operating across the ever fuzzier boundary between public and private, entities that are nominally nonprofit and in “the public interest” but nonetheless able to draw on seemingly bottomless wells of cash.

Smyth’s combination of eagle-eyed precision and odd credulity is even more disappointing when it comes to the recently exposed interactions between the NRA’s leadership and shadowy figures in a so-called “gun rights” movement in Russia. Of the Russian gun activist Maria Butina, who in 2018 pleaded guilty in US federal court to operating as an unregistered foreign agent, Smyth writes that she “was one of the few foreigners most NRA leaders had ever met who seemed to completely share their point of view. They seemed so pleased to know that another group in another major country even existed that they never bothered to check whether that group had any real constituency or base in Russia beyond having plenty of funds.” The NRA is hardly the first major American right-wing nonprofit to be a possible vehicle for influence peddling, money laundering, and grifting by dubious players, foreign or otherwise. But in Smyth’s telling, the Butina affair is a unique and unprecedented development, proving how far the organization has fallen and to what extent it has sold out its patriotic American roots. He fails to mention the various ties and affinities between the NRA and organizations in places like South Africa, India, and Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, campaigned on expanding firearm rights for Brazilians, and whose sons, both ardent gun enthusiasts, boasted about meeting with NRA representatives.

Smyth, to his credit, is frank about his own perspective. He acknowledges both his antipathy toward the contemporary NRA and his admiration for what he perceives as the best intentions of its “founding fathers.” But the gaps in his history underscore the key problem of thinking about the organization, which is far bigger than Smyth’s book. The NRA arguably looms larger than life in the American consciousness because it also somehow gives America back, refracted and intensified, to itself. The NRA’s own ideological demand that there must be Good Guys and Bad Guys not only shapes how we think about the NRA; it may capture something essential about how Americans think—or refuse to think—about themselves.

Patrick Blanchfield is a writer and associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.