The National Rifle Association (NRA) has an interesting origin story that is basically 180 degrees from its current incarnation.
The NRA was founded 1871 to better prepare American freemen (e.g. emancipated slaves) for defense of their nation against rebellion and infringement of civil rights (e.g. white supremacists).
That’s right, it generally was thought (pun intended) after the Civil War ended that Americans needed training with rifles to defend the country against white supremacists, and by that I mean citizens defend self, communities and federal government from terrorists. US General Shaler had noticed that on average it took nearly 1K rifle shots to stop each enemy soldier during the Civil War.
A UCLA law professor tried to frame it like this in his 2011 Atlantic article called “The Secret History of Guns”:
Wingate and Church had fought for the North in the Civil War and been shocked by the poor shooting skills of city-bred Union soldiers.
Unfortunately the law professor gets it right (marksmanship was a concern), while also being wrong (it’s not about zip code, it’s about race).
This law professor makes many good points about the NRA from a legal standpoint. Here, for another example, is how he hammers on the lack of any real 2nd Amendment focus in the organization.
For most of its history, the NRA completely ignored the Second Amendment. If you go through old issues of the NRA’s signature publication, American Rifleman, from the 1940s and 1950s, you can read issue after issue without finding a single mention of the Second Amendment. The organization was focused on marksmanship and hunting, not shooting down gun control.
What I find lacking in legal perspectives on history such as this is any mention of NRA core principles. What was the organization meant to do, and what did it do within its first 20 years?
Imagine instead of 1950s…go way back to when the federal military was telling emancipated Americans to take up marksmanship and hunting with rifles, to better protect themselves because in doing so they were helping to protect their federal government from regression and rebellion.
That’s more what was really going on when the letters NRA first were put together.
From the start the NRA was “a roster of Union commanders” who had just defeated angry white men trying to destroy the federal government. Training emancipated blacks with marksmanship was seen as not only viable but logical course for America to preserve civil rights won as well as maintain the country’s national security.
General Grant in 1968 did not even have to campaign for President, he was so popular. He just stated that the federal government needed to preserve sacrifices of the war (that he had decisively won) by protecting Americans from racist militias and by preventing former rebellious militants from retaking power.
Look at these 1868 choices for President and take a wild guess which side created the NRA.
After the hugely popular Grant dominated the Presidential election, where 80% of freemen voted, he set about to crush the white-supremacist platform against civil rights. Consider three years after election, in 1871, it was Union military and political voices who set about forming the NRA under Grant’s administration to better protect the federal government against armed militias.
This is why today it would be so awesome if anyone making TV shows about the dysfunction of today’s NRA would point out that the decorated “roster of Union commanders” probably are rolling in their grave because of what their federal defense concept has become.
Burnside was the first NRA president and it’s worth noting his father emancipated their slaves in the 1820s, as most of the world was ending slavery.
Also note Burnside was engaged his bride-to-be disappeared and later showed up serving as a spy to perpetuate slavery, engaged to 16 slaveholder rebellion soldiers at the same time (saying “it is so they die happy and if they live I don’t give a damn”). While trying to fool Burnside a second time he arrested her.
Just to be clear, the pro-slavery sister and mother of the woman he was engaged to were both arrested for carrying large amounts of opium and morphine. With her family arrested in the United States for drug smuggling, she then pretends to be British and…
It is certain that a lot of people have completely forgotten that during this crazy time of privileged whites using every dirty trick possible to deny blacks any rights, Grant successfully drove civil rights in America. Grant used a multi-pronged military and civilian strategy to promulgate freedom in the truest sense.
What made 1871 such a pivotal time for NRA establishment?
After Grant had won on the battlefield, with far superior strategic plans than the bumbling failure General Lee, Grant was thrust into helping establish civilian models for Americans to defend themselves against residual terror cells (e.g. KKK) that were prolonging the Civil War.
Paramilitary terror campaigns continued to threaten to undermine emancipation or federal government legitimacy, and Union Generals knew America needed to build broader national defense options than just military ones.
In other words, when talking about 1871 as a start date, and saying “the situation shifted” for rifles in America, it was because a pro-government organization was founded as a citizen defense project to improve marksmanship of black men and…called it the NRA.
This NRA story about an 1871 equivalent of Black Panther might seem crazy and out of the blue until you also recognize that a man named Jefferson Beauregard in 2016 was appointed to head the Department of Justice (DoJ). What I mean is, when you look around more generally we’ve come a very long way from where we were in 1871.
The DoJ was created in 1870 by President Grant to fight against the KKK, also known as…wait for it…Jefferson and Beauregard’s legacy.
In case that reference is unclear, Jefferson and Beauregard were the lead traitors in their pro-slavery aggression against their own country. So now look at the news in 2016 that a man named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was appointed to head the department created to defeat the men he was named after.
Even more to the point, in 1986 we hadn’t pivoted this far yet. There were newspaper headlines screaming about the man with a name intended to preserve painful memories of slavery and treason against his own country…calling him out as racist for saying the NAACP is “Un-American,” while calling Klansmen “Okay.”
Sessions is overtly the third generation with an absurdly un-American name. Can you see here the long game of the American white supremacist?
It sure seems very significant for the US to allow someone who calls a terrorist organization “Okay” to head the agency created to destroy that exact terrorist organization. This would be like Germany electing someone named Hitler Rommel Sessions III to be their Federal Minister of Justice.
In conclusion, I hope you see how the NRA of today has flipped 180 degrees from its origins of Union Generals aiming to help protect federal government by training black Americans to stop white supremacist militias from undoing civil rights and ruining the country.
It perhaps makes sense then that if the DoJ very openly becomes led by a third-generation family homage to pro-slavery anti-justice Jefferson and Beauregard…the NRA too now would be led by white supremacists who hate government (in fact the NRA flipped abruptly in a 1977 leadership coup called “Cincinnati Revolt” that arguably helped prop up South Africa’s apartheid government). However, neither event should define the entire meaning of these acronyms or obscure the true civil rights origins of both DoJ and NRA.