The National Rifle Association (NRA) is an organization at the center of America’s discussion about all things firearms. The 150-year-old organization was not always in the public consciousness; it started with the simple goal of teaching rifle shooting on a scientific basis.
The NRA began to transition to the political sphere in the 1930s, and by the 1970s, it took shape as the activist organization we recognize today. Currently, the NRA faces lawsuits from government agencies and former vendors for mismanagement of funds.
In the news, it would seem the NRA has come a long way from its original purpose, but the organization still provides education, competition, and firearm training to members. The history of the NRA is not as simple as any headline would make you believe, so it’s worth a deeper dive.
The NRA Origin and Early Years
On November 17th, 1871, the NRA was formed by a pair of Civil War veterans named William Church and George Wingate. The two men found the widespread lack of rifle training in the Union army in need of remedy. While they first lobbied for the National Guard to take up the responsibility of forming a rifle training program, they eventually decided a private organization was the right path.
Church and Wingate found inspiration for a private rifle club across the pond in Britain, where Britain’s National Rifle Association had enjoyed prosperity and success in training firearm etiquette. Like Britain’s club, America’s NRA taught firearm safety and hosted marksman tournaments.
Marksman competitions grew in popularity and are still hugely popular today. From youth shooting sports events to the annual National Matches that bring in 6,000 plus competitors, the competitive tradition has been a throughline in the NRA. Many members train year-round with printable targets, so they are ready for the American tradition of a marksman competition.
Entering the Political Sphere
If you only knew about the NRA in the past 40 years, you might believe they were always a politically active organization. They only started to engage with political matters around the 1930s. In these early years of political engagement, the NRA worked with the government to create anti-gang gun laws.
In 1934 the NRA helped write the National Firearms Act, which required registration for machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and other paraphernalia associated with gang violence. The NRA successfully kept handguns from any registration requirement.
Around this time, the NRA sent informative pamphlets to its members about legislative facts regarding firearm policy. While the NRA increasingly became more politically involved, the main focus was on marksmanship, competition, and hunting.
In 1935 the organization opened the NRA museum, which still operates today in Virginia.
The NRA and the Second Amendment
In the 1970s, a change in NRA leadership refocused the organization on defending the rights guaranteed to Americans under the Second Amendment. The new guard of the NRA took a proactive approach to political advocacy and formed the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA).
The ILA dedicates its efforts to lobbying politicians in favor of expanding gun rights and opposing gun restrictions. The ideological and constitutional base for their lobbying comes from a contested interpretation of the Second Amendment.
The opinion of the NRA is that the Second Amendment guarantees the purchase, possession, and use of firearms by law-abiding citizens.
The NRA gives grades to legislators and politicians based on how closely they adhere to the NRA’s interpretation of the second amendment. These public grades inform voters of Second Amendment voting concerns. The increased concern about civil liberties saw NRA membership grow considerably over the next four decades.
Notable members of the NRA from the 1970s to the 2010s included Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Chuck Norris, among many more. NRA members must pay dues, but they offer an NRA membership discount of $25 or more for longer memberships. Members receive benefits like free admission to gun shows and subscriptions to their magazines.
The NRA’s Current Controversies
While there has been opposition to the NRA from gun control advocates for the past 60 years, there have recently been internal mismanagement legal battles. The NRA Foundation, a charitable arm of the NRA, is currently being sued by the New York Attorney General for misusing charitable funds for inappropriate expenses.
Another lawsuit based in Arizona alleges the NRA committed campaign finance fraud. The NRA denies the claims in these lawsuits and considers them baseless. The organization views these legal attacks as an effort against them because they defend the second amendment.
Regardless of the outcome of the legal battles, the NRA is experiencing board member resignations, with some citing a lack of leadership as their reason for leaving.
Reconnecting with the NRA’s Purpose
Despite the controversy and the ILA’s focus on political engagement, the NRA has remained true to the organization’s original purpose. The NRA, the Friends of the NRA, and other related organizations continue to hold gun sports events throughout the nation. The NRA educates over one million students a year on everything from securing a firearm in a holster to operating a muzzle-loading shotgun.
The NRA is still the primary resource for firearm training in America. The organization now offers blended courses, like the NRA basic pistol course, which combines online instruction and in-person evaluation. The NRA also works with our armed forces and police to provide continuing firearm education.
The organization created the first hunters’ education program in New York and continues to educate new and seasoned hunters on firearm safety. The Youth Hunter Education Course has provided 1.2 million young hunters entrance into the world of hunting and firearm safety.
Looking to the Future
The NRA has provided essential firearm training and education to the American people for over 150 years. While it is currently steeped in legal battles over questionable fund allocations, the NRA provides educational and training resources.
Firearm safety and education must continue in America, so the NRA’s throughline of education and marksmanship is likely to continue serving firearms enthusiasts across the nation.
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