Supporters of gun control often characterize the National Rifle Association as a permanent obstacle to sensible reform. Many believe that the group will do anything in its power to keep pushing firearms into a free-for-all marketplace.
But there may be a way to short-circuit the NRA’s grasp on Congress: It involves dislodging the current hard-line leadership with a palace coup — a reverse-replay of the same tactic that brought the guns-above-all wing of the organization into power less than 40 years ago.
The NRA has historically been a far more benign organization, mostly concerned with sport hunting, safety and marksmanship contests. In fact, it had been co-founded immediately after the Civil War by a reporter from the New York Times, ex-Union Army lieutenant colonel William Conant Church, who had been worried about the poor aim of the troops under his command.
In 1934 the NRA’s president testified before Congress: “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” As historian Adam Winkler has noted, the group almost never discussed the Second Amendment in any of its official literature, let alone in its currently strident terms. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the group even favored the end of mail-order rifle sales.
But anxiety about urban crime in the 1970s, combined with gun restrictions enacted out of alarm at the Black Power movement, convinced a subsection of the NRA to make a radical shift in focus. They arrived at the annual meeting on May 21, 1977, at the Cincinnati Convention Center wearing orange hunting caps and, in a parliamentary procedural duel lasting until 4 a.m., ousted the gun-conservative “Old Guard” from the board.
The insurgents scrapped a plan to move the NRA headquarters from Washington to Colorado Springs, and later built a fortress office in Fairfax, Va. A new executive vice president named Harlon Carter, a Texan with an intolerance for dissent, summed up the new philosophy: “We can win it on a simple concept — no compromise. No gun legislation.” The following year, an ambitious young lobbyist named Wayne LaPierre came on board and made intimidation a business strategy. Today he is executive vice president.
The NRA loves to use the phrase “responsible gun owners” to distinguish their membership from criminals, and indeed, polls from the Pew Research Center show that 74 percent of the membership supports universal background checks. The power of the hard-liners is only reinforced by those members passionate enough to actually show up to NRA conventions and vote in its customarily pro-forma elections.
What’s needed now is for this level-headed majority lurking within the NRA to take over the 76-member board by political force — an exact reversal of what happened to the NRA in Cincinnati.
Any NRA member may put himself or herself forward on the ballot by gathering 250 signatures on a petition. The four-decade reign of darkness that has cost hundreds of thousands of American lives could be put to an end on May 21, 2016, at the next convention in Louisville, Ky.
The leadership is aware that such a move is possible and has acted to squelch challenges through its nominating committee, which endorses its preferred candidates for the board. But an informed rump caucus can still put its candidates forward to a floor vote. All it would take is enough moderates who have grown disgusted with the current regime to make the trip to Kentucky. The annual membership meeting tends to be attended by very few of the actual members, and — even if a coup fails — a vigorous discussion might force some concessions and give hope to those who see the NRA as unbreakable.
There’s another reason for a royal Restoration beyond saving lives, and it has to do with the preservation of the NRA as a legitimate body. Its current path is both reckless and unsustainable. It supports policies that benefit criminals. It gives all gun owners a disreputable name and lumps them in with the zealots.
Should an internal coup be successful, there would, of course, be an immediate regrouping. It’s entirely possible that extremists would form a brand-new organization dedicated to the same bullying tactics or would join already-existing fringe groups. But it would also disrupt the gun rights bloc, which has for too long covered up a long-simmering ideological divide between those who recognize the need for sane regulations and safety precautions and those who cry apocalypse at the slightest twinge of government movement.
Honor and prudence must be restored to gun ownership in the United States before the private ownership of firearms becomes even more disreputable. Instead of continuing its deadly obstructionism, the NRA can purge itself of its Gucci-clad fanatics and practice some genuine leadership.