The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NRA once believed in gun control and had a leader who pushed for it

Gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association are loud political lobbyists - until a mass shooting. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

In the early 1930s, with gangsters like John Dillinger mowing down his enemies with machine guns on the streets, Congress held hearings on a sweeping proposal to severely restrict firearm sales.

The testimony of one man — now all but forgotten — stood out.

“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” said Karl T. Frederick, according to a transcript of the hearings. “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

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Frederick’s words were notable then, and especially now, because of who he was: the president of the National Rifle Association.

Today, in the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, this time Parkland, Fla., it’s difficult to find any reference to Frederick on the NRA’s website, and it would be impossible to locate anyone connected with the organization who would say anything close to what Frederick did in confronting a crisis.

Investigators say that Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock had 12 rifles with bump stocks on the night he killed 58 people. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post, Photo: GEORGE FREY/The Washington Post)

These days, the NRA typically goes silent after a mass shooting, waiting for the shock and anger to recede. The organization had been silent on the shooting until Thursday, when NRA officials came out swinging in a coordinated series of speeches, statements and advertisements.

Why mass shootings rarely change the paralyzed politics of guns

Five years ago, days after Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Wayne LaPierre — the NRA’s current version of Frederick — said the problem was not too many guns but that more guns were needed in the nation’s schools to protect children from the next Adam Lanza. On Thursday, LaPierre blamed the media for hyping the issue.

“The NRA throughout its history had been moderate on the issue of guns,” said Adam Winkler, a University of California at Los Angeles law school professor and author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “The NRA doesn’t play that role anymore. But Karl Frederick represents that older vision of its view on guns.”

The NRA was founded in 1871 by Civil War veterans George Wood Wingate, a lawyer, and William Conant Church, a former New York Times reporter. (Chew on that irony for a moment.) Their primary concern was not gun rights or the Second Amendment. What was it?

“Their personal disgust for the average soldier’s marksmanship skills during the war drove them to create an organization that promoted rifle shooting on a scientific basis,” according to a thesis written by a Naval Postgraduate School student. “… The NRA started their charter with the promotion of marksmanship and organized shooting matches for training the New York National Guard.”

As an early leader of the NRA, Frederick was a perfect fit. He won three gold medals as an Olympic sharpshooter. He was a conservationist. Before joining the organization in 1931, Frederick fought to protect the Adirondacks and was president of the Camp Fire Club of America. The assistant attorney general once publicly called him “the best shot in America.”

But Frederick was by no means a pushover when it came to gun rights. Some of his rhetoric from back then is still echoed by the NRA.

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The effort to pass the National Firearms Act of 1934 is a case in point. Pushed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the original proposal called for registering, taxing and severely restricting access not just to machine guns and sawed off shotguns, but pistols as well. Frederick was willing to deal on the big guns, but not the small ones.

During the hearing, in arguing against fingerprinting gun owners, Frederick testified that “automobile owners are not fingerprinted and are, as a class, a much more criminal body, from the standpoint of percentage, than pistol licensees.”

The chairman of the committee: “Do you make that statement seriously?”

Frederick: “Yes, sir.”

The chairman: “That the ordinary man who owns and operates an automobile is more likely to be a criminal than the man who arms himself?”

Frederick: “I said pistol licensees, those who have gone to the trouble of securing a license to carry weapons, are a most law-abiding body, and the perpetration of a crime by such a licensee is almost unknown.”

Frederick was threading a very thin needle.

“I am just as much against the gangster as any man,” he told the committee.

But there was a but.

“I do not believe we should burn down the barn in order to destroy the rats,” he said, adding that he was not in favor of proposals “properly aimed at the crook” but that instead “reach the honest man” who wanted to protect his family and home.

“I think we should be careful,” he continued, “in considering the actual operation of regulatory measures to make sure that they do not hamstring the law-abiding citizen in his opposition to the crook.”

That sounds a lot like the “good guys with guns” argument that gun rights advocates use today — that if more law abiding citizens carried guns, exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms, they could defend themselves against mass shooters and other criminals.

‘Good guys with guns’: The loaded legacy of the UT Tower shooting

But Frederick didn’t exactly see it that way.

“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” he testified. “I seldom carry one.”

And he didn’t see the issue in constitutional terms. In his book, Winkler notes that Frederick once wrote that the issue of self-defense and guns “lies in an enlightened public sentiment and in intelligent legislative action” and that “it is not to be found in the Constitution.”

“I think Frederick represented what the mainstream views of Americans are on guns today,” Winkler said in an interview. “You have a right to bear arms, but there is also a place for reasonable regulations. That’s where most Americans are on this issue. But that’s not where the NRA is anymore.”

Most gun owners support restrictions. Why aren’t their voices heard?

The National Firearms Act of 1934 wound up with fewer restrictions on handguns while severely restricting and taxing machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.

Up until the 1970s, the NRA continued to work with the federal government on regulations, including after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, Congress passed a law curtailing mail-order guns and restricted felons, the mentally ill and drug abusers from purchasing firearms. The NRA successfully fought off a national registration of guns.

In the late 1970s, upset that the NRA leadership was giving any quarter on gun laws, a more conservative faction of the group took over, including LaPierre. Today’s NRA leaders — and fierce gun rights advocates — are not fond of looking back on previous generations of the NRA.

In 2011, someone posted excerpts from Winkler’s writings about Frederick on Guns & Ammo magazine’s online discussion forum. The subject line: “You aren’t supposed to know this … ”

The first reply came 14 minutes later: “So?”

The next reply was more philosophical.

“Then was then,” it said. “Now is now.”

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