The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History shows the push for gun control faces long odds

Gun rights groups have overwhelmed public opinion for decades

An attendee tries out a gun on display at the National Rifle Association's annual convention in Houston on May 29. (Callaghan O'hare/Reuters)
8 min

In the wake of the deadly elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., many Americans are once again calling for stricter gun regulation. At an emotional news conference, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr questioned the integrity of senators blocking a vote on HR 8, a background-check measure supported by 90 percent of Americans. Many critics have pointed to the National Rifle Association’s large donations to prominent Republicans as the primary cause of the Senate stonewalling HR 8 and other overwhelmingly popular gun laws.

But understanding the NRA’s influence requires looking beyond spending. For more than a century, the organization’s war against gun control has included everything from legislative campaigns to lawsuits and judicial activism to even casting aspersion on the expertise of everyone from public opinion pollsters to epidemiologists. These varied efforts have enabled the NRA to override popular opinion and scholarly consensus to bend firearms policy in its favor.

Completely obstructing firearm regulations has not always been the NRA’s objective. Instead, up until the late 20th century, it focused on limiting legislation’s impact on “law-abiding citizen” gun owners. This legal agenda was first elaborated in 1911 by Olympic sharpshooter and Harvard-trained lawyer Karl T. Frederick in response to New York’s Sullivan Act requiring licenses for concealable firearms (which the Supreme Court probably may overturn in June).

Frederick himself did not believe in the “general promiscuous toting of guns” and did not oppose all licensing. Yet, when he rose to be president of the NRA in the 1930s, he lobbied to exempt handguns and pistols from the “burdensome” permitting requirements proposed in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal for Crime.”

Prominent organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, supported handgun licensing. But Frederick’s D.C. negotiations and a flood of angry telegrams from NRA members swayed Congress. When a last-minute draft bill exempting handguns emerged, it stunned many observers. A representative of the women’s clubs declared, “If a million riflemen can get the feature (handguns and pistols) taken out, two million club women can have it put back in.”

This proved to be untrue, and the first federal gun law, the National Firearms Act (NFA), passed in 1934 without handgun registration.

When Congress drafted the NFA, it was difficult to ascertain exactly how many Americans supported gun registration. But four years later, utilizing the new method of scientific sampling, a Gallup poll found that 79 percent of respondents supported the inclusion of handgun registration in a proposed federal gun law expansion. Nevertheless, lawmakers again excluded the measure from the 1938 Federal Firearms Act.

In the decades since, polls have consistently shown that a majority approve of firearm safety measures. But, in a mismatch that scholars have dubbed the “gun control paradox,” Congress has ignored these public preferences. A communications scientist, Hazel Erskine, wrote in 1972, “It is difficult to imagine any other issue on which Congress has been less responsive to public sentiment for a longer period of time.”

One reason for this mismatch may be the NRA’s aggressive attempts to impugn the polls and the pollsters themselves. In 1959, Gallup reported that 14,000 Americans died each year as a result of gun violence. Their polling showed approval of gun permitting at 75 percent overall and 68 percent for gun owners. NRA members quickly wrote to newspapers attacking the validity of this information.

At the organizational level, the NRA published an article in its house magazine, the American Rifleman, dubbing the survey propaganda and evidence of the public’s ignorance. Behind the scenes, the NRA leadership sought to have the ethics committee of the American Psychological Association investigate George Gallup.

The NRA began conducting its own polls in the 1970s to counter what it claimed was bias from mainstream pollsters, the Johnson administration and gun control advocacy groups. Scholarly analysis of NRA data found it similar to that of other polls — but the NRA’s interpretations of data were dubious.

The organization once again had succeeded in excluding a gun registration clause from the 1968 Gun Control Act, but in the 1970s, a new, more hard-line generation of NRA members sought to go further in fighting firearm regulation. They established a formal lobbying arm in 1975.

This shift came at a time when the Republican Party was increasingly rejecting gun control and adopting extremist gun rights views once the preserve of the far right. Since this period, the NRA and the Republican Party have been deeply intertwined.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the NRA began promulgating a rare and extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment as guaranteeing an individual right to armed self-defense. To that point, courts had overwhelmingly held the Second Amendment to apply narrowly to militias. But a handful of NRA-affiliated lawyers began to flood law journals with articles espousing an individual right. Through a web of mutual citation, the authors created the false impression of wide support for their scholarship.

In the 1990s, riding a wave of public support, the Clinton administration overcame NRA opposition to pass several new gun regulations. The Brady Bill had the backing of President Ronald Reagan, who had been severely injured in an assassination attempt. And the Violence Against Women Act and the Assault Weapons Ban were understood by many as components of a law-and-order approach to curbing high rates of violent crime.

But the NRA lobbied successfully to eliminate certain proposed components of these laws and crucially secured sunset provisions that allowed it to kill the Assault Weapons Ban a decade later.

After the passage of President Bill Clinton’s gun laws, and amid mounting lawsuits against gun manufacturers, the NRA — which ostensibly represents gun owners, not gun manufacturers — began borrowing strategies from the tobacco, oil and chemical industries.

During appropriations hearings in 1996, House Republicans argued that public health research on gun violence duplicated existing executive branch efforts, and questioned why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would research injuries of any sort, since they weren’t “diseases.”

In the end, the NRA’s self-described “point-man,” Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), introduced an amendment prohibiting federal funding for research that might “advocate or promote gun control.” The amendment led to a dramatic decline in studies of gun violence and Dickey came to regret that his actions may have impeded lifesaving research. But by then, the anti-public health stance was firmly entrenched in the Republican Party.

The reduction in research on guns has enabled the NRA and Republicans to skew blame for an emerging epidemic of school shootings that escalated with the 1999 Columbine attack toward violent media, dangerous youths, mental illness or cultural decline, and to emphasize policing and target hardening as remedies. The primary federal response to the Columbine attack was to provide grants for school resource officers (SROs). Little data supported the measure — local police and an SRO had not prevented or disrupted the attack at Columbine — and not much has emerged in the years since. A Washington Post analysis found only two instances between 1999 and 2018 in which an SRO had taken down an active shooter with return fire. Recent studies suggest SROs may do more harm than good.

Despite Republican arguments, the public has still tended to respond to mass school shootings with calls for gun regulation, but their words have not translated into significant policy change. A study found that in the year-long “policy window” after a mass shooting, states saw a 15 percent increase in the number of firearm-related bills introduced. However, the bulk of those bills were Republican-written laws to loosen gun restrictions. So ingrained are pro-gun views within the GOP that it has become an article of faith that armed bystanders can disrupt mass attacks.

Reflecting the success of pro-gun forces, the NRA also pushed through a ban on lawsuits against gun manufacturers in 2005.

In 2008, the Supreme Court adopted the NRA’s individual rights view of the Second Amendment in Heller v. District of Columbia, easing passage of once-extreme gun rights laws. Following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Republicans in the state passed a law allowing for teachers and volunteers to carry guns in schools.

However, at the same time, the student protest movement that emerged after the Parkland shooting pressured federal lawmakers into an official “clarification” that opened the door to federally funded gun violence prevention research after a two decade freeze. Under pressure, Florida Republicans also enacted some new gun restrictions.

The invigorated environment of injury prevention research and activism, coupled with the growing disillusionment with gun rights-allied Republicans’ obstructionism and ineffective policing, may mean that gun-control groups will finally match the offensive of gun rights groups such as the NRA. But a century of history suggests an uphill battle.