The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the assassinations of 1968 led the NRA to become the lobbying force it is today

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy greets crowds in Washington on April 3, 1968. (Steve Northup/The Washington Post)

The day after an assassin’s bullet crashed through Robert Kennedy’s skull, President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote a letter to Congress.

“Let us now spell out our grief in constructive action,” the president urged in a message on June 6, 1968. Johnson decried the availability of arms to the mentally ill. And he lamented “mail-order murder,” which had allowed Lee Harvey Oswald five years earlier to purchase a $19.95 rifle from a Chicago store and train its sights on Robert Kennedy’s brother John as he rode through Dallas in his presidential motorcade:

“So today, I call upon the Congress in the name of sanity, in the name of safety — and in the name of an aroused nation — to give America the Gun Control Law it needs,” Johnson wrote.

In private, the president spoke with still greater urgency, calling his aides into the White House.

“We have only two weeks, maybe only 10 days,” Joseph Califano, his chief assistant for domestic policy, recalled the president telling them. “We’ve got to beat the NRA into the offices of members of Congress.”

Johnson was practiced in the art of carving political advantage out of chaos. Five days after President John F. Kennedy’s death, he urged the “earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill” and got it seven months later. He used the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to push through the Fair Housing Act. Now, the death of the upstart young senator who had risen to be Johnson’s political rival presented another opportunity to advance his legislative agenda.

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But gun control was not a straightforward case of righting old injustices. It tapped into the social turmoil of the 1960s, exposing cultural and political divides that cut across class and race, and rural and urban ways of life, often pitting members of the same party against one another. It reached deep into the country’s historical fears of slave insurrections, as black activists sought their own right to bear arms. It stoked worries about rising crime rates, leading some to demand greater restrictions on weapons, while others sought safety by arming themselves. And it set the stage for the transformation of the National Rifle Association from a politically diverse group of sportsmen into a powerful lobby that would help dictate the terms of political debate for the following 50 years.

“1968 was a period of anxiety, with racial unrest and discord and rising crime framing the gun debate,” says Kyle Longley, the author of “LBJ’s 1968” and a professor of history and politics at Arizona State University. “All this resonates today.”

Former NRA president David Keene says that “it was the turning point,” producing the “most restrictive piece of Second Amendment legislation ever passed” and awakening concerns among gun owners that liberal politicians were trying to disarm them.

From sport to self-defense

Not since the 1930s had the federal government tried to control its citizens’ use of guns. The bloody rampages by outlaws such as Bonnie and Clyde and the henchmen of Al Capone prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to promote a “New Deal for Crime” and to sign legislation that imposed stiff taxes on sawed-off shotguns and other gangster weapons, and required gunmakers and sellers to register with the government.

The NRA, founded in 1871 by former Civil War officers who wanted to improve the shooting skills of recruits, endorsed the measure. “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” said then-President Karl Telford Frederick, an Olympic marksman. “I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

The ’60s changed all that.

A new generation of buyers sought guns for self-defense more than sport.

At the same time, John F. Kennedy’s assassination exposed the ease of acquiring high-powered weapons across state lines, spurring attempts at federal rather than state regulation.

The American Bar Association was unsure whether that would violate the Second Amendment. In 1965, its delegates invited the NRA’s executive vice president, Franklin Orth, to debate Joseph D. Tydings (D), Maryland’s junior senator and a hunter. Tydings’s argument — that such federal measures were neither unconstitutional nor overly restrictive — won them over by a vote of 184 to 26.

But nothing about the politics of gun control was simple, least of all its intersection with race relations.

In a July 1966 telephone conversation, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley complained to Johnson about the country’s descent into “lawlessness and disorder,” railing against King’s civil rights tactics and the rise in gang violence.

“You’ve got people out there, especially the nonwhites, are buying guns right and left. You got guns and rifles and pistols and everything else,” Daley said. “There’s no registration. There isn’t a damn thing.”

That August, a white student named Charles Whitman sprayed bullets from his perch in a campus clock tower in Johnson’s home state of Texas, killing more than a dozen people.

Across the country, in California, when the Black Panthers asserted their right to armed self-defense by carrying rifles into the statehouse, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the 1967 Mulford Act, banning open carry. “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” the Republican said.

The early months of 1968 brought political upheaval. After the New Hampshire primary — in which Richard M. Nixon dominated the Republican ticket and Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) exposed Democrats’ dismay over the Vietnam War by taking 42 percent of the vote — Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy: “It is now unmistakably clear that we can change these disastrous, divisive policies only by changing the men who are now making them.”

The embattled Johnson decided to end his reelection bid, devoting his remaining months in office to managing a country descending into disarray, with gang warfare, student uprisings and the slayings of King in April and then Robert Kennedy two months later.

Congress passed a crime bill the day Kennedy died, with provisions to prohibit interstate trade in handguns. It did not include a proposal Kennedy’s brother Edward had put forward months before to control rifles and shotguns. The same day, Johnson sent his letter to Congress appealing for further action.

Building momentum

Tydings, the senator from Maryland and a close ally of Robert Kennedy, saw a broader opportunity. As a hunter who said he “grew up in a duck blind” with his father, former senator Millard Tydings, the younger Tydings felt he had some credibility among gun buffs. Now he was willing to use it. On a sweltering Sunday morning, the day after Kennedy’s funeral, Tydings took his dead friend’s place on “Meet the Press.” It was time, he said, to register all guns and license their owners.

“A person who is an alcoholic, who has a record of conviction involved in riots or a felony, they shouldn’t be permitted to own a gun,” he told the TV audience.

The response was overwhelming, Joseph Tydings, 90, recalled in a recent interview. The NRA offices were picketed, and members of Congress inundated with pro-gun-control letters.

But the outrage waned quickly. The NRA began calling on its members to write to their representatives, with its president arguing that the rights of sportsmen “is in the greatest possible jeopardy.”

One senator said that his mail changed from 60 percent in favor of stronger gun-control laws in the week after Robert Kennedy’s death to 80 percent against two weeks later, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Even as public support was waning, Tydings appealed to the president. On June 19, his assistant placed a call to the White House, and the switchboard inadvertently put it through to Johnson while he was in a meeting.

Their exchange was brusque.

“I now think that there’s an opportunity with your leadership and for a historic breakthrough in this whole field . . . to do the whole job — that is to protect the people with gun registration and gun licensing,” Tydings implored, according to a transcript.

The president made it clear he had more pressing concerns.

But Tydings followed up with a letter. On June 24, Johnson, who was not happy with the crime bill he had just signed, wrote back. He was ready to join Tydings’s request for licensing and regulation. The president escalated his demands of Congress.

A watered-down bill

It proved to be a step too far.

Legislation soon bogged down in the Senate — sunk, Califano says, by Tydings’s refusal to compromise. The president, ever the pragmatist, grew impatient.

The many delays and defeats also reflected the turmoil of the times. Edward Kennedy, still mourning his brother, was absent from key votes. The Republicans whom Tydings won over didn’t compensate for the Southern Democrats who opposed him.

Senators postponed action until after a summer that erupted in further indications that authorities were losing control. Outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, police and National Guardsmen bludgeoned and tear-gassed antiwar protesters; inside, the Democratic Party itself was riven over Vietnam, with Johnson’s pro-war vice president, Hubert Humphrey, beating McCarthy to the nomination.

When Congress returned from recess, the Senate spent several days in debate before approving a watered-down bill that put a stop to interstate and mail-order sales of firearms and ammunition and limited their availability to minors. But there was no deal on licensing or registration.

The NRA was split. In the American Rifleman — the very magazine in which Oswald had spotted an ad for the rifle he used to kill President Kennedy — Orth gave the legislation grudging approval: “The measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

Others, who soon held sway, felt threatened. “The real goal was the confiscation of firearms,” Keene says today.

The growing political influence of the group was also raising questions. In October, the Justice Department requested that the FBI investigate the NRA’s lobbying activities, which some politicians complained overstepped its tax-exempt educational status.

Later that month, on Oct. 22, Califano stood in the Cabinet Room watching Johnson give “the angriest signing statement I can remember.” The president stared down at the lectern as he read, raising his head in anger as he lamented the security the bill did not provide to a country that now had “more firearms than families.”

“If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, and out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we just must have licensing,” Johnson read. “If the criminal with a gun is to be tracked down quickly, then we must have registration in this country.”

The president turned his anger on the NRA. “The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation,” he said, echoing the phrase he used four months earlier when Robert Kennedy was killed. “They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for the moment in an election year.”

The tide shifts

Johnson could not have anticipated how powerfully and how far beyond 1968 those voices would prevail. Nor could he have known how the United States’ arsenal of firearms would swell, with the per capita count roughly doubling to one gun per person today, or how the provisions of his weakened bill would be rolled back in years to come.

Two weeks after the signing, on Nov. 5, Nixon won the presidential election, crystallizing the anxieties of the times in his promise to restore law and order.

In December, FBI documents show, Orth registered the NRA as a lobbying group — a tacit acknowledgment of its recent work and future aims, as it moved swiftly to create a lobbying branch, one that would change politics for the next half-century.

The political potential of the gun lobby became clear in 1970 when Tydings made a bid for reelection.

The Maryland Democrat was considered a shoo-in, although signs of opposition began appearing on brightly colored pro-gun bumper stickers in rural areas. On Election Day, Keene, then a Nixon staffer, was following returns in the White House when somebody put a call through to see how things were going in Maryland.

The report back was astonishing. Tydings was heading to defeat.

“Outside of Baltimore City,” Keene recalled being told, “there were long lines of pickup trucks at polling places, with gun racks on the back.”

Archival materials were provided by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. Kyle Longley, author or “LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval” (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and Joseph D. Tydings and John W. Frece, authors of “My Life in Progressive Politics: Against the Grain” (Texas A&M University Press, 2018) also provided original sources.