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The Secret History of Gun Rights: How Lawmakers Armed the N.R.A.

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Long before the National Rifle Association tightened its grip on Congress, won over the Supreme Court and prescribed more guns as a solution to gun violence — before all that, Representative John D. Dingell Jr. had a plan.

First jotted on a yellow legal pad in 1975, it would transform the N.R.A. from a fusty club of sportsmen into a lobbying juggernaut that would enforce elected officials’ allegiance, derail legislation behind the scenes, redefine the legal landscape and deploy “all available resources at every level to influence the decision making process.”

“An organization with as many members, and as many potential resources, both financial and influential within its ranks, should not have to go 2d or 3d Class in a fight for survival,” Mr. Dingell wrote, advocating a new aggressive strategy. “It should go First Class.”

To understand the ascendancy of gun culture in America, the files of Mr. Dingell, a powerful Michigan Democrat who died in 2019, are a good place to start. That is because he was not just a politician — he simultaneously sat on the N.R.A.’s board of directors, positioning him to influence firearms policy as well as the private lobbying force responsible for shaping it.

And he was not alone. Mr. Dingell was one of at least nine senators and representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, with the same dual role over the last half-century — lawmaker-directors who helped the N.R.A. accumulate and exercise unrivaled power.

Their actions are documented in thousands of pages of records obtained by The New York Times, through a search of lawmakers’ official archives, the papers of other N.R.A. directors and court cases. The files, many of them only recently made public, reveal a secret history of how the nation got to where it is now.

Over decades, politics, money and ideology altered gun culture, reframed the Second Amendment to embrace ever broader gun rights and opened the door to relentless marketing driven by fear rather than sport. With more than 400 million firearms in civilian hands today and mass shootings now routine, Americans are bitterly divided over what the right to bear arms should mean.

The lawmakers, far from the stereotype of pliable politicians meekly accepting talking points from lobbyists, served as leaders of the N.R.A., often prodding it to action. At seemingly every hint of a legislative threat, they stepped up, the documents show, helping erect a firewall that impedes gun control today.

“Talk about being strategic people in a place to make things happen,” an N.R.A. executive gushed at a board meeting after Congress voted down gun restrictions following the 1999 Columbine shooting. “Thank you. Thank you.”

The fact that some members of Congress served on the N.R.A. board is not new. But much of what they did for the gun group, and how, was not publicly known.

Representative Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, sent confidential memos to the N.R.A. leader Wayne LaPierre, urging action against gun violence lawsuits. Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, chided fellow board members for failing to advance a bill that rolled back gun restrictions, and told them how to do it.

Republican Representative John M. Ashbrook of Ohio co-wrote a letter to the board describing “very subtle and complex” tactics to support “candidates friendly to our cause and actions to defeat or discipline those who are hostile.” Senator Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who was a key strategic partner for the N.R.A., flagged and scuttled a proposal to require the use of gun safety locks.

And then there was Mr. Dingell. In a private letter in October 1978, the N.R.A. president, Lloyd Mustin, said his “insights and guidance on the details of any gun-related matter pending in the Congress” were “uniformly successful.” Just as valuable, he said, was the congressman’s stealthy manipulation of the legislative process.

“These actions by him are often carefully obscured,” Mr. Mustin wrote, so they may “not be recognized or understood by the uninitiated observer.”

As chairman of the powerful House commerce committee, Mr. Dingell would send “Dingellgrams” — demands for information from federal agencies — drafted by the N.R.A. Other times, on learning of a lawmaker’s plan to introduce a bill, he would scribble a note to an aide saying, “Notify N.R.A.”

Beginning in the 1970s, he pushed the group to fund legal work that could help win court cases and enshrine policy protections. The impact would be far-reaching: Some of the earliest N.R.A.-backed scholars were later cited in the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia vs. Heller decision affirming an individual right to own a gun, as well as a ruling last year that established a new legal test invalidating many restrictions.

The files of Mr. Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress, were donated to the University of Michigan but remained off-limits for nearly eight years. They were only made available in May, five months after The Times began pressing for their release.

Mr. Barr, who has remained on the N.R.A. board since leaving government in 2003, said in an interview that he did not recall the memos he wrote to Mr. LaPierre, which were among the congressman’s papers at the University of West Georgia. But during his nearly six years in office while also a N.R.A. director, he said, the group “never approached me to do anything that I didn’t want to do or that I would not have done anyway.”

“I’m doing it as a member of Congress who also happens to be an N.R.A. board member,” Mr. Barr said.

N.R.A. manuals say its board has a “special trust” to ensure the organization’s success and to protect the Second Amendment “in the legislative and political arenas.” Under ethics rules, lawmakers may serve as unpaid directors of nonprofits, and the gun group is classified by the I.R.S. as a nonprofit “social welfare organization.” No current legislators serve on its board.

In 2004, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence objected to three Republican lawmakers then serving as unpaid N.R.A. directors: Mr. Craig and Representatives Don Young of Alaska and Barbara Cubin of Wyoming. The Brady organization argued that their fiduciary duty to the N.R.A. conflicted with their government roles.

“Here, the lobbyist and the lobbied are the same,” said the complaint. It was rejected by Senate and House ethics committees.

Mr. Dingell eventually left the N.R.A. board. The turning point was his support for a 1994 crime bill that included an assault weapons ban. In a terse resignation letter, he acknowledged a problem in serving as an elected official and a director — though he would continue to work closely with the group for years.

“I deeply regret,” Mr. Dingell wrote, “that the conflict between my responsibilities as a Member of Congress and my duties as a board member of the National Rifle Association is irreconcilable.”

John Dingell was comfortable with firearms at an early age: When not blasting ducks with a shotgun, he was plinking rats with an air gun in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, where he served as a page. They were pursuits he picked up from his father, a New Deal Democrat representing a House district in Detroit’s working-class suburbs, who enjoyed hunting and championed conservation causes.

After serving in the Army in World War II, the younger Mr. Dingell earned a law degree and worked as a prosecutor. He succeeded his father in 1955 at age 29. Nicknamed “the Truck” as much for his forceful personality as his 6-foot-3 frame, Mr. Dingell was an imposing presence in the House, where he became a Democratic Party favorite for pushing liberal causes like national health insurance.

Mr. Dingell recalled, in a 2016 interview, that he saw President John F. Kennedy “fairly frequently” at the White House and generally “traveled the same philosophical path.”

“Except on firearms,” he added.

In December 1963, just weeks after Mr. Kennedy was murdered with a rifle bought through an N.R.A. magazine ad, Mr. Dingell complained at a hearing about “a growing prejudice against firearms” and defended buying guns through the mail. His advocacy made him popular with the N.R.A., and by 1968 he had joined at least one other member of Congress on its board.

Historically, the N.R.A.’s opposition to firearms laws was tempered. Founded in 1871 by two Union Army veterans — a lawyer and a former New York Times correspondent — the association promoted rifle training and marksmanship. It did not actively challenge the Supreme Court’s view, stated in 1939, that the Second Amendment’s protection of gun ownership applied to membership in a “well regulated Militia” rather than an individual right unconnected to the common defense.

During the 1960s, public outrage over political assassinations and street violence led to calls for stronger laws, culminating in the Gun Control Act, the most significant firearms bill since the 1930s. The law would restrict interstate sales, require serial numbers on firearms and make addiction or mental illness potential disqualifiers for ownership. The N.R.A. was divided, with a top official complaining about parts of the bill while also saying it was something “the sportsmen of America can live with.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted the bill to be even stronger, requiring gun registration and licensing, and angrily blamed an N.R.A. letter-writing campaign for weakening it. The Justice Department briefly investigated whether the group had lobbied without registering, and in F.B.I. interviews, N.R.A. officials “pointed out” that members of Congress sat on its board, as if that defused any lobbying concerns. (The case was closed when the N.R.A. agreed to register.)

The debate over the Gun Control Act agitated Mr. Dingell, his files show. He asked the Library of Congress to research Nazi-era gun confiscations in Germany to help prove that regulating firearms was a slippery slope. He considered investigating NBC News for a gun rights segment he viewed as one-sided. At an N.R.A. meeting, he railed about a “patriotic duty” to oppose the “ultimate disarming of the law-abiding citizen.”

As Mr. Johnson prepared to sign the act in fall 1968, Mr. Dingell was convinced that gun ownership faced an existential threat and wrote to an N.R.A. executive suggesting a bold strategy.

The group, he said, must “begin moving toward a legislative program” to codify an individual’s right to bear arms “for sporting and defense purposes.” It was a major departure from the Supreme Court’s sparse record on Second Amendment issues up to that point. The move would neutralize arguments for tighter gun restrictions in Congress and all 50 states, he said.

“By being bottomed on the federal constitutional right to bear arms,” he wrote, “these same minimal requirements must be imposed upon state statutes and local ordinances.”

Mr. Dingell’s legislative acumen proved indispensable to the gun lobby.

The 1972 Consumer Products Safety Act, designed to protect Americans from defective products, might have reduced firearms accidents that killed or injured thousands each year. But the N.R.A. viewed it as a backdoor to gun control, and Mr. Dingell slipped in an amendment to the new law, exempting from regulatory oversight items taxed under “section 4181 of the Internal Revenue Code” — which only covers firearms and ammunition.

While Mr. Dingell’s office was publicly boasting in 1974 of his bill to restrict “Saturday night specials,” cheap handguns often used in crimes, C.R. Gutermuth, then the N.R.A.’s president, confided in a private letter that the congressman had only introduced it to “effectively prevent” stronger bills. “Obviously, this comes under the heading of legislative maneuvering and strategy,” he wrote.

Still, the public generally favored stricter limits. After a 3-year-old Baltimore boy accidentally killed a 7-year-old friend with an unsecured handgun, a constituent wrote to Mr. Dingell asking, “How long is it going to be before Congress takes effective action?” He instructed an aide to “not answer.”

When the N.R.A. board met in March 1974, Mr. Gutermuth reported that “Congressman Dingell and some of our other good friends on The Hill keep telling us that we soon will have another rugged firearms battle on our hands.” Yet he expressed dismay that N.R.A. staff had not come up with a “concrete proposal” to fend it off.

Mr. Dingell had an idea.

In memos to the board, he complained of the N.R.A.’s “leisurely response to the legislative threat” and proposed a new lobbying operation. Handwritten notes reflect just how radical his plans were. He initially said the group, which traditionally stayed out of political races, would “not endorse candidates for public office” — only to cross that out with his pen; the N.R.A. would indeed start doing that, through a newly created Political Victory Fund.

The organization’s old guard, whose focus continued to be largely on hunting and sports shooting, was uncomfortable. Mr. Gutermuth, a conservationist with little political experience, wrote to a colleague that Mr. Dingell “wants an all out action program that goes way beyond what we think we dare sponsor.”

“John seems to think that we should become involved in partisan politics,” he said.

Mr. Dingell got his way. A 33-page document — “Plan for the Organization, Operation and Support of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action” — was wide-ranging. The proposal, largely written by Mr. Dingell, called for an unprecedented national lobbying push supported by grass-roots fund-raising, a media operation and opposition research.

It would “maintain files for each member of Congress and key members of the executive branch, relative to N.R.A. legislative interests,” and “using computerized data, bring influence to bear on elected officials.” The plan reflected Mr. Dingell’s savvy as a lawmaker: “For greatest effectiveness and economy, whenever possible, influence legislation at the lowest level of the legislative structure and at the earliest time.”

Walt Sanders, a former legislative director for Mr. Dingell, said the congressman viewed the N.R.A. as useful to his goal of protecting and expanding gun rights, particularly by heading off efforts to impose new restrictions.

“He believed very strongly that he could affect gun control legislation as a senior member of Congress and use the resources of the N.R.A. as leverage,” Mr. Sanders said.

The changes mirrored an increasingly uncompromising outlook within the N.R.A. membership. In what became known as the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” a group of hard-liners seized control of the group at its 1977 convention.

The coup drew inspiration from Mr. Dingell, who a month before had circulated a blistering attack on the incumbent leadership. He was revered by many members, who saw little distinction between his roles as a lawmaker and an N.R.A. director, and would write letters praising his fight on their behalf against “gun-grabbers.”

In his responses, he would sometimes correct the impression that he represented the N.R.A. in Congress.

“I try to keep my responsibilities in the two capacities separate so that there is no basic conflict,” he wrote to one constituent.

When gunshots claimed the life of John Lennon in December 1980 and nearly killed President Ronald Reagan a few months later, the N.R.A. readied itself for a familiar battle. Its officials, meeting in May 1981, grumbled that their “priorities, plans and activities have necessarily been altered.”

But remarkably, no new gun restrictions made it through Congress.

The group saw the failure of gun control efforts to gain traction as a validation of its new agenda and a sign that, with Reagan’s election, there was “a new mood in the country.” The N.R.A. and its congressional allies seized the moment, eventually pushing through the most significant pro-gun bill in history, the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, which rolled back elements of the Gun Control Act.

The bill — largely written by Mr. Dingell but sponsored by Representative Harold L. Volkmer, a Missouri Democrat who would later join the N.R.A. board — was opposed by police groups. It lifted some restrictions on gun shows, sales of mail-order ammunition and the interstate transport of firearms.

The N.R.A. also went ahead with Mr. Dingell’s plans “to develop a legal climate that would preclude, or at least inhibit, serious consideration of many anti-gun proposals.” A strategy document from April 1983 laid out the long-term goal: “When a gun control case finally reaches the Supreme Court, we want Justices’ secretaries to find an existing background of law review articles and lower court cases espousing individual rights.”

The document listed several scholars the N.R.A. was supporting. Decades later, their work would be cited in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 decision in Heller, affirming gun ownership as an individual right. And it would surface in last year’s New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen ruling, which established a right to carry a firearm in public and a novel legal test weakening gun control efforts — prompting lower courts to invalidate restrictions on ownership by domestic abusers and on guns with serial numbers removed.

Key to those victories were appointments of conservative justices by N.R.A.-backed Republican presidents. By the time Antonin Scalia — author of the Heller opinion — was nominated by Reagan in 1986, the joke was that the “R” in N.R.A. stood for Republican, and internal documents from that era are laced with partisan rhetoric.

A 1983 report by a committee of N.R.A. members identified the perceived enemy as liberal elites: “college educated, intellectual, political, educational, legal, religious and also to some extent the business and financial leadership of the country,” inordinately affected by the assassinations of “men they admired” in the 1960s.

Lawmakers joining the board during that time — Mr. Ashbrook, Mr. Craig and Mr. Stevens — were all Republicans. Mr. Craig, a conservative gun enthusiast raised in a ranching family, would become “probably the most important” point person for the N.R.A. in Congress after Mr. Dingell, said David Keene, a longtime board member and former N.R.A. president.

“He was actually like having one of your own guys there,” Mr. Keene said in an interview.

He added, however, that a legislator need not have been a board member to be supportive of the group’s ambitions.

Mr. Craig did not respond to requests for comment, and Mr. Ashbrook and Mr. Stevens are dead. The N.R.A. did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Dingell, under increasing pressure as a pro-gun Democrat, faced a reckoning of sorts in 1994, when Congress took up an anti-crime bill that would ban certain semiautomatic rifles classified as assault weapons. He opposed the ban but favored the rest of the legislation.

A year earlier, he had angered fellow Democrats by voting against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which imposed a background check requirement. This time, after intense lobbying that included urgent calls from President Bill Clinton, Mr. Dingell lent crucial support for the new legislation — and resigned from the N.R.A. board.

His wife, Representative Debbie Dingell, a proponent of stronger gun laws who now occupies his old House seat, said her husband faced a backlash from pro-gun extremists that left him deeply disturbed.

“He had to have police protection for several months,” Ms. Dingell said in an interview. “We had people scream and yell at us. It was the first time I had seen that real hate.”

Despite voting for the ban, Mr. Dingell almost immediately explored getting it overturned. Notes from 1995 show his staff weighing support for a repeal proposal, conceding that “a solid explanation will have to be made to the majority of our voters who favor gun control.”

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were too young to legally purchase a firearm, so in November 1998 they enlisted an 18-year-old friend to visit a gun show in Colorado and buy them two shotguns and a rifle. Five months later, they used the weapons, along with an illegally obtained handgun, to kill 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School.

The massacre was a turning point for a country not yet numbed to mass shootings and for the N.R.A., criticized for pressing ahead about a week later with plans for its convention just miles from Columbine. That sort of response would be repeated years later, after a teenager killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and the N.R.A. went on with its convention in the state shortly afterward.

After Columbine, the organization mobilized against a renewed push for gun control. It had a new lawmaker-director to help: Mr. Barr, who had joined the board in 1997.

A staunchly conservative lawyer with a libertarian bent, Mr. Barr was among the House Republicans to lead the impeachment of Mr. Clinton. He served on the Judiciary Committee, which has major sway over gun legislation, and proved an eager addition to the N.R.A. leadership.

Mr. Barr wrote to another director with a standing offer to use his Capitol Hill office to ensure that any “information you have is cranked into the legislative equation.” Mr. Barr’s chief of staff sent the congressman a memo saying the gun group wanted him to review the agenda for a meeting on the “upcoming legislative session” and “make any changes or additions.”

The post-Columbine legislative battle centered on a bill to extend three-day background checks to private sales at gun shows, something the N.R.A. vigorously opposed, saying most weekend shows ended before a check could be completed. In the Senate, Mr. Craig engineered an amendment softening the impact, and Mr. Barr worked the House, earning them praise at an N.R.A. board meeting as “two people that put our best foot forward.”

The N.R.A. also turned to an old hand: Mr. Dingell.

Together, they came up with another amendment that narrowed the gun shows affected and required background checks to be completed in 24 hours or else the sale would go through. Publicly, Mr. Dingell argued that the shortened time window was reasonable.

But his papers include notes explaining that while most background checks are done quickly, some take up to three days because the buyer “has been charged with a crime” and court records are needed. Gun shows mostly happen on weekends, when courthouses “are, of course, closed.”

“It is becoming increasingly tougher to make our case that 24 hours is indeed enough time to do the check,” a member of Mr. Dingell’s staff wrote to an N.R.A. lobbyist.

Nevertheless, Mr. Dingell succeeded in amending the bill. He tried to win over his fellow Democrats with a baldly partisan message: “We’re doing this so that we can become the majority again. Very simply, we need Democrats who can carry the districts where these matters are voting issues.”

But his colleagues pulled their support. Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who fought for the stronger bill, said she believed Mr. Dingell was “trying to make progress, and had, he felt, some credibility with the N.R.A. that might allow him to do that.”

“Even though what he wanted to do was far from what I wanted to do,” she said.

At the N.R.A., the collapse of the bill was seen as a victory. An internal report cited Mr. Dingell’s “masterful leadership.” A year later the group honored him with a “legislative achievement award.”

Despite the victories, Mr. Barr saw bigger problems ahead. In memos to Mr. LaPierre in late 1999, he warned that the “entire debate on firearms has shifted” and advised holding “an “issues summit.”

Specifically, he pointed to civil lawsuits seeking to hold the firearms industry liable for making and marketing guns used in violent crimes. Gun control advocates saw them as a way around the political stalemate in Washington — Smith & Wesson, for instance, chose to voluntarily adopt new standards to safeguard children and deter theft.

Mr. Barr had introduced a bill that would protect gun companies from such lawsuits, but lamented that “I have received absolutely zero interest, much less support, from the firearms industry.”

“We can help the industry through our efforts here in the Congress,” he wrote.

Mr. Craig took up the issue in the Senate, drafting legislation that mirrored Mr. Barr’s House bill. After Mr. Barr lost re-election in 2002, a new version of his liability law was sponsored by others, with N.R.A. guidance. To draw support from moderates, an incentive was added mandating that child safety locks be included when a handgun is sold, but N.R.A. talking points assured allies that the provision “does not require any gun owner to actually use the device.”

The political climate shifted enough under President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress that the assault weapons ban of 1994, which had a 10-year limit, was allowed to sunset, and the gun industry’s liability shield finally passed in 2005. The twin developments helped turbocharge the firearms market.

The private equity firm Cerberus Capital soon began buying up makers of AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and aggressively marketing them as manhood-affirming accessories, part of a sweeping change in the way military-style weapons were pitched to the public. The number of AR-15-type rifles produced and imported annually would skyrocket from 400,000 in 2006 to 2.8 million by 2020.

Asked about his early role in pressing the N.R.A. for help with the liability law, Mr. Barr said he believed the legal threat was significant enough “that the Congress step in.”

“The rights that are front and center for the N.R.A., the Second Amendment, are very much under attack and need to be defended,” Mr. Barr said. “And I defended them both as a member of Congress in that capacity and in my private capacity as a member of the N.R.A. board.”

With each new mass shooting in the 2000s, pressure built on Congress to act, and the politics of gun rights became more polarized.

The N.R.A. lost another of its directors in Congress — Mr. Craig was arrested for lewd conduct in an airport men’s room and chose not to run again in 2008. But by then, the group’s aggressive use of campaign donations and candidate “report cards” had achieved a virtual lock on Republican caucuses.

That left Mr. Dingell increasingly marginalized in the gun debate. For a time, his connections were useful to Democrats; in 2007, after the shooting deaths of 32 people at Virginia Tech, he helped secure N.R.A. support to strengthen the collection of mental health records for background checks.

But by December 2012, when Adam Lanza, 20, shot to death 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, any vestige of good will between the N.R.A. and Democrats was gone. When House Democrats created a Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, they included the 86-year-old Mr. Dingell as one of 11 vice chairs, but his input was limited.

Notes from a task force meeting in January 2013 show that when it was Mr. Dingell’s turn to speak, he joked that he was the “skunk at the picnic” who had set up the N.R.A.’s lobbying operation — the “reason it’s so good.” He went on to underscore the rights of hunters and defend the N.R.A., saying it was “not the Devil.”

A few days earlier, he had privately conferred with N.R.A. representatives. Handwritten notes show that they discussed congressional support for new restrictions and the N.R.A.’s desire to delay legislation:

“Need to buy time to put together package can vote for, and get support, also for sensitivities to die down,” the notes said.

Three months later, a bipartisan gun control proposal failed after implacable resistance from the N.R.A. It was not until June 2022, after the Uvalde shooting, that a major firearms bill was passed — the first in almost 30 years. The legislation, which had minimal Republican support and fell far short of what Democrats had sought, required more private gun sellers to obtain licenses and perform background checks, and funded state “red flag” laws allowing the police to seize firearms from dangerous people.

By the time Mr. Dingell retired from the House in 2015, his views on gun policy had evolved, according to his wife, who said he no longer trusted the N.R.A.

“I can’t tell you how many nights I heard him talking to people about how the N.R.A. was going too far, how they didn’t understand the times,” Ms. Dingell said. “He was a deep believer in the Second Amendment, and at the end he still deeply believed, but he also saw the world was changing.”

In June 2016, after 49 people were killed in a mass shooting at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, Ms. Dingell joined fellow Democrats in occupying the House floor as a protest. When she gave a speech, in the middle of the night, she broached the difference of opinion on guns she had with her husband.

“You all know how much I love John Dingell. He’s the most important thing in my life,” she said. “And yet for 35 years, there’s been a source of tension between the two of us.”

Mr. Dingell, too, briefly addressed that tension in a memoir published shortly before he died. He recalled that as he watched a recording of his wife’s speech the following morning, “I thought about all the votes I’d taken, all the bills I’d supported,” and “whether the gun debate had gotten too polarized.”

“As Debbie had said with such passion the night before, ‘Can’t we have a discussion?’” he wrote. “And I thought about the role I know I played in contributing to that polarization.”

Julie Tate contributed research.

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