The first gun control organization in the United States was formed after the Civil War by white Southerners bothered by the fact that enslaved people were now free, entitled to vote, and arming themselves to defend that freedom. The group called itself the Ku Klux Klan and organized for the first time in 1866. They were often made up of local leaders like sheriffs and judges, and would use the force of law to disarm Black communities before rampaging through them.
“Before these midnight marauders made attacks upon peaceful citizens, there were very many instances in the South where the sheriff of the county had preceded them and taken away the arms of their victims,” said Rep. Benjamin Butler in 1871, pushing for passage of laws aimed at taking down the Klan. “This was especially noticeable in Union County, where all the Negro population were disarmed by the sheriff only a few months ago under the order of the judge…; and then, the sheriff having disarmed the citizens, the five hundred masked men rode at nights and murdered and otherwise maltreated the ten persons who were in jail in that county.”
The so-called Black Codes in the South, pushed by the Klan, included laws that specifically banned Black people from owning guns. When federal law intervened, states and localities would tweak the laws to ban the kind of cheap models that were affordable to both poor Black and white people, and would set up other legal red tape, similar to poll taxes, making it technically legal to own a gun but functionally impossible. The white terrorists of the South outnumbered the freedmen, but they were only able to overwhelm them with violence after they’d first disarmed the people they’d then attack.
The second push for gun control came about a century later, again in the wake of Black people arming up in self defense. After the Black Panthers began openly carrying firearms, Don Mulford, a conservative Republican, pushed a bill banning open carry, specifically aimed at the Black Panthers, with the support of then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan. In 1967, 30 members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense marched on the state Capitol to protest the laws.
Shortly after, the Mulford Act passed with, as Reason magazine reported, the support of the National Rifle Association. “I am sure you are aware that I am very grateful to the National Rifle Association for its help in making my gun control bill, AB 1591, a workable piece of legislation, yet protecting the Constitutional rights of citizens,” Mulford wrote in a letter.
The NRA was founded in 1871 by former Union officers, and for years was largely a hunters’ organization and social club that lobbied on the side. Its evolution into a more political organization came with the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It followed its support of California’s new law with opposition to President Lyndon Johnson’s national gun control legislation in 1968. For the next several decades, it pursued a bipartisan strategy, relying on its lock on both parties to stop legislation in its tracks, but culturally began drifting further to the right. Over the past decade, the NRA became a major force in culture war, evolving into as much a pro-police organization as a pro-gun group.
In 2016, officers pulled Philando Castile over for a broken tail light in the St. Paul suburbs in Minnesota. He was a licensed gun owner and told the officer he was carrying; he was gunned down anyway. The NRA, however, stayed conspicuously silent even under public pressure. More than a year later, after the officer was acquitted, then-NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch went on CNN and acknowledged the killing as a “tragedy” and “awful.”
“There are a lot of variables in this particular case, and there were a lot of things that I wish would have been done differently,” Loesch said.
It’s not as if the NRA doesn’t support a right to armed self-defense. The group spent years lobbying state legislatures to implement so-called Stand Your Ground laws. When George Zimmerman leaned on such a law in Florida after killing Trayvon Martin, the NRA called such statutes a “human right.”
In 2018, E.J. Bradford, a young, Black Army veteran with a license to carry, was in a mall when gunshots broke out. He drew his weapon — standing his ground — and cops instantly shot him dead and later blamed him for “brandishing” his weapon. The NRA stayed silent.
In March 2020, Louisville, Kentucky, police smashed their way into the apartment of Kenneth Walker. He was with Breonna Taylor and thought her ex-boyfriend had broken in, so he ran to get his gun, which he was legally permitted to own. Police shot him, and also shot and killed Taylor. The NRA was silent.
Last Wednesday, police in the Twin Cities again executed a no-knock warrant, smashing their way into an apartment in the dead of night. Amir Locke was asleep on the couch. Scared for his life and no doubt dazed from being woken up by intruders, he fumbled for his weapon, which he was legally allowed to carry. In seconds, police shot and killed him. To its credit, the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus released a statement demanding an investigation.
“The NRA has not commented — we have a longstanding policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations,” Amy Hunter, an NRA spokesperson, told The Intercept.
In late 2012, after the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the NRA was faced with a strategic choice: Recognize that lax gun laws had gone too far and find some reasonable compromise, or dig in. The NRA decided to make its stand, blaming mental health care and video games for the shooting. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre famously said.
Who the NRA decides to stand up for — whose life matters, and whose doesn’t — lets us know what LaPierre meant by good.
Update: February 7, 2022, 4:08 p.m. ET
This story has been updated with a post-publication statement by the NRA confirming that it will not comment on Amir Locke’s case while it is under investigation.