The protesters who recently carried semi-automatic rifles into capitol buildings in different states were hardly the first to do so. Back in May 1967, a group of Black Panthers led by Bobby Seale in Sacramento carried firearms into the California state house. Within less than three months, Governor Ronald Reagan signed a law banning the open carry of weapons in the state.
This swift change in California law showed the role of race in gun politics, and the National Rifle Association (NRA), back then, quietly supported its passage. But the era was also a time—long since forgotten—when the NRA favored gun control. A year later, the NRA supported a federal law banning mail-order guns like the one tied to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, among other measures. The law ended up both radicalizing the NRA and giving rise to the gun rights movement that is active today.
The role that race has played in the NRA is actually different from what many people may think. There was no evidence of any ties between the NRA, founded in 1871, and any white power groups for more than a hundred years, and it has only been in recent decades that such groups have moved closer to the NRA, despite its leaders’ efforts to keep their distance.
The NRA began hiring minorities in the mid-1970s, when a black attorney, Peter S. Ridley, who had earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam, joined its lobbying wing. The Washington College of Law at American University still has an award for African-American students demonstrating leadership qualities in his name.
A few figures have peddled misleading myths. Michael Moore in his 2002 film, Bowling for Columbine, insinuated that the NRA and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) might be linked since they both were founded after the Civil War, six years apart. But nothing could be further from the truth. The NRA was founded by veteran Union officers, who rarely ventured much further south than their shooting range on Long Island. They supported President Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts to crush the KKK during Reconstruction.
The NRA itself recently peddled the opposite myth. Last year, Allen West, an NRA board member, Army veteran, and former Florida congressman, told NRA members in Indianapolis, “Know the history. The NRA, this organization, stood with freed slaves to make sure they had their Second Amendment rights.” This claim, however, is equally unfounded, as the writings from the period—including one by NRA co-founder William Conant Church—undeniably show.
A former war correspondent, editor, publisher, and writer, Church was also aware of, and sympathetic to, the plight of freed slaves. “The negroes had ceased to be slaves, but they had not yet become free men, and there was no [guarantee] that they might not be subjected to some new form of oppression,” he wrote in his 500-page tome on Grant’s policies in the South. “Negroes were killed in large numbers throughout the South without even an attempt to hold anyone responsible for their murder.”
A product of his age, Church resorted to a racial stereotype for freed slaves by singularizing them as “Sambo” in one piece about their electoral potential. But he still stands out as the earliest figure on record to advocate that the military remove the racial epithets of “nigger” and “dago” from its vocabulary, more than fifty years before it finally integrated troops.
By 1957, however, shortly after the start of the civil rights era, there was a case involving the NRA and the KKK. A returning black veteran named Robert F. Williams organized a group in Monroe, North Carolina, that received a local charter from the NRA. It eventually was attacked by the local KKK in a firefight that made press as far north as Norfolk, Virginia. But the NRA, not far away in Washington, D.C., neither did nor said anything to help its first black chapter.
Another black armed group, Deacons for Defense and Justice, was formed in 1964 in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The NRA sold to this group, as it did with others, surplus military ammunition available to the NRA through a government program. The same year, white power groups like Minutemen and Rangers appeared in a number of states. Nationally syndicated columnist Inez Robb, a former war correspondent, called these groups “private armies of the extreme right.”
Fearing they could possibly spoil their own image, the entire leadership of the NRA in 1964 said the “NRA vehemently disavows” any link to any “private armies or group violence,” making a statement that sounds nothing like what NRA leaders say today.
In 1977, the NRA finally embraced gun rights as its “unyielding” aim, shifting the life arc of the association. Following the lead, in fact, of two other groups, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and Gun Owners of America, which were formed in opposition to the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 that had been backed by the NRA. It was only after all three of these groups embraced gun rights that white power paramilitaries gravitated to their coalition.
NRA leaders have tried to keep their distance from violent extremists. In 1992, a botched, fatal federal raid on a family of white separatists over two illegal, sawed-off shotguns in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, galvanized white power paramilitaries along with other gun rights activists. The NRA’s American Rifleman magazine waited a year, however, before even mentioning the raid, and the organization’s CEO Wayne LaPierre waited even longer, knowing the group would lose political clout if it was perceived as being allied with extremists.
In 1995, one month after the Oklahoma City bombing, members of the National Alliance, the nation’s then-largest neo-Nazi organization, whose literature inspired the bomber, quietly passed out trifold fliers on the floor of the NRA convention in Phoenix. “There is hardly a more significant difference than that which exists between the people who want gun control and those who don’t,” read the pamphlet, concluding, “The day for a great cleansing of this land will come.”
NRA leaders did not dispute that Nazis were in the room. “People have passed out literature, they could pass out literature for the communists. It doesn’t mean we support communism,” NRA chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa told me for an article in The Village Voice.
At the same meeting, LaPierre addressed anyone on the floor “who supports—or even fantasizes about—terrorism [or] insurrection,” saying there is “a difference between 3.5 million united NRA members, and some scattered band of paranoid hatemongers,” telling them, “if someone in this room doesn’t know the difference, then there’s the door!”
White supremacist paramilitaries reappeared during President Donald Trump’s first year in office in Charlottesville, Virginia, mounting a larger presence than seen for decades. The year before, NRA board member Ted Nugent had posted a meme on Facebook accusing prominent Jewish leaders of being Nazis for supporting gun control, which the Anti-Defamation League called anti-Semitic.
In 2018, after the mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, LaPierre addressed the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference, singling out Jewish philanthropists for backing gun control. Two writers at the Israeli liberal newspaper Haaretz called his remarks anti-Semitic as well.
The NRA of today, unlike the organization of more than fifty years ago, has not denounced any armed groups among the recent protestors, despite the presence of Confederate flags and even a few Nazi symbols. Much like the President and his advisors, NRA leaders know these extremists comprise a loyal part of their coalition.
Frank Smyth is the author of the new book The NRA: The Unauthorized History (Flatiron Books).