The gunfire that suspended a game between the San Diego Padres and the hometown Washington Nationals was a first for Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, it’s hardly surprising in 2021 America.
This year the nation has endured a mass shooting, or the wounding or killing of at least four people, more than once a day. We have about 25 times more on average than in other advanced nations. Every day a new gun tragedy, each with its own loss of life and lifelong toll, seems to replace a prior heartbreak.
Major League Baseball and the National Rifle Association are each a century and a half old. But while MLB celebrates its history, the NRA buries and rewrites its own, likely because an exhumation could illuminate our nation’s pickle over gun violence.
Baseball’s roots are long. Amateur clubs emerged in many states after the Civil War. The first “professional” game where all players were paid occurred in Mansfield, Ohio in 1869, and the first “major league” game was played nearly two years later in Indiana. The hometown Fort Wayne Kekiongas, named for the capital of a local Native American tribe, beat the Cleveland Forest Citys, in an association that in 1903 became the Major League Baseball we know today.
Six months after the Fort Wayne game, the NRA was founded in New York City. Two Union Army veteran officers founded the group to improve marksmanship in anticipation of future wars. They copied its name, the layout of its gun range and even the design of tons of iron targets, shipped by steamer across the Atlantic, from the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom.
The MLB celebrates its history. From retiring numbers of baseball legends, to players donning uniforms to celebrate the Negro Leagues, to honoring surviving legends by bringing or assisting them into stadiums to be cheered by fans, to archiving scores and statistics in publicly accessible databases dating back to 1903 — the year of the first World Series.
The NRA at least appreciates its history, having built a climate-controlled room to preserve documents, blueprints, trophies, ephemera and movie reels of shooting competitions dating back to the 1930s, in the basement of the National Firearms Museum at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Va. But it is closed to both rank-and-file NRA members and the public. Why? The NRA underwent a change in 1977, more than a century after it was founded, and its new leaders wanted a reboot. The “Cincinnati Revolt,” as it is known, shifted the group from a gun club to the unyielding gun lobby we know today.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime and now embattled CEO, joined NRA a year later. He and other modern leaders don’t want anyone to know about the NRA’s British Royal roots, lest the disinterment belie their claims that the NRA was founded to support gun rights and the Second Amendment.
The NRA’s museum illustrates much about firearms but nothing about NRA history, apart from a large bronze bust of Harlon B. Carter, the leader of the Cincinnati Revolt whom LaPierre recently called a “great leader.” Carter had changed his first name from Harlan to conceal for 50 years that he was once convicted and jailed of murdering a fellow juvenile, Ramón Casiano, with a shotgun before his conviction was overturned upon appeal.
Today’s NRA leaders have more to hide. Like how the NRA took no position on gun control over its first 50 years, then supported national gun control legislation from the 1930s until the 1977 revolt. Or how the NRA ended a 50-year practice of financial transparency, also in 1977.
Recently NRA leaders have told new lies. In Indianapolis, in 2019, an NRA board member named Allen West claimed that the early organization had “stood with freed slaves.” West is a former Florida congressman and chair of the Texas Republican Party, who is now running against Greg Abbott in the Texas gubernatorial primary.
“When faced with the threats, coercion, intimidation, and yes, violence of an organization called the Ku Klux Klan, it was the NRA that stood with and defended the rights of Blacks to the Second Amendment,” West previously wrote.
Not one word of this is true. Five years before, a book whose research was partly financed by the NRA claimed that gun control helped enable the Holocaust. That’s also false. But it shows how far the modern NRA will go to keep making it easy for Americans to buy guns, sustaining earnings for gun industry and NRA executives alike.
The MLB has seen its share of scandals from accusations of throwing the World Series in 1919, to widespread steroid use, to pitchers today allegedly doctoring the ball. But the MLB has survived each one by using transparency, even if commissioners were slow at first, to regain trust. One American pastime, gun-toting, could learn a lot from the other.
Smyth is the author of “The NRA: The Unauthorized History.”