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The financial improprieties alleged by New York’s attorney general in her lawsuit against the National Rifle Association remind me of a scandal nearly a century ago. NRA leaders back then, however, handled it differently from the way leaders do today.
Back in 1925, the NRA secretary, who had accumulated unchecked power, was dismissed over evidence of embezzlement. The NRA reorganized its board and created the office of the executive vice president, choosing the title out of respect for the traditions of the Reconstruction-era-founded association.
The first EVP was a highly decorated Maryland national guardsman named Milton A. Reckord. Reckord served in the Mexican Expedition against Pancho Villa and in World War I. The Military Police commander for Europe in World War II, he was responsible for all prisoners of war.
In 1974, Brig. Gen. Reckord, at 94, was interviewed by NRA officials in his home for an NRA oral history. In it, he described how a 1934 law supported by him and the NRA and inspired by the Tommy Gun days of Prohibition that outlawed automatic firearms (still on the books) was “sane, reasonable and effective.”
But the NRA oral history was never published, and his legacy, too, seems forgotten.
The NRA didn’t used to take sides then like it does today. “Take an active interest in politics, Mr. Shooter,” read an editorial in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine before the 1936 elections. “But keep your political interest and activity on a high plane of honest, frank discussion; and remember that there is neither rhyme nor reason in splitting open a good rifle club over a bum political argument.”
But splitting open a good rifle club is exactly what the men who later took over the NRA did. Today EVP Wayne LaPierre and other NRA leaders claim the NRA is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. But the NRA did not raise gun rights until 1922, in an editorial warning about the possible spread of a New York State gun law passed in 1911, and the outlawing of civilian ownership of guns in Russia after its 1917 Bolshevik-led Communist revolution. The NRA did not raise “the Second Article of the Bill of Rights” until 1952, and it did not describe itself as an organization defending “civil liberties” until 1968.
The split in the NRA resulted in an internal revolution rarely mentioned out loud anymore but still known within the lore as the “Cincinnati Revolt.” That’s when, in 1977, the NRA under Harlon Carter transformed literally overnight from America’s largest firearms sporting organization into the nation’s largest gun-rights vanguard.
It was Carter who ended the policy of publishing the NRA’s annual financial reports in NRA member magazines, and who centralized control, hand-picking three men under him to run the organization; everyone, including magazine editors had to report up the new chain of command.
In 1981, the New York Times reported that Carter had changed a vowel in his first name, according to his birth certificate, to help conceal that, as a juvenile, he had been once convicted of murder and later had his conviction overturned on appeal. After the news broke, NRA members changed the by-laws to elect him to an unprecedented five-year term.
The leadership soon led another change of the by-laws to transfer power away from the membership and back to the board. NRA leaders themselves have since compared their own board to a Communist politburo.
LaPierre, who calls Carter a “great leader,” was made EVP in 1991, and he fended off one rebellion in the late 1990s. A bigger insurgency arose against him last year through leaked accusations of his alleged financial malfeasance by dissident board directors led by Oliver North.
But we’re missing the bigger picture if we think the NRA has suddenly gone off the rails. Its current troubles began more than 40 years ago.
Smyth is the author of “The NRA: The Unauthorized History.”