Friday, 8 June 2018

How Robert Kennedy's assassination emboldened the NRA for 50 years

After Kennedy’s death, there was a push for better gun control – but the NRA fought back by transforming itself into the political action group it is today

After Senator Robert F Kennedy was fatally shot on 5 June 1968 – barely two months after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr – there appeared to be an opportunity to secure better gun control.

“Last night, Robert Kennedy did not miss out on what went on,” wrote journalist Jules Witcover, the author of 1968: The Year The Dream Died, who was there in the kitchen passageway of the Ambassador hotel when Kennedy was felled, moments after his victory speech in the California primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. “And because he did not, his latest hour of political triumph became another hour of mindless tragedy in a nation that cannot or will not keep weapons of death from the hands of madmen who walk its streets.”

Anti-gun protesters picketed the Washington headquarters of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Lyndon B Johnson called for a sweeping gun control law during the most tumultuous year of America’s most traumatic decade since the civil war.

“Kennedy’s death saw the birth of directly attaching blame to guns, which hadn’t happened as much after King’s death,” said Dennis Brack, who photographed protesters outside the NRA headquarters. “No one had focused so much on the instrument itself before.”

But former president Johnson’s gun control bill still riled many within the NRA, and over the next 50 years, the group set about transforming itself from a marksmanship and sporting organization to one of America’s most powerful political action groups, proclaiming to defend the second amendment against continuing attempts to erode it.

This began on 21 May 1977 in Cincinnati when the NRA’s annual meeting saw what amounted to a coup by a caucus of gun rights radicals who booted out the more moderate old guard, then pressed ahead with more vehement demands. NRA membership soared, and after the election of conservative Ronald Reagan, the energized activists stepped up a gear and focused on rolling back the 1968 gun-control laws.

 ‘Kennedy’s death saw the birth of directly attaching blame to guns, which hadn’t happened as much after King’s death,’ said photographer Dennis Brack. Photograph: David Newell-Smith for the Observer
The group became increasingly adept at and involved in political lobbying, though it didn’t have to worry about advertising and public relations campaigns: that came courtesy of those fighting tighter gun controls – and the simple existence of the Democrat party. All this was underpinned by extremely effective engagement with its membership meaning it could have local, state or congressional offices inundated with calls from impassioned voters.

The NRA was also able to rally members around the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, the gun control effort named for the White House press secretary James Brady, wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan, which called for a seven-day waiting period on gun purchases and a background check on the purchaser.

“What if they had to wait seven days to get their rifles to come to the Alamo and fight,” an NRA vice-president, Robert Corbin, proclaimed to great cheers at the NRA’s 1991 annual meeting.

The presidential ascendancy of the Democrat party’s Bill Clinton saw NRA membership enrollment jump by another 600,000, while the 1994 passing of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban only fired up the NRA’s base even more.

“The idea that the second amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than a person’s right to form armed militias to provide for common defence, became the official position of the NRA only in the 1970s,” says historian Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States.

 Gun rights became a conservative political movement, a rights fight for white men
Jill Lepore, historian
“Part of the backlash against both feminism and civil rights, gun rights became a conservative political movement, a rights fight for white men.”

In 1960, NRA membership stood at 250,000; by 1980, it was 1.8 million. During the past year, membership has swelled, notes Mike Cox, an NRA endowment member and director of the Texas State Rifle Association. He said it now stands at around 6 million.

Spending by the NRA has also increased enormously as it has lobbied and made party contributions: between 1998 and 2017 it spent $203.2m on political activities, according to Politifact.

As the tussle over gun control goes on, both sides are doubling down over the US constitution’s most controversial amendment.

“The NRA is a civil rights organization,” Cox said. “People underestimate how many citizens support the second amendment – it has been curtailed incrementally, we want it restored.”

The question of gun ownership as a right was most famously demonstrated at the NRA’s annual meeting in 2000 – Al Gore was attempting to become president – when Hollywood legend Charlton Heston made a speech.

Heston spoke of previous American battles for freedom ranging from Lexington to Pearl Harbor, before saying that he had a message for Al Gore and “the divisive forces that would take freedom away”, and holding aloft a replica of a colonial musket: “From my cold, dead hands!”

As a catchphrase embodying the defense of hard-won American rights, it’s far better known than any of the eloquent speeches given by Robert Kennedy.

“The gun lobby,” said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, “has successfully created in the minds of some Americans the idea of embracing guns to stand up to big government and liberal policies that benefit minorities.”

(Source: The Guardian)

No comments:

Post a Comment