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National Rifle Association was pro-gun-control for its first 100 years

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Since U.S. President Barack Obama's gun control bill that would have expanded background checks failed to pass in the U.S. Senate a few weeks ago, David Letterman has been lampooning the 45 senators who voted against the bill with a segment called "stooge of the night."

On April 23, it was Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake's turn to be mocked. Several days before the vote, Flake sent a personal note to Caren Teves, whose 24-year-old son Alex was killed in the Aurora, Colo., movie theatre shooting of July 2012. He wrote how "truly sorry" he was at Teves's loss and that "strengthening background checks is something we agree on." Then, he changed his mind.

Flake weakly explained his about-face by claiming the proposed legislation would have required "checks even when a gun sale is posted on an office bulletin board." That, he said, went too far. In fact, the bill would have done no such thing and Obama accused Flake and other senators of "wilfully lying" for suggesting otherwise.

Flake's hypocrisy was too much for Letterman to stomach, while Teves called the senator "a coward."

What both failed to mention was that Flake, like 42 of the other senators who killed the bill, had received money from the National Rifle Association in the past year. In Flake's case, the NRA directly gave him $2,000 for his election campaign, but through its political action committee's independent expenditures (funds used on advertising by lobby groups independent of the candidate), the NRA spent another $321,712.83 supporting him in the tight race he fought with his Democratic opponent.

Including Flake, the NRA has doled out a total of $800,000 to 40 of the dissenting senators since 1990, thousands more to congressmen and an estimated $20 million in 2011 and 2012 through independent expenditures. Much of that was aimed at defeating Obama through contributions to Mitt Romney's campaign and in financing negative advertising.

Yet it is not only the money that gives the NRA unprecedented power in Washington. Merely the threat of promising to defeat a candidate who has violated the NRA's dictums can put the fear of God in any politician who has to win a future election.

NRA members are active, loud and unstinting in their support. In the two months following the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December, the NRA raised $2.7 million to fight against any proposed so-called infringements of the second amendment's "right to keep and bear arms."

There was a time when the NRA was not as extreme or as potent a lobby group. The organization was founded with the best of intentions by two Union Civil War veterans in 1871 to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis." They had been troubled by the poor marksmanship skills they had witnessed.

As is recounted by UCLA law professor Adam Winkler in his recent book, Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, the NRA advocated safe and responsible use of a weapon and proper marksmanship in its early years. Its officials barely mentioned the second amendment and certainly did not lobby against gun control. Indeed, it was quite the opposite.

During the prohibition era in the 1920s and early SSRq30s, when gun-wielding gangsters ruled such cities as Chicago, the NRA, led by lawyer Karl Frederick, an Olympic gold-medal winning marksman, assisted state and federal government officials to draft reasonable restrictive firearms legislation.

Unlike today's NRA, Frederick was all for permits, background checks and the keeping of proper documentation by gun sellers.

"I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one," Frederick stated during hearings about the National Firearms Act of 1934. "I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licences."

The NRA advocated such a liberal (and arguably common sense) approach to gun laws well into the 1960s and particularly after the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Much to the organization's dismay, the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had purchased the rifle he used via mail order from the NRA's magazine, American Rifleman.

Soon after, the NRA announced plans to leave Washington and get out of the lobby business to more fully embrace environmental and conservation issues.

But not all of the members agreed with this change of direction. These dissidents regarded the second amendment as sacred and were concerned about rising violence in American cities. In 1977, a bitter battle ensued for control of the NRA and the hardliners won.

Three years later, the NRA for the first time in its history publicly backed a presidential candidate, Republican Ronald Reagan, who won the election. The former governor of California and movie actor had also shifted his position from once advocating for stricter gun laws to supporting the new NRA's more orthodox polices.

Thereafter, the NRA exercised enormous influence and, as Winkler writes, "was transformed into a political powerhouse devoted to a rigid view of the Second Amendment."

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, polls indicated that more than 60 per cent of Americans favoured stricter gun control laws. Yet by the time of the Senate vote in April, that figure had dropped to 49 then to 45 per cent. This was a significant decline whose importance was not lost on the 45 senators who opposed the bill or NRA president David Keene.

"In order to win this vote, the president and his allies believed they had to demonize and take down the National Rifle Association," Keene recently told the Iowa Republican. "This vote showed that they weren't able to do that. So in that sense, it was symbolically important from our standpoint, as well as important for gun owners around the country."

Maybe so, but depending on the state, some of the opposing senators may face a backlash for siding with the NRA. Already, New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte's popularity has dropped by 15 points. She has been targeted in TV ads sponsored by the pro-gun-control group started by former congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Gifford and her husband Mark Kelly.

Gifford has promised to "not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done." They had, she noted two weeks ago in a hard-hitting New York Times article, "looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby -- and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing.

"Our democracy's history is littered with names we neither remember nor celebrate -- people who stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful. On (April 17) a number of senators voted to join that list."

Now & Then is a column in which Winnipeg historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 J6

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