BOB GARFIELD: We've become accustomed in the past 20 years to seeing the issue of guns in America broken down into two camps, gun-control advocates, led by police streets and Sarah Brady against the all-powerful National Rifle Association, which not only asserts a Second Amendment guarantee of gun ownership, but uses its vast war chest to elect sympathetic politicians and to defeat opponents.
But, according to Adam Winkler, UCLA law professor and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, there was a time, relatively recently, in fact, when the NRA supported gun-control legislation and the staunchest defenders of so-called “gun rights” were on the radical left. That piece was excerpted in The Atlantic.
When I spoke to Winkler last winter, I confessed that I was genuinely stunned [LAUGHS] to learn that the origins of the gun rights movement were formed in Oakland, California, in the 1960s.
ADAM WINKLER: One of the surprising things I discovered in writing Gunfight was that when the Black Panthers started carrying their guns around in Oakland, California in the late 1960s, it inspired a new wave of gun control laws. It was these laws that, ironically, sparked a backlash among rural white conservatives who were concerned that government was coming to get their guns next. The NRA mimicked many of the policy positions of the Black Panthers, who viewed guns not just as a matter of protection for the home but something you should be able to have out on the street. and also protection against a hostile government that was tyrannical and disrespectful of people's rights.
BOB GARFIELD: There was an incident with a traffic stop. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were sitting in a car, lightly armed.
ADAM WINKLER: They refused to give up their firearms. The police officer says, what are you doing with those firearms? But Huey Newton had gone to law school for a short time and had learned that in California it was lawful for him to be carrying loaded weapons, as long as he carried them openly.
In fact, the most dramatic incident was when the Black Panthers, 30 of them, showed up at the California State Capitol, armed with loaded rifles, pistols and shotgun and marched right into the legislative chamber, while it was in session. In fact, they were debating a gun control law, and the Panthers were there, not to do violence but to protest this gun control law.
BOB GARFIELD: This episode freaked out conservative politicians, including the Governor of California, who could not for the life of him imagine a situation where a lawful American would want to carry a loaded weapon in public. What was the name of that governor?
ADAM WINKLER: That was Ronald Reagan –
- who would go on to become the first presidential candidate ever endorsed by the NRA. And, of course, his politics did shift. He was an astute political strategist, and he understood by 1980 that he needed to support gun rights to keep his new right coalition together. And he was such an opponent of gun control when he was in office that even after he was the victim of an assassination attempt, he pushed for no new restrictive gun laws.
BOB GARFIELD: So tell me more about the origins of the National Rifle Association, and when did they become radicalized along Second Amendment lines?
ADAM WINKLER: The NRA was formed right after the Civil War by two former Union soldiers who were convinced that it was the poor marksmanship of Union soldiers that had allowed the war to go on so long. In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA was a supporter of gun control, pushing states to adopt restrictive laws on concealed carry of firearms. In the 1960s and ‘70s, a series of assassinations, like Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the race riots and the Black Panthers all led to a new wave of gun control laws.
The NRA became divided between those who thought guns were primarily about hunting and recreation and those who thought guns were about personal protection against criminals in urban environments. Those hardliners ended up staging a coup at the annual membership meeting one year and replaced the entire leadership of the NRA with a group of hardliners who were committed to fighting gun control, at all costs.
BOB GARFIELD: This was a schism that occurred at a point when the existing leadership of the NRA really wanted to move out West and focus on hunting.
ADAM WINKLER: That's right. Think of how different politics in America would be, had the leaders of the NRA, in the early 1970s, carried through with their plan to retreat from political activity, move to Colorado Springs and focus the organization on outdoors activities. That didn't happen, of course, and the NRA became committed to a very extreme view of the Second Amendment that really fought against any new gun control proposals, under the theory that any new law was a slippery slope towards total civilian disarmament. And that view has really shaped gun rights in America ever since.
BOB GARFIELD: The NRA broke a four-day silence since the shootings to say it wants to make a contribution in the ongoing debate and, presumably, to work with the President in helping fashion gun control for the foreseeable future. What do you suppose that means?
ADAM WINKLER: The NRA is very firmly committed to its view of the Second Amendment, and this incident is not going to change its view. We’re going to see the NRA probably emphasize the need to have better mental health information or mental health treatment. We’re likely to see the NRA talk about perhaps even arming teachers in schools as the answer, because the view of the gun rights extremists is that more guns will lead to less crime, and that the way to respond to mass shootings is by having more people with guns, to be able to fight back. I don't expect that to change
BOB GARFIELD: Adam, thank you very much.
ADAM WINKLER: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Adam Winkler is a professor of law at UCLA and author of, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
Coming up, John F. Kennedy famously enthralled the press. Recordings unearthed for a public radio documentary also show how Kennedy sucked up to the press and how he bullied them. This is On the Media.