Made by History

What People Get Wrong About Wayne LaPierre’s Time at the NRA

8 minute read

Last month, after more than three decades as the figurehead of the modern gun lobby, longtime National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO and executive VP Wayne LaPierre stepped down. His departure comes amid a civil corruption lawsuit brought by the State of New York, which alleges that the NRA and its executives violated their non-profit status and various state and federal laws, as well as grossly mismanaging the group’s finances.

LaPierre stands at the heart of a popular narrative about the recent emergence of the radical right. He has loomed large in the organization’s changing tactics and emphasis as it evolved into a political powerhouse and an uncompromising foe of all gun control. As the story goes, the NRA was a moderate group focused on sport and target shooting before the “Cincinnati Coup” in 1977. The revolt at the group’s annual convention ushered hardliners into power and drove the reshaping of gun politics in the U.S., including the rise of a new interpretation that the Second Amendment protected an individual right to bear arms. LaPierre joined the organization shortly after the coup and became executive vice president in 1991.

Yet, while LaPierre epitomizes the post-1977 NRA, there is more continuity in the group’s history than is popularly known. Dating back to its 1871 founding, in fact, the NRA has had one consistent priority: protecting social order and control. LaPierre articulated this philosophy after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 when he declared that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." The idea is that control of armed force should be deputized to and limited to certain populations—especially elite white men. That has always been the NRA's driving force, and the only thing that changed after 1977 was the militarization of this organizing precept.

The NRA’s roots actually lie in the mid-19th century transatlantic transformation of colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. The group is a copycat organization, directly inspired by a British group, the National Rifle Association of Great Britain (NRA-GB). In 1859, Francis Charteris, Lord Elcho, founded this British cousin to coordinate the empire’s nascent volunteer force, a popular social movement that was sanctioned by the War Office during its overhaul of the military in the wake of the 1857 Indian Rebellion.

The Crown was enthusiastic about the potential of the NRA-GB to serve as a low cost means of encouraging firearms use among white men across the British Empire. Gun clubs could serve as paramilitaries, which would enable the reallocation of the Regular Army to India, which had just experienced the largest uprising against British rule in the 19th century. Both the Crown and the NRA-GB were particularly interested in militarizing white settler colonies, encouraging Canadian, South African, and Australian rifle associations in the 1860s. In 1860, Queen Victoria fired the first shot at the opening annual meeting on Wimbledon Common, donated many of the first prizes, and sent emissaries to encourage rifle shooting across the Empire

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The British shooting group was certainly never intended to protect rights or foster universal access to firearms, especially for non-whites. In fact, the British government specifically denied some groups the right to bear arms. In 1867 the Privy Council banned a white Bermudan rifle association, the St George Rifle Association, because of concerns that when Black Bermudans “found themselves excluded from the Corps,” they would look to form their own associations which would not be an “advisable measure to encourage.” 

In confidential correspondence, the Governor of Bermuda and the Secretary of State for the Colonies sought advice from other colonial administrators on potential solutions to prevent the formation of Black militia. One advised that in the West Indies, rifle associations had been used to ally whites with mixed race members to put down Black uprisings. The same advisor also suggested “making the expenses by the Volunteers such as to deter the Blacks generally” from forming rifle associations. Despite these suggestions, the government ultimately denied the white group’s request for ammunition and state support because the threat of armed Black groups was simply too great.

Seven years after the British founded their NRA, Union veterans William C. Church and George Wingate launched their version in New York. Like their British counterparts, Church and Wingate were unconcerned about the individual right to bear arms. And like their British counterparts, they wanted to arm and train forces for defense against specific threats. In the 1860s, that meant the Canadian militia and the Indigenous Empires throughout North America. In their address at the first annual NRA meeting, Church and Wingate drew a clear contrast between the “40 000 skilled shots” in Canada and the “raw recruits” in the U.S. sent to fight against “the Indian hunters of the plains.”

But the NRA wasn’t just worried about outside threats. During one of the group's annual meetings during the depression decade of the 1870s, the group constructed a new form of target called a “tramp target"; the dehumanizing "tramp" trope was often applied to striking and transient workers. In the annual competition that year the target was “the figure of a tramp” and the prize winner would be the group who aimed “as many shots as possible by file firing within one minute."

It was also linked to an insurgent anti-statist white movement, via the Crescent City Rifle Club of Louisiana, run by William J. Behan, an ex-Confederate. Behan had also run an earlier iteration of the club, the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, which explicitly called for a “White man’s government” before overthrowing interracial Republican rule in New Orleans in 1874. The Crescent City Rifle Club was a dues-paying affiliate of the national NRA and hosted intraregional NRA events in the South.

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The fluidity and connection between violent extra-legal groups like the White League and the Ku Klux Klan, and associations like rifle clubs and militia, were commonly understood in the South. As the Weekly Louisianian quoted in 1879, Southern white control was maintained by “Ku-Klux Klans, its rifle-clubs, and its systematic assassination of Republicans.”

This history makes clear that, like their British counterparts, the American organizers of the NRA aimed to arm and train men so they could fight back against those who challenged the social order, who were often radical, working class and not white. So while the group focused on shooting competitions and training, as the standard story of its past recounts, that doesn’t mean it was an innocuous sporting group focused on competition for competition’s sake.

The group’s emphasis on disarming “bad guys” and arming “good guys” continued into the 20th century. At points that meant supporting some gun regulations, most notably the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Gun Control Act. Who the NRA conceived of as “bad guys” was clearly evident when it supported the 1967 Mulford Act to repeal a California law allowing individuals to openly carry weapons, a move seen by many as an attempt to disarm the Black Panthers.

And when LaPierre joined the NRA, shortly after the coup in 1977, he doubled down on many of these long standing policies, which suggest a long-time commitment to preserving white social order first and foremost. Throughout the 1990s, as white militants squared off with federal agents in places like Ruby Ridge and Waco and carried out a terrorist attack in Oklahoma City, LaPierre railed against federal agents as “jackbooted government thugs” who “kill law-abiding citizens.” Even as LaPierre and the NRA expressed concern for these armed white, anti-government “victims,” it supported policies like weapons sentencing enhancements that had racially disparate effects. This made clear how it conceptualized good guys and bad guys. The group stoked fears of both criminals and of an overbearing government as the “bad guys” to promote the arming of those “good guys."

When one understands this longer history, it's clear that there was no moderate era in the NRA's past. The Cincinnati coup wasn't a seismic break between a reasonable past and an extreme present. The group has always supported policies that gave white vigilantes and white paramilitaries a role in preserving what many consider anti-democratic social order. The underlying notion of the modern gun rights movement, that guns are only “bad” when in the hands of “bad people,” and can be stopped only by arming “good people” is in keeping the NRA’s original mission. LaPierre’s tenure didn’t involve a reorientation of the NRA. He simply helped militarize its central precepts — indicating that little will change without him as the NRA moves forward.

Kate Birkbeck is a PhD candidate at Yale University writing a dissertation about the international arms trade, federal policy and local armed groups across the American Empire between the Civil War and the First World War.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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