The history of the NRA’s position on gun control and its forgotten leader Karl T. Frederick

 In U.S.
Gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association are loud political lobbyists – until a mass shooting. Here’s a look at their responses to tragedies over the years, and their most recent reaction to the shooting in Las Vegas. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

In the early 1930s, with gangsters like John Dillinger mowing down his enemies with machine guns on the streets, Congress held hearings on a sweeping proposal to severely restrict firearm sales.

The testimony of one man — now all but forgotten — stood out.

“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” said Karl T. Frederick, according to a transcript of the hearings. “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

Frederick’s words were notable then, and especially now, because of who he was: the president of the National Rifle Association.

Today, in the wake of yet another horrific mass shooting, this time in Las Vegas, it’s difficult to find any reference to Frederick on the NRA’s website, and it would be impossible to locate anyone connected with the organization who would say anything close to what Frederick did in confronting a crisis.

On Thursday, the NRA announced it will support federal regulations on “bump stocks,” a legal device used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock to make his semiautomatic rifles mimic machine guns.

Investigators say that Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock had 12 rifles with bump stocks on the night he killed 58 people. (Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

“The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations,” NRA officials Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox said in a statement.

It was a rare instance of moderate rhetoric from the modern NRA, which remains vehemently opposed to restricting gun sales. It came amid a debate in Congress about gun control measures in the wake of another mass shooting, with some Republicans expressing support for a bump stock ban.

The NRA typically goes silent after a mass shooting, waiting for the shock and anger to recede.

Five years ago, after Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, LaPierre — the NRA’s current version of Frederick — said the problem was not too many guns but that more guns were needed in the nation’s schools to protect children from the next Adam Lanza.

“The NRA throughout its history had been moderate on the issue of guns,” said Adam Winkler, a University of California at Los Angeles law school professor and author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “The NRA doesn’t play that role anymore. But Karl Frederick represents that older vision of its view on guns.”


The National Rifle Association of America headquarters in Northern Virginia. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

The NRA was founded in 1871 by Civil War veterans George Wood Wingate, a lawyer, and William Conant Church, a former New York Times reporter. (Chew on that irony for a moment.) Their primary concern was not gun rights or the Second Amendment. What was it?

“Their personal disgust for the average soldier’s marksmanship skills during the war drove them to create an organization that promoted rifle shooting on a scientific basis,” according to a thesis written by a Naval Postgraduate School student. “… The NRA started their charter with the promotion of marksmanship and organized shooting matches for training the New York National Guard.”

As an early leader of the NRA, Frederick was a perfect fit. He won three gold medals as an Olympic sharpshooter. He was a conservationist. Before joining the organization in 1931, Frederick fought to protect the Adirondacks and was president of the Camp Fire Club of America. The assistant attorney general once publicly called him “the best shot in America.”

But Frederick was by no means a pushover when it came to gun rights. Some of his rhetoric from back then is still echoed by the NRA.

The effort to pass the National Firearms Act of 1934 is a case in point. Pushed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the original proposal called for registering, taxing and severely restricting access not just to machine guns and sawed off shotguns, but pistols as well. Frederick was willing to deal on the big guns, but not the small ones.

During the hearing, in arguing against fingerprinting gun owners, Frederick testified that “automobile owners are not fingerprinted and are, as a class, a much more criminal body, from the standpoint of percentage, than pistol licensees.”

The chairman of the committee: “Do you make that statement seriously?”

Frederick: “Yes, sir.”

The chairman: “That the ordinary man who owns and operates an automobile is more likely to be a criminal than the man who arms himself?”

Frederick: “I said pistol licensees, those who have gone to the trouble of securing a license to carry weapons, are a most law-abiding body, and the perpetration of a crime by such a licensee is almost unknown.”

Frederick was threading a very thin needle.

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