On Nov. 17, 1871, the National Rifle Association was chartered in New York using the address of the Army and Navy Journal in lower Manhattan. Its publisher and editor, William Conant Church, had been a New York Times special correspondent during the Civil War. Once slightly wounded, he reported under the pseudonym Pierrepont, the name of a street in Brooklyn where he lived. Church later became a Union brevet officer in charge of the militia organized to defend Washington, D.C. in case of a Confederate invasion.
Church co-founded the NRA with another Brooklynite and Civil War veteran, George Wood Wingate. He was a New York national guardsman who was promoted amid fighting in Carlisle near the battle of Gettysburg. Wingate would go on to become the NRA’s master rifle trainer. Within six years of the NRA being founded, American riflemen would become the undisputed champions of the (English-speaking) world. They beat first the Irish and then the British-led Imperial Team on the NRA’s range called Creedmoor in Queens County on Long Island.
Church and Wingate had followed how Prussia in Europe had prevailed against two larger empires, Austria and France, using both better rifles and riflemen. They founded the NRA six years after the Civil War ended as a private initiative, during the peak of Reconstruction, to train soldiers in better riflery in anticipation of future wars. They began by training New York guardsmen at Creedmoor range using state funds introduced by their Brooklyn representative in Albany.
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Wingate traveled to London as a lawyer and there toured the Wimbledon range of the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom. After granting it a Royal charter, Queen Victoria herself fired its inaugural shot. The NRA in New York copied the British Royal NRA’s name, the distances to its targets on Wimbledon range, and even their solid iron designs weighing up to 400 pounds each – shipped by steamer across the Atlantic.
Few NRA members today know this history. Why not? It’s as if their leaders have buried the NRA’s past. New leaders took over the group in 1977, when they “shifted” the NRA on a new, “unyielding” course for gun rights. Today’s embattled CEO, Wayne LaPierre, joined them a year later as a junior lobbyist. Later, during President Obama’s years, he and other leaders rolled out a new origin story claiming the NRA was founded in support of the Second Amendment and is “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.” This claim is untrue.
A shift in history
The leaders of the “Cincinnati Revolt,” as the shift was called, incorporated into the effort affiliated gun clubs across the nation that the NRA had built up over more than a century. To further it, they buried the NRA’s Brooklyn and British roots and founding mission of better marksmanship. And how its leaders since Prohibition had come, until 1977, to weigh gun ownership against public safety to support what they called “reasonable” gun control.
During President Trump’s years, NRA leaders added a second claim about Reconstruction. “When faced with the threats, coercion, intimidation, and yes, violence of an organization called the Ku Klux Klan, it was the NRA that stood with and defended the rights of blacks to the Second Amendment,” wrote Allen West, an NRA board member, in 2018 for Conservative News Service. A year later, he repeated the same claim as LaPierre applauded on the dais before NRA members in Indianapolis. At the same meeting, West, now running for governor of Texas, joined other NRA board members Ted Nugent and then-President Oliver North in accusing LaPierre of embezzlement.
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Not a word about arming freed slaves is true. In 1877, the same year that Reconstruction ended, Church publicly complained that the NRA, despite its global, Victorian-era triumphs, had yet to expand rifle training beyond New York and so was still not improving riflery nationwide. The longest trip taken by the NRA during Reconstruction was by steamer to Dublin to win a rematch against the Irish at their Dollymount range.
Church wrote a lengthy history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and he made no mention of anyone helping to arm freed slaves, and no reference to the NRA at all. Even as he noted that “Negroes were killed in large numbers throughout the South without even an attempt to hold any one responsible for their murder.”
By burying so much NRA history, its modern leaders have buried the legacies of generations of war heroes. Most NRA leaders, until 1977, were decorated veterans like Milton A. Reckord. Medaled in both world wars, he was the NRA’s longest-serving leader until LaPierre. Reckord cleaned up an embezzlement scandal in 1925, when he also began a practice of publishing the NRA’s annual financial reports. This transparency stopped in 1977.
Their successors led by LaPierre have forgotten more history. Wingate was also a co-founder of the New York Public Schools Athletic League. Today the top senior boy as well as girl athlete in every sport across the five boroughs of New York City still receives the Wingate Award. He led New York public schools to start offering sports to girls in 1905.
Church was the first figure on record to exhort the military to disallow use of the n-word and d-word for African Americans and Italian Americans, respectively, writing by the early 1890s that undermined morale – over 50 years before the military integrated Black soldiers with others.
NRA leaders have noted some of the NRA’s history, like its members’ role in organizing shipments of rifles and gear to the British Home Guard before America’s entry into World War II. But they’ve rarely said much else. This might help explain why they’ve said so little about it even on the NRA’s sesquicentennial.
Frank Smyth is the author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History.
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