Vote Gun: How Gun Rights Became Politicized in the United States, by Patrick J. Charles, Columbia University Press, 488 pages, $35
The National Rifle Association (NRA) “favored tighter gun laws” in the 1920s and ’30s, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in 2018. But since the 1970s, Kristof complained, the NRA “has been hijacked by extremist leaders” whose “hard-line resistance” to even the mildest gun control proposals contradicts “their members’ (much more reasonable) views.”
Other NRA critics have told the same story. That widely accepted account, U.S. Air Force historian Patrick J. Charles argues in Vote Gun, is “based more on myth than on substance.” In reality, he shows, the NRA’s fight against gun control dates back to the 1920s. But in waging that battle, the organization tried to project a reasonable image by presenting itself as open to compromise. That P.R. effort, Charles says, is the main source of the erroneous impression that “the NRA was once the chief proponent of firearms controls.”
Charles also aims to debunk the idea that the NRA’s power derives from its ability to mobilize voters against elected officials who defy its wishes. Since it “commandeered the political fight against firearms controls from the United States Revolver Association” a century ago, he says, the NRA has been adept at defeating proposed gun restrictions by encouraging its members to pepper legislators with complaints. While such direct communications tend to make a big impression, Charles argues, they are a misleading measure of the electoral penalty that politicians are apt to suffer by supporting gun control.
Vote Gun—which covers the first eight decades of the 20th century, ending with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980—presents a wealth of new material to support its main theses. But the book is marred by many small mistakes, which appear on almost every page and typically involve misused, misspelled, misplaced, or missing words. More substantively, Charles is harshly critical of the NRA’s rhetoric and logic but pays little attention to similar weaknesses in the arguments deployed by supporters of gun control.
In his prior work, Charles has portrayed the NRA’s understanding of the Second Amendment as a modern invention. He alludes to that position in Vote Gun when says the “broad individual rights view” accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court is based on “historical sleight of hand.”
Contrary to what the Court has held, Charles thinks the Second Amendment was not originally intended to protect an individual right unrelated to militia service. That idea, according to his 2018 book Armed in America, first emerged in the 19th century. Even then, Charles says, the Second Amendment was seen as consistent with regulations opposed by the contemporary gun rights movement. His lack of sympathy for the idea that the right to armed self-defense should be treated like other civil liberties colors Vote Gun‘s ostensibly neutral account.
As early as 1924, NRA Secretary-Treasurer C.B. Lister was declaring that “the anti-gun law can be intelligently viewed only from the standpoint of a public menace.” The organization soon began acting on that attitude by resisting new gun legislation.
Charles argues that the conventional narrative exaggerates the significance of the 1977 NRA convention in Cincinnati, where “hardline gun rights supporters” replaced leaders they perceived as insufficiently zealous in protecting the Second Amendment. “Many academics,” he says, see that development as “a gun rights revolution of sorts—one that forever transformed the NRA from a politically moderate sporting, hunting, and conservation organization into an extreme, no-compromise lobbying arm.” That view, he suggests, is belied by the NRA’s prior five decades of lobbying against gun restrictions and its explicit adoption of a “no compromise” stance seven years earlier.
Here Charles’ sloppy writing obscures his meaning. “This is not to say that the Cincinnati Revolt is insignificant in the pantheon of gun rights history,” he writes. “It most certainly is.” He presumably means that it is not insignificant. That’s just one of numerous errors that would have been caught by any reasonably careful editor or proofreader. Although generally minor, they sometimes raise questions about the book’s sources.
According to Charles, for instance, a member survey that the NRA conducted in 1975 included this question: “Do you believe your local police need to carry firearms to arrest and murder suspects?” We can surmise that the word and, which radically changes the meaning of the question, was included accidentally. But it’s not clear whether the accident should be attributed to Charles or the NRA.
Despite such puzzles, Charles is on firm ground in arguing that the NRA has frequently portrayed even relatively modest regulations as the first step toward mass disarmament. But he also shows the NRA has blocked policies that would have substantially limited the right to keep and bear arms. Charles seems loath to acknowledge that such proposals lent credence to the NRA’s warnings.
The National Firearms Act of 1934, for example, originally would have covered handguns as well as machine guns and short-barreled rifles. The law required registration of those weapons and imposed a $200 tax on transfers, which was designed to be prohibitive, amounting to about $4,600 in current dollars. Had Congress enacted the original version of that bill, possession of what the Supreme Court would later describe as “the quintessential self-defense weapon” would have been sharply restricted.
More generally, Charles depicts the NRA’s concerns about gun registration as overblown, verging on paranoia. But while registration is not necessarily a prelude to prohibition, it is a practical prerequisite for any effective confiscation scheme, and such schemes were seriously entertained even after the debate over the National Firearms Act.
In 1969, a bipartisan majority of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which President Lyndon B. Johnson had appointed the previous year, recommended confiscation of handguns from those who failed to demonstrate “a special need for self-protection.” Charles says Richard Nixon, Johnson’s successor, was initially inclined to support a handgun ban. Although “his advisors convinced him otherwise,” the policy remained a live issue.
The National Coalition to Ban Handguns was founded in 1974. Two years later, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson urged Congress to “immediately ban the import, manufacture, sale and possession of all handguns.” Congress never did that. But cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., did ban handguns via laws that the Supreme Court eventually overturned. In this context, it is not hard to understand why the NRA objected to national gun registration, which was backed by prominent legislators such as Sen. Joseph Tydings (D–Md.) and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R–Pa.).
Charles notes that Scott repudiated his support for registration in 1970 because he worried that it could cost him reelection, and he describes several similar reversals. But Charles argues that the NRA’s bark was worse than its bite. Although the idea that the NRA and other gun rights groups could swing elections became widely accepted beginning in 1968, he says, a closer look at races where they supposedly did so makes that proposition doubtful.
Charles is similarly skeptical of the idea that policies such as federal restrictions on the inexpensive handguns known as “Saturday night specials” and California’s 1967 ban on carrying loaded firearms without a permit harked back to the racist roots of gun control. Scholars such as Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson and UCLA law professor Adam Winkler have suggested a racial motivation can be inferred from the context of those policies. While the circumstantial evidence in both cases strikes me as pretty strong, Charles apparently would be satisfied only by explicit statements of anti-black animus.
Charles’ skepticism does not extend to the reasoning behind gun restrictions that the NRA often opposed and sometimes accepted. Once Congress excised handguns from the National Firearms Act, for instance, the rationale for restricting short-barreled rifles—that they were relatively easy to conceal—became nonsensical. And does anyone seriously suppose that the 1968 ban on mail-order rifles had a significant impact on violent crime?
Nor does Charles delve into the logic of the “prohibited persons” categories that were established by the Gun Control Act of 1968 and broadened by subsequent legislation. You might think a policy of disarming millions of Americans with no history of violence would merit a little more discussion, especially since the NRA supports that policy, notwithstanding the organization’s supposedly resolute defense of gun rights.
Such compromises, which make the right to armed self-defense contingent on legislative fiat, help explain the emergence of groups that position themselves as more steadfast than the NRA, such as the Second Amendment Foundation and Gun Owners of America. Charles presents compelling evidence that the NRA’s resistance to gun control long predates the 1970s. But so does the NRA’s acquiescence to gun control, which continues to this day.