How the NRA hijacked the Republican Party

By Nicholas Wapshott
January 18, 2013

There are few better ways of grasping how far the Republicans have abandoned the middle ground, where they used to win elections, than the way their leaders have become agents of the gun industry. Conservatives used to consider themselves law-abiding citizens who put great store by the permanence of institutions, by the rule of law, and by the traditional caution and common sense of the sensible majority. Such devotion to stability, continuation, and moderation explains why so many conservatives were alarmed when the social revolution of the Sixties erupted. Suddenly, it seemed, everything was on the move. Children no longer believed in the wisdom of their elders, nor obeyed the unwritten rules that had guided every previous generation. The days of everyone knowing their place and remaining in it were overthrown and it appeared that anarchy had broken out in America.

Nowhere was this more evident to traditional conservatives than in the way African-Americans responded to the civil rights legislation enacted by Lyndon Johnson. Instead of being grateful for the overdue democratic changes wrested from reluctant Southern lawmakers, a significant number of African-Americans demanded more profound change. There were riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other major cities which were met by calls from conservatives for tighter gun controls. The Black Panthers, dressed as soldiers and carrying guns, as was their right under the Second Amendment, demanded that African-Americans be allowed to live in a separate self-governing state. In May 1967, 30 Panthers took loaded rifles, shotguns, and pistols into the California State Capitol to protest against new gun control laws. The California governor, Ronald Reagan, declared: “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

After John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Johnson joined with conservatives to pass the federal Gun Control Act that stipulated a minimum age for gun buyers, restricted traffic across state lines to federally registered gun dealers, limited the sale of certain destructive bullets, required guns to carry serial numbers, and added drug addicts and the insane to those, like felons, who were already forbidden to own guns. When it transpired that Lee Harvey Oswald had bought the rifle that killed the president mail order from the pages of the National Rifle Association magazine, the NRA Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth backed an end to mail-order sales. “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States,” he said.

In the mid-Seventies, the NRA switched from being a moderate organization backing moderate gun controls into a radical body that promulgated an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment with a new motto: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” It was this originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment that led Warren Burger, the conservative, constructionist chief justice appointed by Richard Nixon to declare on PBS in 1991 that the NRA had perpetrated “one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word fraud – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. … [the NRA has] misled the American people and they, I regret to say, they have had far too much influence on the Congress of the United States than as a citizen I would like to see. And I am a gun man.”

Today the Republican Party remains in hock to the NRA leadership and through them to their paymasters in the gun-making industry. The NRA runs an official list, like the old Communist Party, of preferred candidates and grades them according to their adherence to the strict constructionist interpretation of the Second Amendment. If a candidate fails to offer total support for absolutist gun rights, the NRA funds a campaign in the next party primary to unseat them. Polls suggest, however, that the NRA leadership no longer represents the wishes of its members towards moderate gun controls, and since the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren, the extremism of NRA leaders like Wayne LaPierre, whose tin-eared response to the shootings so jarred voters in all parties, suggests the existence at the top of the organization of a self-serving, superannuated elite that no longer commands the confidence of its rank and file.

Gun rights activism is just one strand of Republican extremism out of kilter with moderate Republicans and middle ground independent voters who decide elections. In the mid-Seventies, while Second Amendment fundamentalists were starting to blacklist GOP candidates who would not support their hard line, the party was also transformed by the rise of radical Christian fundamentalists, whose literal reading of scripture led them to adopt social conservative positions on abortion, race, and homosexuality. These changes coincided with the arrival of neo-conservatism, a body of theory that saw America as not just the world’s policeman but the harbinger of democracy everywhere with a particular brief to counter radical Islam. Until then it could be argued, citing two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, that the Democrats were the war party and the Republicans the party that put America first. Since the neo-cons that notion has been turned on its head by the persecution of two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were to be abandoned after an inconclusive outcome.

Around the same time, economic notions that had ensured unprecedented prosperity under Eisenhower and Nixon gave way in the GOP to fiscal conservatism – absolutist ideas about the money supply and reducing public spending that George H. W. Bush derided as “voodoo economics.” Since 2009, libertarian insurgents that in the GOP primaries last year accounted for about 10 per cent of party activists have extrapolated careful budgeting into demands for minimal government. Since Tea Party protestors entered the GOP in numbers in 2009, they have instituted further restrictive demands upon Republican candidates, diminishing the discretion of elected officials by directing them to obey pledges not to raise taxes.

Once a moderate party protecting old fashioned values, since the mid-Seventies the Republicans have adopted extreme positions that are alien to the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush Sr. A party proud of its pragmatism is being driven by dogmatic theories imported by unbending ideologues such as Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek. On guns, abortion, immigration, women’s health, homosexual rights, home schooling, and a host of other issues, the once inclusive Republican Party has lost its one-nation tradition and supplanted it with a hotchpotch of sectarian interests policed by a coalition of narrow, theory-driven mavericks, curmudgeons, libertarians, radicals, and eccentrics.

The GOP is deeply divided, a split that conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer attribute to fast footwork by President Obama. Other conservatives, such as Bill O’Reilly, think the party will find it hard to put itself back together by the time of the next presidential election, never mind the mid-terms in two years. Citing the way Obama and Bill Clinton arrived from nowhere to save the Democrats from an unpopular ideological stance, Krauthammer believes the Republicans will be saved by an as-yet unknown savior. Four years is, indeed, a long time in politics, but it may take far longer than that to purge the party of its popular perception as a redoubt for gun-toting, women-loathing, gay-hating, xenophobic, war-mongering anarchists.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W.W. Norton. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: Chuck Norris delivers a message for the National Rifle Association (NRA) on television displays at the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington February 10, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

26 comments

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I don’t blame the NRA or politicians. I pity them for not being intellectually honest, or even just generally honest. But I don’t really blame them for the current state of conservatism in the US.

No, the blame rests squarely upon the voters who let themselves me pandered too (in fact positively jumping at the chance not to have to think for themselves), are wilfully ignorant (in a time when a good chunk of the world’s knowledge can be found at your local library, and almost all knowledge is available online), and fail to use logic and reason at almost every possible opportunity.

US voters made their own bed. Now they’re lying awake at night wondering what went so wrong, and blaming everyone but themselves. I don’t feel the least bit sorry for them, but I do fear a US of extremist fanatics that is already influencing my own country – New Zealand – for the worse.

Posted by Wizardling | Report as abusive

Who cares what this gentleman thinks and writes. It just fits into Reuter’s slot of liberal manure that is being emitted everyday from them. NRA = true American patriots.

Posted by Dontgivea | Report as abusive

NRA is a dealer lobby. And they’re able to talk gullible citizens into sending them money. I think that’s smart.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

What the author ignores is the fundamental issue is that the USA is not a democracy, but a 2 party autocracy.

Until we have 3rd and 4th parties, who receive the same kind of subsidizes from the gov as the 2 incumbants, we will never have a truly free election

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

Some people refer to the tendency of millions of Americans to stock powerful firearms they don’t need as ‘gun culture’.
In fact, it’s more of a cult, or in many cases an addiction.
Over the years, gun manufactures and vendors have managed to brainwash a sufficient number of insecure people into believing all sorts of nonsense, starting from the idea that the government wants to control gun ownership as a first step to implementing a tyrannical regime, through the fallacious notion that owning assault rifles, shotguns, powerful handguns and powerful ammunition is both cool and necessary, etc.
As in many cases, this is basically about unbridled corporate greed and the absence of social responsibility of manufacturers, vendors, dealers, media, etc.
Millions of Americans suffer from gun addiction. Such people are often referred to as gun nuts.

I wish both Republican and Democrat politicians who are smart enough to realize what this is really about had more decency and concern for public safety, and some kind of a moral backbone.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

A well written article but it is mis-titled, in that the NRA did not high-jack the Republican Party – the Evangelicals did – which forces moderate Republicans and Independents to either pass on voting or to consider Democratic candidates – as is appropriately identified in the article.

Posted by ArribaJuarez | Report as abusive

If the NRA doesn’t represent the views of the majority of gun owners (and my own anecdotal evidence jives with the referenced study), why do they belong to it? Why hasn’t a moderate gun-rights group emerged?

The mainstream media has played a significant role in enabling the “extreming” of the Republican Party. An American visitor from 1975 would find the terms of today’s debates within the media unfathomable. That we can have the rich paying the lowest taxes in over half a century, a declining middle class, a completely corrupt elite (both parties, and in all sectors of society), and the biggest discussion is around how much to strip away from the social safety net and whether it’s OK to require background checks for gun owners — it IS unfathomable. I guess it’s some measure of progress since 2010 that we are no longer talking much about tax cuts for the rich, and when we are, the media now treats it as the kooky idea it is.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

The “freedom act” allows our government to spy unfettered by process on us. The banks ran a scam that socialized billions of dollars of their knowingly risky failures. The administration lied to get us into a war with Iraq. The supreme court has allow corporations the right to buy congress and the president. The NRA claims they will protect us from a tyrannical government. They look to be the same chicken hawks that the right always is.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The NRA has not hijacked anything, as evidenced by the number of Democrats who have constituencies who embrace the 2nd Amendment. Those who condemn the 2nd Amendment out-of-hand as an anachronism are uniformed or ignoring history.

As for gun owners being a “cult”. Nice try. For you statists that look to your municipal and state governments to fulfill even the smallest of your needs, there are at least a hundred million of us that look inward first. We value our liberty, and the responsibility, that comes with it. You can categorize us as a cult, bunch of rednecks, hillbillies, gun nut, or whatever terminology that makes you feel superior. (That’s a personal issue only you can resolve.)

When push-comes-to-shove, we are the ones you look to first when the heavy lifting is required. And, we take great pride in the fact that we do not have to look to you. Feel free to give any one of us a call when your home is broken into or your family is threatened. In the meantime, try to reason with the criminal until my wife can get there to save your hide.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

NRA is a cynical, mercenary political cult obsessed with wielding power while exploiting members’ fear in order to maximize contributions.

The absurd salaries that LaPierre and co. earn, which place NRA executives among the highest-paid officials of any tax-exempt organization, are funded by biannual “crisis du jour” fund-raising drives, in which members are exhorted to donate additional funds to fend off the latest alleged threat to their Second Amendment rights.

The NRA’s inflexible positions have placed the nation’s most prominent representative of law-abiding gun owners in increasing opposition to law enforcement, gun makers, and moderate Republicans. The upshot is that the NRA is not an effective advocate for its members’ interests.

Obsessed with fund-raising, scare-mongering, and wielding political power, NRA leadership undermines commonsense solutions that would protect gun-owners’ rights while reducing accidental shootings and gun violence.

Gun owners need to wake up and realize that the NRA has betrayed your trust and misused your hard-earned donations.

Posted by damdam | Report as abusive

What no mention of the Gun Control ACt of ’68 that was the motivation for the NRA to take a hard stance? No mention that the NRA’s stance was affirmed in the higher courts of many states and finally in the Supreme Court as well.

then there is that whole lie of omission by the anti-gun (hoplophobe) writers, that the majority of LE outside the NE United states, own guns personally beyond their issue weapon. Yet you don’t hear these alarmists calling cops “cultist gun nuts” do you?

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

So before my crucfiction read and forgive the spelling. America’s politicians are neither Democrats or Republicans. But rather socialist leaning liberals or uncomprimising conservatives. The majority of politicians do have a couple of things in common. They are filthy rich and panderers. They will orhestrate a shameless specticule as the one brought to by Obama with his speech the other day. One party wants to control the public’s daily life the other thier money. They have no idea what gun control is only that if they it the right chord they stay in power. We in the states have gun control. Law abiding citizens obey the law. The criminals, the whacko that snap, and the extremists get guns anyway they want. DO we then suggest tougher penalties? No we go after an easy target. Those already obeying the law. How about we just enforce what’s on the books. But that would be cold pricklees not warm fuzzies.

Posted by WTELL | Report as abusive

We could be having a calm and reasonable discussion about implementing more comprehensive national background checks, forcing gun show sales background checks in the states that don’t already, increasing funding for mental health care AND protecting the framework of our Constitution…

We could that is if the media wasn’t populated with vitriolic hyperbolists who see a national tragedy as a wonderful opportunity to advance their personal theories of social correctness and the truth be damned.

The NRA barely makes the tail end of the top 50 in political contributions and PAC ads and somehow they’ve bought the Republicans? Not hardly, but keep throwing gas on the fire.

All shooting sports sales for 2011 were a mere $4.1 billion as part of a $15 trillion economy and somehow the Republicans are in hock to the gun manufacturers? I’ve never bought a politician but this seems highly unlikely.

No sir, the invisible elephant in your article is the majority of citizens who own firearms, and/or believe they are a necessary part of our society. That’s who the Republicans and more than a few Democrats are supporting.

Oh, and nice finish with the “gun-toting, women-loathing, gay-hating, xenophobic, war-mongering anarchists” bit. Couldn’t you find a bigger paintbrush to smear your lies with?

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

Wapshott: simplistic Pablum. You call this biased, one sided article journalism???

CaptnCrunch and VultureTX: agreed.

Posted by AuAgExpl | Report as abusive

If we really wanted to eliminate all the shootings, we as a country would remove the means and opportunity for them to happen. We would outlaw guns and devise ways to detect them from a distance so that they cannot get near crowds and schools. Until guns are actually removed from general circulation, we always have the risk of some madman shooting people. Let’s vote to change the second amendment. Let’s not let lobbyists and party stances prevent us from removing this menace to our children.

Posted by Larkandraven | Report as abusive

What is the single fact that confounds Obamunists from mass arrests and mass property siezures? The People exercising their 2nd Am.

All here know the fanatics and they ain’t Conservative, Constitutionalist gun owners.

Posted by krusatyr | Report as abusive

Next story: How the Communist Party U.S. hijacked the democrat party.

Posted by vertical | Report as abusive

Seriously, the author of this biased text is British. He obviously has no understanding of our constitution and has no business even commenting on the CRA or the Republican party. Wapshott, go join forces with Piers Morgan…. another person who is not American and has no business commenting on anything to do with our Country.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Let us define:Assault weapon. “A fully automatic machine gun”. Not a semi-automatic.
The Obama Administration has exploited a tragedy to ramp up public emotion; and pressure legislators, to yield to his will. He has launched an attack on law abiding citizens, who use semi-automatics for: World wide competitive target and self defense shooting; hunting; recreational target shooting.
The 2nd amendment does not specify what types of guns the
law abiding citizens shall keep and bear. Focus on crime
and mental illness, President Obama!

Posted by achillies | Report as abusive

@VultureTX — the article does talk about the Gun Control Act in paragraph 3.

Posted by leslie20 | Report as abusive

For the most part I agree with what Mr..Wapshott has written. However, that last paragraph is grossly simplistic. Opposing abortion for moral reasons is NOT anti-woman. Being against gay marriage because it violates your religious beliefs is not hateful, but a matter of belief. Then there is the fact that “gun-toting,xenophobic and war mongering” people can be found in both parties.

Mr. Wapshott also ignores the extremist groups in the Democratic Party.( NOW, Code Pink, PETA) who are doing their part in hurting reasonable political discourse in this country.

Posted by quattro4 | Report as abusive

For the most part I agree with what Mr..Wapshott has written. However, that last paragraph is grossly simplistic. Opposing abortion for moral reasons is NOT anti-woman. Being against gay marriage because it violates your religious beliefs is not hateful, but a matter of belief. Then there is the fact that “gun-toting,xenophobic and war mongering” people can be found in both parties.

Mr. Wapshott also ignores the extremist groups in the Democratic Party.( NOW, Code Pink, PETA) who are doing their part in hurting reasonable political discourse in this country.

Posted by quattro4 | Report as abusive

@Dontgivea:
“NRA = True American Patriots”. This is precisely the kind of bizarre jingoist sloganeering that the Western world now expects from U.S. “Conservatives” who can’t seem to form or (let alone articulate) a informed & coherent thought. The intellectual resources of the Republican party have eroded considerably over the last decade or so, now reduced to a mantra appealing to base instincts and justified by a revised history, devoid of nuance, context and frequently even at odds with axiomatic & normally incontrovertible facts. Its as if somebody actually decided that an ill-informed view if intransigently held is better than an informed & cogent one.

From Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin … sad

Posted by Mark1234512345 | Report as abusive

Combative tone and generalisation are possibly the 2 biggest enemies of diplomacy. The author would do well not to denigrate the very people they need to negotiate with. Even if they deserve their hate…

If the US should be embarrassed by anything it’s not the waning economy, warmongering, frighteningly inefficient healthcare, and crime running rife (if you believe the Right).
It’s the unfitting hyperbolic conduct that is usually displayed by people of the extreme left and right.
You do know the only outcome of butting heads is 2 people with a sore head right? Sure one will be sorer then the other but you will both be hurting in the end…

Posted by Azza9 | Report as abusive

Being a libertarian i can honestly say i don`t like republicans or democrats. That being said, this article is nothing more then an anti republican rant.

The only thing extreme i see here is a biased author exploiting the deaths of kids to call the constitution extreme.

Posted by rakez1 | Report as abusive

if drug dealers were as organized as the nra and paid out to republicans like the nra then the republicans would support them like they do the nra.

Posted by googlemcgoogle | Report as abusive