< The Untold Story of Guns


Friday, December 21, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is off this week. I’m Bob Garfield.

We’ve become accustomed in the past 20 years to seeing the issue of guns in America broken down into two camps, gun control advocates led by police chiefs and Sarah Brady against the all-powerful National Rifle Association, which not only asserts a Second Amendment guarantee of gun ownership, but uses its vast war chest to elect sympathetic politicians and defeat opponents.

But according to Adam Winkler, UCLA law professor and author of Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, there was a time, relatively recently, in fact, when the NRA supported gun control legislation and the staunchest defenders of so-called “gun rights” were on the radical left. That piece has been excerpted in The Atlantic. Adam, welcome to On the Media.  

ADAM WINKLER:  Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  I'm old enough to remember when the NRA was substantially an organization that promoted marksmanship and hunter safety and have seen some of this evolution, but I was genuinely stunned [LAUGHS] at recent history, which had somehow escaped me. Mainly, the origin of the gun rights movement in California in the sixties.

ADAM WINKLER:  One of the surprising things I discovered in writing Gunfight was that when the Black Panthers started carrying their guns around in Oakland, California in the late 1960s, it inspired a new wave of gun control laws. It was these laws that ironically sparked a backlash among rural white conservatives who were concerned that government was coming to get their guns next. The NRA mimicked many of the policy positions of the Black Panthers who viewed guns not just as a matter of protection for the home, but something you should be able to have out on the street and also protection against a hostile government that was tyrannical and disrespectful of people's rights.

BOB GARFIELD:  There was an incident with a traffic stop. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were sitting in a car, lightly armed.

ADAM WINKLER:  They refused to give up their firearms. Huey Newton had gone to law school for a short time and had learned that in California it was lawful for him to be carrying loaded weapons, as long as he carried them openly. In fact, the most dramatic incident was when the Black Panthers, 30 of them showed up at the California State Capitol, armed with loaded rifles, pistols and shotgun and marched right into the legislative chamber while it was in session. In fact, they were debating a gun control law, and the Panthers were there not to do violence, but to protest this gun control law.

BOB GARFIELD:  This episode freaked out conservative politicians, including the Governor of California, who could not for the life of him imagine a situation where a lawful American would want to carry a loaded weapon in public. What was the name of that governor?

ADAM WINKLER:   That was Ronald Reagan –


- who would go on to become the first presidential candidate ever endorsed by the NRA. And, of course, his politics did shift. He was an astute political strategist, and he understood by 1980 that he needed to support gun rights to keep his new right coalition together. And he was such an opponent of gun control when he was in office that even after he was the victim of an assassination attempt, he pushed for no new restrictive gun laws.

BOB GARFIELD:  So tell me more about the origins of the National Rifle Association, and when did they become radicalized along Second Amendment lines?

ADAM WINKLER:  The NRA was formed right after the Civil War by two former Union soldiers who were convinced that it was the poor marksmanship of Union soldiers that had allowed the war to go on so long. In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA was a supporter of gun control, pushing states to adopt restrictive laws on concealed carry of firearms. In the 1960s and ‘70s, a series of assassinations, like Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the race riots and the Black Panthers all led to a new wave of gun control laws. The NRA became divided between those who thought guns were primarily about hunting and recreation and those who thought guns were about personal protection against criminals in urban environments. Those hardliners ended up staging a coup at the annual membership meeting one year and replaced the entire leadership of the NRA with a group of

hardliners who were committed to fighting gun control at all costs.

BOB GARFIELD:  This was a schism that occurred at a point when the existing leadership of the NRA really wanted to move out West and focus on hunting.

ADAM WINKLER:  That's right. I think of how different politics in America would be had the leaders of the NRA in the early 1970s carried through with their plan to retreat from political activity, move to Colorado Springs and focus the organization on outdoors activities. That didn't happen, of course, and the NRA became committed to a very extreme view of the Second Amendment that really fought against any new gun control proposals, under the theory that any new law was a slippery slope towards total civilian disarmament. And that view has really shaped gun rights in America ever since.

BOB GARFIELD:  Adam, thank you very much.

ADAM WINKLER:  Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  Adam Winkler is a professor at UCLA and author of Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, which was excerpted in The Atlantic.

Friday morning, after a week of silence, the NRA held a press conference at which it took no questions but did assign blame for the massacre at Newtown. It was largely the media's fault. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre singled out violent movies and video games.

WAYNE LA PIERRE:  Too many in the national media, their corporate owners and their stockholders act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators.

BOB GARFIELD:  LaPierre’s proposed solution for school violence? Armed security nationwide, to confront future assailants.

WAYNE LA PIERRE:  The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun-


- is a good guy with a gun.



Adam Winkler

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield