Since its inception as a group dedicated to providing marksmanship training in 1871, the National Rifle Association has grown into a powerful lobbying organization with a single overriding purpose: to promote and defend the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Some of the NRA’s rhetorical tactics on behalf of gun ownership have been condemned as racially divisive, exploiting wedge issues such as illegal immigration and urban crime to sow fear and increase membership, critics say.
In one frequently cited instance, the NRA’s executive vice president Wayne LaPierre penned an editorial encouraging Americans to “buy more guns than ever” to meet a purported threat of border-crossing gang members bent on the “murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping” of law-abiding citizens. He went on to describe south Brooklyn in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (when the borough actually underwent a lull in violent crime) as a “hellish world” where “looters ran wild” and anyone who failed to get home before dark “might not get home at all.”
Some NRA supporters have countered accusations that the group has been racially insensitive by claiming the opposite is true — that the organization was, in fact, founded in order to combat racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and ensure that African Americans, particularly freed slaves, could defend themselves against racist attacks:
One version of this revisionist narrative was laid out by conservative Christian author David Barton during a 2013 appearance on Glenn Beck’s television show, The Blaze, and summarized on Beck’s web site as follows:
… In addition, Barton addressed the founding of the NRA. While some like to demonize pro-Second Amendment group and even call it prejudiced, it turns out the powerful group was in fact started by two Union generals in 1871 as a means to driving out the Ku Klux Klan and ensuring that blacks, who although then-free were not allowed means with which to defend themselves — could in fact legally own a gun.
Barton’s statement echoed one made by Harry Alford, the president and chief executive officer of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, who had praised the National Rifle Association during a February 2013 press conference on gun control:
I want to thank the Lord for our Constitution. I also want to thank the NRA for its legacy. The National Rifle Association was started, founded by religious leaders who wanted to protect freed slaves from the Ku Klux Klan. They would raise money, buy arms, show the free slaves how to use those arms and protect their families. God bless you. Many of us probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the NRA.
The same claim has turned up in the form of social media memes emphasizing the NRA’s purported role in training black Americans to fight back against the Ku Klux Klan:
These sources fall short when it comes to providing evidence to support their claims, however. Indeed, the notion that the National Rifle Association originated as a group devoted to protecting freed slaves and “driving out” the Ku Klux Klan contradicts the NRA’s own account of its origin (as posted on their web site):
Dismayed by the lack of marksmanship shown by their troops, Union veterans Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate formed the National Rifle Association in 1871. The primary goal of the association would be to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis,” according to a magazine editorial written by Church.
After being granted a charter by the state of New York on November 17, 1871, the NRA was founded. Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who was also the former governor of Rhode Island and a U.S. senator, became the fledgling NRA’s first president.
According to NRA co-founder George Wingate’s own account in his 1896 History of the Twenty-Second Regiment of the National Guard of the State of New York, the organization was founded to fulfill a perceived need to provide marksmanship training for members of the armed forces, prompting his authorship of a rifle training manual and participation in the creation of the National Rifle Association:
The instructions which had thus been prepared by the writer were afterwards elaborated by him in a series of articles published in the Army and Navy Journal during 1869 and 1870, which excited much discussion in military circles. They led to the formation of the National Rifle Association in September 1871, of which their author was made secretary, and afterwards vice-president and president. These regulations constituted the foundation of Wingate’s Manual of Rifle Practice, which was written at the request of the National Rifle Association to supply a book which would serve as a manual of instruction for the National Guard.
The NRA’s mission statement, as published in the organization’s 1873 Annual Report, tells the same story in greater detail:
REASONS FOR ITS ORGANIZATION
Although the introduction of the rifle as a military weapon was owing to the lessons of our Revolution, and although our success in the earlier contests of our history depended upon the skill in its use displayed by our ancestors, no recognition has been given by our citizens of the fact that the change which has taken place in the habits of the American people is rapidly depriving them of that personal skill in arms and marksmanship which has hitherto formed one of the greatest elements of our national strength. This is the more to be regretted, as the introduction of long range breech loaders has made this skill of even more importance at the present time; than under the ancient system for not only the conflict between Prussia and Austria, but the more recent French and Prussian contest have demonstrated that the very accuracy and rapidity of fire, which renders these arms so formidable in the hands of trained marksmen, simply results in a waste of ammunition with those unfamiliar with their use, which leaves an army helpless at the decisive moment of battle. Other nations, recognizing these facts, have long since instituted a thorough system of instruction in rifle practice, France, Germany, Switzerland, and above all, England, and Canada unite in giving to rifle practice a leading position in their systems of military training …
In this country, on the other hand, the matter has been entirely neglected, although our entire system of defense is based upon the levying of volunteers in cases of emergency, who, to be valuable or even available, must understand the use of arms and supply by their skill as individuals the confidence which discipline gives to regular troops. While England has a system of rifle practice which is required to be annually and thoroughly performed by every soldier in her army whether stationed in India, Australia, or Europe, our War Department has not even enforced the system of Major Willard, adopted in 1862, and sends raw recruits against the Indian hunters of the plains. In the National Guard of New York, and other States, a similar apathy has prevailed so that it has been the rule, not the exception, for a man to serve out his full term of enlistment in their ranks without firing a shot.
FORMATION OF THE NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION
This anomalous condition of affairs, having excited considerable discussion among military men through the press, finally on November 24 1871 led to the formation in the City of New York of The National Rifle Association, which was designed and bids fair to be the parent of many similar associations throughout the country.
We found similar accounts in any number of books on the history of firearms and gun politics in the United States, including Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law (2012), Gun Violence in America: The Struggle for Control (2003), and Gun Politics in America (2016). All of them cited the need for organized firearms training in the military as the primary motivation for the NRA’s creation; none of them mentioned protecting freed slaves or doing battle against the Ku Klux Klan.
While it is not impossible that some black Americans were indirect beneficiaries of the NRA’s firearms training evangelism after the Civil War, we rate these revisionist notions about the group’s founding purpose False.