How the NRA's creed defines America's gun debate

Download Audio
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre speaks during the Leadership Forum at the NRA-ILA Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center Friday, May 27, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre speaks during the Leadership Forum at the NRA-ILA Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center Friday, May 27, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

"Liberty can be messy. Liberty is worth fighting for, it's worth getting some dings in your frame over. ... We always win this battle against tyrants."

That's Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert with her version of a creed held by leaders of the gun rights movement.

For decades, the NRA has said that America's astronomical rate of gun violence is "the price we pay for freedom." But at what cost?

Today, On Point: We'll look at the NRA's creed, and how it may be the most powerful force in the American debate about guns.


Frank Smyth, investigative journalist and author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History. (@SmythFrank)

Pat McCrory, former Republican Governor of North Carolina. (@PatMcCroryNC)

Interview Highlights

Before the mid-1970s, what did the NRA believe about the relationship between individual firearms ownership in this country and fundamental liberty?

Frank Smyth: “The NRA took no position whatsoever on gun policy, or gun rights or gun restrictions for the first 50 years of its existence, when it was founded during Reconstruction in 1871, up through the 1920s. So the modern NRA since the Cincinnati revolt, the event in 1977 that forever changed the NRA. The modern NRA since then has falsely claimed that the NRA was founded as a civil rights group, but nothing could be further from the truth. This idea, the NRA was founded to improve military marksmanship in anticipation of future wars, especially involving Europe.

“The first flag for gun rights that came up in the NRA was in 1922, in an article in their then official magazine, Arms in the Man, that was in response to both the Bolshevik communist takeover of the Soviet Union five years before, which concerns some members of the NRA and some members of the leadership. So they wrote an editorial about it, and they also made a connection to a 1911 New York state gun law that is now, over a century later, under consideration by the Supreme Court and could well be overturned.

"But back then, before 1977, the NRA took the view that gun ownership and gun regulations could coexist and that there was common ground. It was possible to find a compromise to respect gun owners’ rights, and still protect public safety. All that changed in 1977 for the creed that you're talking about.”

How did this creed became a fundamental belief of people well beyond NRA leadership?

Frank Smyth: “It's predominantly a recent phenomenon. The NRA since 1977 and especially since 1991, when LaPierre took over as a leader ... has been a cautious organization. They've been masterful in their messaging, but they've been doing it in a way for decades that they said one thing to their base, and another thing, or emphasize other points, in public. More things like the importance of self-defense and the importance of being able to arm yourself against criminals, and then later broadening that out. Well, what if there's a natural disaster or hurricane and law enforcement isn't there to protect you? The NRA focused on that aspect, at least in public, whenever they were in front of the press or in Congress, through at least the early 2000 intense.

“But all that started to change after Sandy Hook. And really with the rise of Donald Trump. The NRA had bipartisan support in the late 70s and through the 80s for their position on gun rights. But their position on gun rights wasn't that overtly radical. And as we moved into in the 90s, the NRA's bipartisanship waned, but their role in the Republican Party grew. Yet the Republican Party never allowed an NRA representative to speak at a Republican National Convention.

"Neither party did. Until the Republicans allowed an NRA representative, then the chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, to speak at the Republican National Convention in 2016 in Cleveland, the same convention that nominated Trump. So the NRA and its views have ... grown increasingly ingrained in the Republican Party over time.

“But until 2016, even the Republicans kept them somewhat off center stage, because they were afraid it could it could they would stay we'd be too radical would undermine their message. The rise of Trump has allowed the NRA to take this view that they that before disseminated largely only to their base, to now explode out in the public for the first time. To say, because the NRA doesn't want to say on the record anymore, Oh, all these kids, all these children dying in Uvalde and these African Americans who were targeted in Buffalo and worshipers who were targeted in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, and in a host of other mass shootings across the country.

"They don't want to say to the public, Well, that's the price of freedom. Our ideology is more important. Our belief, our freedom, as we defined it, is more important than their lives. They don't want to say that. But now other people are saying it. So what you're seeing is this creed of the NRA, this belief that only easy access to the consumer, to consumers to be able to purchase guns and ammunition is the only thing keeping tyranny and ultimately genocide, as well, at bay.

“This view has now become stronger than the NRA itself, more important than the NRA's money. And it's so ingrained today within the planks of the Republican Party. ... That that's what's standing in the way of gun reform. And it will continue to block gun reform even if the NRA ends up dissolving in the years to come, which I think now is likely.”

On the notion of the ‘slippery slope’ and the NRA’s creed

Frank Smyth: “The notion of the slippery slope, was also referenced by President Bush after he spoke with the NRA's Wayne LaPierre in 2018. The slippery slope is at the core of their argument, and it is a fantasy based on fake history. So one thing that all your listeners need to understand is these kids and these adults are all dying for fake history, for a fantasy. The slippery slope, the NRA doesn't like to say this out loud, but they've helped support a book called Gun Control in the Third Reich that came out in 2013. And there's been means by former NRA board member Ted Nugent and others to put out the idea that, Oh, yes, history proves it. We all know the slippery slope is rooted in history.

"And their main claim, the backbone of this alleged theory, is that the Nazis used gun control registration lists for the Weimer Republic that preceded them in Germany to seize guns from Jews, thereby enabling the Holocaust. This is a crock of crap. There's not a word of this is true in. And there's no self-respecting Holocaust scholar who doesn't debunk this. That's completely, completely untrue, because European and German Jews did not have a tradition of gun ownership or armed resistance. And there's no records, even in the book, Gun Control and the Third Reich, of Nazi seizing guns from Jews besides hunting weapons and antique weapons, as the book itself indicates.

"But this claim, this false theory ... is what is stopping background checks today. And very few people noticed it. But last year, Senator Hawley, had an exchange with Amy Swearer of the Heritage Foundation, the same heritage official whom Representative Porter accused of perjury just last week. This notion is based on the idea when Hawley and Swearer had an exchange last year that said, Well, I'm opposed to background checks, because we know background checks on their own wouldn't work. You would still need some kind of registration process to know who bought the weapon, to be able to identify the purchaser and tie it to the weapon to keep track of the weapon.

"So we're opposed to background checks because they wouldn't work without gun registration. And therefore, it's convoluted argumentation, but therefore, background checks are just the slippery slope to gun registration. And everybody knows, even though Hawley didn't say it, that gun registration leads to tyranny and then holocausts, because that's what allegedly happened in the Holocaust. Not one word of this is true."

What does it take to unwind the NRA's creed?

Frank Smyth: “To challenge the fake history they put forth to defend their ideology, that's what it takes. And unfortunately, the Democrats and gun reformers have yet to challenge it because we have yet to find common ground and compromise. But the ideology is designed to make compromise impossible. That's why we haven't passed better background checks that 80% of the public, at least, or 90% of the public wants. And that's why we keep going down rabbit holes, talking about other things. The reason we have so much gun violence is easy access to guns, and that's the issue that is not being addressed.”

This program aired on June 15, 2022.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Headshot of John Ringer

John Ringer Freelance Producer, On Point
John Ringer was a freelance producer for On Point.



More from On Point

Listen Live