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THE N.R.A.: The Unauthorized History

By Frank Smyth

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The long and complicated history of the powerful gun rights organization known as the National Rifle Association merits a serious examination by an author not handpicked by the group to tell its story. The journalist and gun enthusiast Frank Smyth has nominated himself for the task. The result, “The N.R.A.: The Unauthorized History,” is an earnest and refreshingly even-tempered, if not entirely thorough, account of the most feared lobbying force in America.

The N.R.A. began as a Reconstruction-era organization “with the mission to improve military preparedness in anticipation of future wars,” Smyth says. Its evolution after that — into a gentlemen’s hunting club with an unexpected affinity for wildlife conservation, until Second Amendment absolutists seized power in the 1970s — is ably traced by the author, who narrates the audio version of his book in no-nonsense tones.

Some of what Smyth uncovers is surprising, beginning with the fact that the original association had chapters in both the United States and Britain. The American version took no position on the first notable gun law (in New York State in 1911, requiring a gun license for non-officers). In the 1920s it supported legislation clamping down on firearms used for organized crime. At the same time, as Smyth’s research shows, the federal government made clear its appreciation of the early N.R.A., the military subsidizing shooting classes during World War I and selling to association members their surplus rifles at cost. The N.R.A. grew radically between 1945 and 1968, from 84,000 members to over one million, but its politics did not. That would change during the mid-70s, when the group’s hard-liners formed a lobbying wing, ousted its moderate leadership and installed aggressive new replacements — among them, a former George McGovern volunteer and special education teacher named Wayne LaPierre.

Frank Smyth reads from his history of the National Rifle Association. In this manner, Smyth proves his worth as an archival researcher. Unfortunately, the more recent history of the N.R.A. is manifestly opaque. The organization does not disclose its membership or its finances. Its political connivances — how it waters down or defeats altogether gun control initiatives, even in the wake of horrific mass shootings — can only be reconstructed through dogged investigative reporting. Here Smyth comes up short. He doesn’t mention how the one concession in what was otherwise the N.R.A.’s first major legislative victory — the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, which reversed many of the restrictions imposed in a 1968 bill but also banned machine guns — would thereafter be cited by the absolutists as an original sin of compromise. Nor does Smyth note that the clause in the 1994 Brady Bill allowing its restrictions to elapse after 10 years was arranged by a leading Democrat, the legendary Michigan congressman John Dingell, who angrily cut all ties with the N.R.A. two decades later.

As an N.R.A. member, Smyth managed to obtain a press badge and attended some of its conventions. But it’s not clear what that access got him, beyond a few insights into some of the N.R.A.’s illustrious board members, including celebrities like the actor Tom Selleck and the former N.B.A. star Karl Malone. The inner workings of its ad campaigns, membership drives, back-room arm-twisting and pressure from both the right (Gun Owners of America) and the left (Moms Demand Action) go largely undiscussed. The author gamely broaches the matter of race, pointing out that the N.R.A. did nothing to protect freed slaves during Reconstruction but later came to the rescue of Southern segregationists. But no examination is given to how the group stoked fear during the Obama presidency — or, for that matter, how an avid hunter named Donald Trump Jr. helped broker the group’s ironclad relationship with his father, a former supporter of gun control. Most frustrating of all is that Smyth does not shed any new light on the N.R.A.’s financial relationship with Russia, instead relying on previously published investigations.

Fellow journalists like myself can sympathize with the author’s struggles to penetrate the group’s iron veil. Smyth concludes by lamenting that “the N.R.A. is perhaps the only organization to have an archive of priceless documents and videos that it still refuses to share with its own members, let alone the world.” As to what this trove contains, the wait continues.

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