The year 2015 poses serious challenges as we begin to navigate the final two years of the Obama administration. But it also gives us cause for celebration: This year we mark the 40th anniversary of your NRA Institute for Legislative Action (ILA).
In 1975, no one could have envisioned the money and coordination now backing the firearm prohibition agenda supported by President Barack Obama and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But NRA members were seeing the consequences of the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Act represented the first federal restrictions on the Second Amendment since the 1930s, and it also served as a political awakening for the nation’s gun owners. Leadership figures within the NRA and on its Board of Directors began to organize support for the formation of a dedicated lobbying arm within NRA. In 1975, John Dingell, a board member and a congressman, introduced a resolution that formally established the Institute for Legislative Action as an independent arm of the NRA. Dingell, by the way, had served in the U.S. House of Representatives until the end of last year, leaving a legacy as the longest-serving House member in history, with a term of 58 years.
The NRA Board looked to a former NRA president to head the new ILA. They named Harlon B. Carter, who had served as NRA president in 1966 and 1967 and was also the former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, to the post. A Life member of the NRA since 1936, Carter held 45 shooting records. He was a spellbinding orator and a man of great charisma, famous for his hard-line, no-compromise attitude.
ILA’s first skirmish calls to mind the battles we face today. A gun control group petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban handgun ammunition as a “hazardous substance.” ILA worked with Idaho Sen. James McClure to launch ILA’s first grassroots drive, asking for letters to be sent to CPSC opposing the petition. In the end, supporters of the ban had racked up 400 letters to be sent to CPSC, while letters opposing the ban numbered more than 300,000. You’ve all heard the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Today, anti-hunting groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban lead in ammunition as a “toxic substance.”...the phony issues of the “plastic gun,” “cop-killer bullet” and “assault weapon” all entered America’s political lexicon.
On legislative issues, ILA’s mettle was tested soon after it was created. A mere 69 days into the presidency of Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley attempted to kill Reagan with a revolver outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. Reagan was wounded, as was his press secretary, James Brady. Brady emerged as a spokesman for the era’s single prominent gun control group, which began its pursuit of the namesake “Brady Bill” to require a waiting period before the purchase of a handgun.
At the same time, gun control activists had discovered the tactic of baselessly inflaming the public by hatching new buzzwords to hype nonexistent threats to public safety. And thus the phony issues of the “plastic gun,” “cop-killer bullet” and “assault weapon” all entered America’s political lexicon. But at least the proponents were still honest about their intentions, with Brady’s group going by the name of Handgun Control Inc. Now, “control” has been dropped from their group name—but the agenda hasn’t changed. It’s still about control.
ILA’s first major federal legislative victory addressed the most egregious restrictions in the 1968 Act, in a bill titled the Firearm Owners Protection Act. President Reagan signed it into law in 1986. And in the states, NRA Past President Marion Hammer sparked a national campaign for the right of self-defense by leading Florida to pass a pioneering Right-to-Carry law in 1987. Dark days for ILA would soon loom, however. With the election of Bill Clinton as president, the anti-gun lobby found a willing mouthpiece to parrot their propaganda and push their agenda. In quick succession, Congress passed a heavily modified “Brady Bill,” as well as a 10-year ban on so-called “assault weapons.” But even these defeats illustrated the resourcefulness of the ILA team. The “Brady Bill” was modified so that the waiting period provisions were short-lived, replaced in 1998 by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that we know today. And a “sunset” provision was added to the 1994 Clinton gun ban so that it would expire in 2004. It was not renewed then because the Congress had changed dramatically in composition. Knowing at the time that the votes were simply not there to defeat these bills, ILA’s tactical maneuvers ensured that the “victories” of the gun control lobby would in time diminish.
By this time ILA was also shepherding a carefully constructed legal effort through the federal courts. Reams of contemporary legal scholarship had been produced that confirmed that the Founding Fathers intended the Second Amendment to guarantee an individual right to own a firearm—but the U.S. Supreme Court had never issued a direct ruling. ILA was determined to change that, when the time was right, but the effort would require a solid underpinning. ILA thus quietly began supporting a handful of carefully vetted cases in the federal courts intended to create the split between circuits that would attract the attention of the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the anti-gun lobby turned to a legal strategy of its own: It would abuse the court system by orchestrating the filing of dozens of baseless lawsuits against the gun industry. The suits were never intended to succeed—but simply to bankrupt the industry and force it to accept new restrictions that the gun control lobby couldn’t win in Congress. ILA began to fight back at the state level, passing laws to pre-empt the filing of such suits. But a national answer to this problem would require a federal law.In ILA’s short history, the Second Amendment debate has covered an enormous distance.
The pieces fell into place in 2000, with the razor-thin victory of George W. Bush as president. ILA was able to pass a national lawsuit pre-emption bill through the Congress—the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which Bush signed into law in 2005. That was also the year that Bush began to reshape the Supreme Court with the nomination of John Roberts, and then Samuel Alito. Those two justices provided the margin of victory in the 5-4 rulings in both the Heller and McDonald cases, where the Supreme Court confirmed that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own a firearm that can’t be abrogated by any level of government.
In ILA’s short history, the Second Amendment debate has covered an enormous distance. In 1975, our rights had been trampled by Congress and ignored by the Supreme Court. Many states undermined self-defense by maintaining a “duty to retreat” in the face of violent criminal attack. And public opinion at times surged against our rights, with almost 60 percent of the American public at one point supporting a total ban on handguns.
Today, the Supreme Court has established two precedents that recognize and protect our Second Amendment rights. The right to self-defense is unquestioned in all 50 states, and we continue to pursue stronger self-defense laws in the states that need them. We are also pursuing a legal strategy to promote the right to “bear” arms for self-defense in public, with two judicial circuits explicitly endorsing this aspect of the Second Amendment. And public opinion runs heavily in our favor. The most recent polling shows that public support for Second Amendment rights and gun ownership has never been higher. This shift, which ILA has carefully nurtured in our educational and public relations efforts, illustrates one of the reasons we have been able to defeat the Obama/Bloomberg agenda—against all odds.
Despite our progress, the adversaries we face today are better organized and far better funded than at any previous time. So our work must continue. At all levels of government, we will continue to roll back the arbitrary barriers that block the exercise of our rights. Whether those barriers come from federal agencies, state boundaries or local ordinances, we will be relentless in their elimination. We will also continue our vigorous advocacy to protect hunting and conservation by continuing to eliminate pointless restrictions on methods and equipment of the hunt, and by rolling back Sunday hunting bans in the few states that still have them.
But in the end, our success does not come from headquarters. It comes from you, the NRA members who receive and take action on our legislative alerts and political endorsements. The successes we garner in legislation are born directly of our political victories. Political tides are always shifting, and that’s why the most important election is always the next one we face. We are well positioned to block the Obama/Bloomberg agenda for the remainder of his term, due to the hard work we all put into the last elections. But the next election in 2016 puts everything on the line yet again, especially the future composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. Forty years from now, the work of ILA—and the vitality of our Second Amendment rights—will be determined by the actions we take today.