Cut to 1977. Gun-group veterans still call the NRA’s annual meeting that year the “Revolt at Cincinnati.” After the organization’s leadership had decided to move its headquarters to Colorado, signaling a retreat from politics, more than a thousand angry rebels showed up at the annual convention. By four in the morning, the dissenters had voted out the organization’s leadership. Activists from the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms pushed their way into power.
The NRA’s new leadership was dramatic, dogmatic and overtly ideological. For the first time, the organization formally embraced the idea that the sacred Second Amendment was at the heart of its concerns.
The gun lobby’s lurch rightward was part of a larger conservative backlash that took place across the Republican coalition in the 1970s. One after another, once-sleepy traditional organizations galvanized as conservative activists wrested control.
Conservatives tossed around the language of insurrection with the ardor of a Berkeley Weatherman. The “Revolt at Cincinnati” was followed by the “tax revolt,” which began in California in 1979, and the “sagebrush rebellion” against Interior Department land policies. All these groups shared a deep distrust of the federal government and spoke in the language of libertarianism. They formed a potent new partisan coalition.
Politicians adjusted in turn. The 1972 Republican platform had supported gun control, with a focus on restricting the sale of “cheap handguns.” Just three years later in 1975, preparing to challenge Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination, Reagan wrote in Guns & Ammo magazine, “The Second Amendment is clear, or ought to be. It appears to leave little if any leeway for the gun control advocate.” By 1980 the GOP platform proclaimed, “We believe the right of citizens to keep and bear arms must be preserved. Accordingly, we oppose federal registration of firearms.” That year the NRA gave Reagan its first-ever presidential endorsement.
Today at the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, oversized letters on the facade no longer refer to “marksmanship” and “safety.” Instead, the Second Amendment is emblazoned on a wall of the building’s lobby. Visitors might not notice that the text is incomplete. It reads:
“.. the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The first half—the part about the well regulated militia—has been edited out.
It’s funny to me that conservatives who are so fond of a strict reading of the Constitution when it comes to other hot-button political issues are the very same folks who conveniently forget the “well regulated militia” component of the Second Amendment so as to avoid gun ownership being well-regulated.