Was the NRA Formed to Arm Ex-Slaves? Not Really

by Al Benson Jr.

Let me start off by stating that I am not the NRA’s biggest fan. When it comes to Second Amendment groups I think the Gun Owners of America takes a much firmer stand and gives you more bang for your buck. If that bothers some folks I’d suggest that they check out the Gun Owners of America and see why I feel that way.

Having said that, this is written to attempt to clear up some misconceptions about the reasons for the founding of the NRA that seem to be floating around out there and that some folks might be tempted to swallow, thus choking of what is supposed to be truth but is really clever propaganda.

I got a phone call this afternoon (August 1) from a friend in Oklahoma who told me he had heard something on a conservative radio show that really bugged him. What he heard was that the National Rifle Association had been formed by “religious leaders who wanted to protect ex-slaves from the Ku Klux Klan.” My first thought was that this is “beyond ridiculous.”

There was some commentary, back in 2008, by a Harry Alford, whose wife, Kay DeBow Alford, was the National Black Chamber of Commerce executive vice-president. Alford, who spoke in Milwaukee in 2008 said: ” 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.” Interestingly enough, the NRA’s website says nothing about any of this.

The NRA’s website says the following: “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.”  This was published on http://www.politifacts.com  on June 5, 2013.

Other information given about the founding showed that former Union Army General Ambrose P. Burnside, the “hero” of Fredericksburg, was the first president of the NRA.  Burnside had worked as a gunsmith in Rhode Island and so was a logical choice for the first president. Church succeeded Burnside as president the following year. And Burnside had a legitimate interest in being part of such a group.

Union Army records indicated that Union troops  fired around 1,000 rifle shots for each Confederate soldier they hit. This fact caused Burnside to complain about his recruits during the War. He reportedly said: “Out of ten soldiers who are perfect in drill and the manuel of arms, only one knows the purpose of the sights on his gun or can hit the broadside of a barn.” So Burnside had a bonifide  concern about the marksmanship of soldiers. Some generals attributed the terrible marksmanship of Union soldiers to the use of “volley tactics” for earlier and less accurate smooth bore muskets. As the War progressed rifled muskets became more the order of the day. And so the NRA’s primary goal was to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.”

However, conservatives, in many cases, seem to have a bent towards picking up what we would commonly call propaganda. David Barton, in an interview on the Glenn Beck Show, was guilty of promoting the fable that the NRA was started as a means of “…driving out he Ku Klux Klan and ensuring that blacks…could in fact locally carry a gun.” Since the NRA was originally chartered in New York state, I have to wonder what Klan groups they were driving out there.

There seems to be some of this, what shall I call it–balderdash–that blacks were much better treated in the North than they were in the South. In all honesty, racial attitudes pertaining to blacks were every bit as biased in the North as they were in the South and at that point in time, I can’t picture whites in New York being any happier with blacks carrying guns than whites in South Carolina would have been. In fact, many of the black “militias” in the South during what we euphemistically refer to as “reconstruction” were a major problem because they were a threat to white people, women and kids as well as men. Part of this was the original reason something like the Ku Klux Klan came into being in the first place. I realize a lot of people don’t want to hear that, but get a copy of Claude Bowers book The Tragic Era  and check out what some of the black militias in various Southern states were doing. It ain’t pretty.

Yet, for all of that, this was not the reason the NRA was formed. As far as our situation today, do I think black people should be able to have guns to protect their families and property? Why not? They should be able to protect their lives and property just like anyone else. When it comes to honest, hardworking people, the Second Amendment is truly colorblind. Everyone should have the right to defend what is theirs and those they love. It’s interesting that the gun control advocates seem to expend lots of energy trying to make some of the big cities into basically “gun free” zones when the majority of the population in those cities is black. Are they really working in the interest of black people? Not hardly–but they pretend they are.

All I’m saying is that, if we are going to talk about the NRA, then let’s get the history straight and not spread a lot of “feel good” fables. We have a saying in Southern and conservative circles–“you can’t make this stuff up.” Unfortunately, some are trying.