To say the history of gun rights is full of hyperboles, misnomers, and myths would be an understatement. Time and time again, when historians examine the history of gun rights, it turns out that what is long claimed to be settled history is more nominal than real. There is an abundance of examples of this, several of which are outlined in my book Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry.
My recent research trip at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library shed much light on another historical hyperbole—that Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Eisenhower each, on their own volition, sent the National Rifle Association (NRA) laudatory messages of support.
From the late 1930s through the early 1960s, the NRA used these laudatory messages to help promote the organization as one of America’s most patriotic and beloved. According to the NRA’s view of history, it was only following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that the biased, liberal-media began reporting on the NRA’s opposition to gun control—improperly calling the organization’s good standing into question.
There are several factual problems with this historical narrative, but none more so than the fact that—despite the NRA’s public testimonials stating otherwise—from the late 1930s through the early 1960s the NRA was principally behind the defeat of most proposed gun controls, whether it be at the federal, state, or local level. Moreover, although the NRA often lauded itself for the passage of the first federal firearms controls—the 1934 National Firearms Act (NFA) and 1938 Federal Firearms Act (FFA) respectively—the NRA did everything within its power to prevent their passage. This included going so far as to offer a provision in the 1938 FFA that would have repealed the 1934 NFA in its entirety. Needless to say, from the 1930s through the early 1960s, the NRA was not so much a supporter of gun control as it was supporter of its own interests.
The point to be made is that when it comes to the history of gun rights, what many have long stated to be true is anything but. The reality is that the history of gun rights is often complex, multi-faceted, and its context often changes when historians peek behind the proverbial curtain. Such is the case for the laudatory messages of presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower’s to the NRA. If one were to solely examine NRA literature, the historical takeaway is that the NRA was time and time again recognized by presidents as the nation’s preeminent patriotic organization. However, a closer look reveals that neither Roosevelt, Truman, nor Eisenhower were responsible for said laudatory messages. It was the NRA.
For all three presidents, not only did the NRA leverage its contacts within the Department of War and Department of Navy to make the laudatory messages possible, but the NRA even drafted them. Yes, you read that right—the NRA has historically celebrated laudatory messages from three presidents that the NRA principally authored.
In 1938, in the case of Roosevelt, it was NRA Executive Vice President Milton A. Reckord that submitted a request through Colonel James Roosevelt. The request eventually reached White House assistant William D. Hassett, who then reached out to the War Department to inquire whether “such a message is justified.” Within a matter of days, the War Department sent a note to Roosevelt recommending that the president oblige the request. Included within the War Department’s note were minor edits to the NRA’s self-written laudatory message. Days later, Roosevelt signed it and in the March 1938 edition of the American Rifleman read the headline, “President Commends Association at Annual Meeting.”
In 1945, in the case of Truman, it was Jim Berryman, editor of the American Rifleman, who reached out to the White House. Berryman requested that the White House do the NRA a “favor” by drafting a letter of commendation and having Truman personally sign it, or what Berryman otherwise referred to as a “brief ‘pat-on-the-back.” Ultimately, it was not anyone in the White House that drafted the letter of commendation, but rather the NRA. The final letter of commendation signed by Truman, except for a few deletions, was virtually one and the same as the NRA’s.
The same can almost be said of Truman’s statement regarding the formation of the National War Trophy Safety Program (NWTSP). The statement came about following the NRA having defeated the Truman administration’s attempt to pass legislation expanding federal firearms registration. At that time, the country was being flooded with surplus foreign firearms and explosives from World War II. These weapons subsequently turned up at crime scenes, and were attributing to thousands of accidental deaths across the country. The Truman administration initially wanted to expand firearms registration as the solution—that is until the NRA handily killed it in Congress and convinced the War Department to accept an education over legislative approach with the formation of the NWTSP.
Therein, the NRA assisted in drafting a statement for Truman to sign endorsing the NWSTP. Truman agreed with most of what was in the draft except for one notable deletion. The draft proposed Truman state, “In my opinion, legislation cannot eliminate or reduce the existing hazard. The problem is one of education.” Truman’s staff deleted the first sentence entirely and modified the statement to read, “The problem is one primarily of education.”
Perhaps no president—that is until after the politicization of gun rights in the late 1970s—signed more laudatory messages to the NRA than Eisenhower. From 1953 through 1960, except for 1959, Eisenhower sent a laudatory message to the NRA for every annual convention. Given this fact, one would assume that Eisenhower was a true-blue NRA supporter. Hereto though, it turns out that Eisenhower’s praise of the NRA was not so much his personal thoughts, but what the NRA wanted to project. For one, the NRA, not Eisenhower, initiated and drafted each of the laudatory messages. Indeed, for several of the laudatory messages, Eisenhower’s staff edited the NRA’s drafts substantially, but the NRA initiated and drafted each of them, nonetheless.
Second, although it is true that Eisenhower became an NRA life member in 1956, much like John R. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s NRA life membership was not of his own volition. Rather, it was bestowed upon him for being the president, and it was one of hundreds of honorary memberships bestowed upon Eisenhower during his time in office. Other memberships include the Sapsscam Amateur Chefs Club and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, to name a few. But what is particularly telling as to why Eisenhower was an NRA member in name only, was an edit to the NRA’s 1960 draft laudatory message. In it, the NRA asked Eisenhower to state, “I am proud to be a Life Member of the NRA,” but the sentence was deleted, with no mention of Eisenhower’s honorary membership included anywhere.
Why is this history important? Two reasons come to mind. First, as outlined earlier, it reinforces that there is much in the category of gun rights history that is left to be fleshed out by historians. Second, and more importantly, it highlights that the NRA was the primary driving force, and embarrassingly the ghost writer, behind most of its high-profile laudatory messages.