The Black Panthers, NRA, Ronald Reagan, Armed Extremists, and the Second Amendment

In 1967, California codified into law A.B 1591, otherwise known at the Mulford Act.  Sponsored by Oakland assemblyman Don Mulford, A.B. 1591 made it a felony to publicly carry any firearm—either openly or concealed—in public places without a governmental license to do so.  The law came about after the events of May 2, 1967, when a group of thirty Black Panthers appeared visibly armed at the California State Capitol building to protest an earlier version of A.B. 1591.  At that time, there was nothing in California law that expressly prohibited the open carriage of firearms, either in public or private.  A.B. 1591 effectively closed this loophole.

Today, given that A.B. 1591 is seen as a reaction to the actions of the Black Panther Party, it is not uncommon to hear from scholars that A.B. 1591 is, at least in part, racist.  For instance, on this blog, Jake Charles categorized A.B. 1591 as one of several firearms laws with an “ugly past.”  While it is understandable why someone might view A.B. 1591 as being tainted by racism, the legal rationale behind A.B. 1591 is not.  The legal rationale for A.B. 1591 was about opposing armed vigilantism by anyone, not just vigilantism threatened by African Americans.

It must be remembered that the events of May 2, 1967 came a day after the NRA published the American Rifleman editorial “Who Guards America’s Homes.”  The editorial was interpreted by many in the news media—fairly or not—as promoting armed vigilantism and extremism.

Certainly, extremists, like the militantly anti-communist Minutemen, used American Rifleman editorials like “Who Guards America’s Homes” to spread their ideology.  This despite the fact that the NRA rightfully rejected any intentional association with the Minutemen.  Since 1940, after news of several NRA members being linked to the anti-Semitic Christian Front and the German Bund, opposing extremism had been a requirement to even join the NRA.  And, while it was rare within the pages of American Rifleman to see anyone pictured who was not white or Caucasian, at no point did the NRA ever take the position of excluding anyone from the organization on the basis of race, color, or creed.

Conversely, at least one newspaper columnist read the American Rifleman editorial as promoting the Black Panthers’ creed of going publicly armed anywhere and everywhere. A Black Panther document titled “What We Want Now! What We Believe,” included the following:

“We believe we can end policy brutality in our black community by organizing black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality.  The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us a right to bear arms.  We therefore believe that all black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”

However, to link any of the NRA’s literature with the Black Panthers’ belief on the necessity of going publicly armed was more nominal than real. What undermines this link between the NRA and support of armed protest by the Panthers was the fact that the NRA not only helped Mulford in drafting A.B. 1591, but also supported its passage.  The actions of the Black Panthers on May 2, 1967 utterly shocked California lawmakers and all but ensured A.B. 1591’s passage. But that does not mean that A.B. 1591 was motivated by racial animus.  The fact remains that it is was the NRA that aided in A.B. 1591’s passage.  The NRA did so in part because the organization had recently published several press releases denouncing armed extremism in all its forms.  The editorials came about due to the public backlash to the editorial “Who Guards America’s Homes.”  One of the NRA press releases recited the organization’s anti-extremist organization policy, and read as follows: “The NRA does not approve or support any group activities that properly belong to the national defense or police.  The NRA does not approve or support any group that by force, violence, or subversion seeks to overthrow the Government and take the law into its hands, or that endorses or espouses doctrines of operation in an extralegal manner.”

The NRA’s anti-extremist policy undoubtedly applied to the Black Panther Party, but that was not the only reason the NRA, Mulford, and an overwhelming majority of California lawmakers supported A.B. 1591.  What few histories on A.B. 1591 mention is that it was not just the Black Panthers that California lawmakers were concerned about.  Governor Ronald Reagan’s office had been warned on several occasions that white suburban communities were forming armed patrols in contravention to the requests of local law enforcement. As Mulford noted in a letter defending A.B. 1591, “Let me assure you…that there are no racial overtones in this measure.  There are many groups that have been active in Californian with loaded weapons in public places and this bill is directed against all of them.”   In another letter defending A.B. 1591, Mulford wrote: “This legislation was specifically designed with the help of the National Rifle Association to protect our constitutional right to bear arms and yet to assist the law enforcement people who asked for this bill do to something about the armed bands of citizens who are walking our public streets and in public places with loaded weapons.”

In addition to opposing armed extremism, A.B. 1591 was in line with how the NRA and other sportsmen groups viewed the Second Amendment outside the home circa 1967—as a limited right to transport firearms for lawful purposes, such as for recreational shooting, hunting, and to and from residences.  Throughout most of the twentieth century, the NRA had supported a policy of having more armed citizens to deter crime. This policy preference was frequently conveyed within the pages of American Rifleman. Up to 1985, however, the NRA made sure to hedge its preference of having more publicly armed citizens on the conditions that the person be law-abiding, properly trained in the use and handling of firearms, and have a justifiable reason for doing so.  This limited Second Amendment right to transport firearms was echoed by governor Reagan, who signed A.B. 1591 into law.  In 1966, Reagan had in part run his gubernatorial election on a gun rights platform.  Yet, as it pertained to the Second Amendment outside the home, Reagan’s view was in line with the NRA’s.  “I don’t know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that guns loaded,” stated Reagan in support of A.B. 1591, adding, “The first thing any real sportsman learns is to carry an empty gun until he gets to the place where he’s going to do the shooting.”

The 90th Anniversary of NRA’s First Guiding Legislative Policies and the Implications for NYSRPA v. City of New York


When “Merry Christmas—And Gun Laws” was published, the NRA had been involved in the political fight against restrictive firearms legislation for just two years.  And over those two years, while the NRA indeed published several editorials that were critical of restrictive firearms legislation, the NRA had yet to publish anything usefully constructive.  For this reason alone, “Merry Christmas—And Gun Laws” is historically significant.

, i.e. that state and local governments maintained broad police powers to both permit and restrict the carrying of firearms in public places?  Should the Court give any weight or consideration to the modern, living constitutionalist conception of the Second Amendment, i.e. that state and local governments must afford individuals some outlet to carry firearms in public places? 

, such as from one’s home to business, and vice-versa, for repairs, from and to the firearm’s point of sale or purchase, and for shooting activities such as hunting and target shooting.  Such a right in fact comports with the NRA’s 1929 “guiding policies.” While the NRA did not object to permitting and restricting armed carriage in public places, the NRA outright opposed the idea of prohibiting the transportation of firearms for lawful purposes, particularly the transport of firearms “to and from the target range” and on “hunting trips.

The Untold, Somewhat Embarrassing Story Behind the NRA’s Laudatory Messages from President’s Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower

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.