When I first joined the NRA in 1955, its primary mission, in partnership with the U.S. Government, was to train civilians in marksmanship and gun safety. In fact the first gun I learned to shoot was a 1903 Springfield army rifle that had been re-chambered in 22lr as a training weapon for World War II. These venerable guns would have ended up rusting away in some government arsenal except the NRA was allowed to sell them off for a few bucks to shooting clubs around the United States.
When the NRA changed its stance in the 1970s and began running defense of the 2nd Amendment up the flagpole, it also shifted its concerns away from safety and marksmanship to promoting the right of gun owners to use guns for self-defense. This was partly in response to the crime wave that occurred in many places when drug-addicted soldiers came back from Viet Nam. It was also tied to the fear of lawlessness that was a reaction to the riots sweeping through some inner-city neighborhoods at about the same time.
The NRA’s push for using guns in self-defense was also motivated by a change in the demographics of gun ownership and an effort to help gun manufacturers respond to new demographic trends. In brief, hunting was beginning to decline and the sale of long guns (shotguns and rifles) was experiencing a slow but steady death (no pun intended.) In the 1970s, two-thirds of all guns sold commercially in the United States were hunting guns and manufacturers that relied on handgun sales, like Smith & Wesson, needed law enforcement contracts to stay afloat.
This changed in the late 1980s with the “invasion” of high-capacity European pistols like Beretta, Sig and Glock, and the push to normalize the idea that civilians should go around armed. In 1986, only 10 states either had no restrictions on carrying concealed handguns or allowed for unlimited concealed carry following some kind of background check. As of this year that number had increased to 41. Most of this growth was due to organized, effective legislative work carried out by the NRA and their state affiliates. Not surprisingly, it was during the 1990s that handguns began to outpace long guns as the weapons of choice in gun shops, a reversal in long gun to handgun sales that has accelerated to the present day. Currently long gun sales account for less than 40% of all guns and perhaps half of them are the assault rifle look-a-likes that are in such demand.
The NRA has responded to the upsurge in concealed carry licensing and handgun sales by vigorously pushing the idea that crimes are inversely linked to an armed citizenry; i.e., the more people who carry guns, the less crime we will suffer. They propagate this endlessly and tirelessly; it was a cornerstone of all the convention speeches, it’s peddled by various right-wing researchers and NRA members are exhorted to send in examples of good guys chasing away bad guys for the monthly ‘Armed Citizen’ report.
Of course if people are going to walk around with guns sticking out of their belts, they need proper training. And the NRA has a special course, Personal Protection Outside the Home, which I am certified to teach, that covers the basics of concealed carry techniques, including types of equipment and using a gun for self-defense. The multi-day course requires live-fire exercises at distances that might typically occur during an armed confrontation. In order to be certified as a NRA trainer in this discipline, one must be certified in a series of NRA instructor pistol courses leading up to PPOH, which is considered the pinnacle of handgun instruction.
One thing about NRA training that I always admired was the degree to which every trainer has to show both experience and skills judged by the NRA to gain certification in each training discipline. And the NRA training manual insists that trainers not only behave in a completely professional manner, but are required to withhold certification from any student who does not demonstrate proper skills or demeanor in shooting. Every time I took a course as a student or as an instructor that I was part of a long tradition of education and training that adequately prepared me to participate in the shooting sports.
That has now changed. The NRA recently announced that trainers who teach basic pistol shooting courses can add an extra “module” to the course (and charge additional tuition) covering concealed carry techniques and shooting. This is an obvious and blatant effort to cash in on the concealed-carry mentality that has boosted handgun sales over the last decade. But in addition to diluting the curriculum, the standards for instructing have also been relaxed because NRA instructors do not have to be certified in the NRA Personal Protection course; they only need to show some kind of ‘proof’ that they have attended a commercial shooting school, like Thunder Ranch or Gunsite, in order to be certified to offer concealed-carry instruction at an NRA course.
The net effect of this new policy is that people are going to be walking around carrying loaded handguns who have taken a minimal course taught by instructors who may or may not even possess the training credentials that the NRA used to require for teaching concealed carry of handguns. So while the NRA talks about how armed citizens make our streets and neighborhoods safer, it’s pretty hard to believe that this new policy will do anything other than make people line up to buy more guns whose safe use is far from assured. For an organization that started out to teach civilians safe gun use, the NRA has come a long way – backwards.