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North Fork Outdoors: NRA’s mission has changed over the years

Roseburg, Ore. Until a few weeks ago, the mention of this lumber and timber town brought back good memories. The stretch of the North Umpqua River between Roseburg and Glide, renowned for its summer run of steelhead, is where we caught our first fly rod steelhead one summer afternoon years ago. It was my first visit to that world and it made a wonderful impression: forests, rivers — rural Oregon at its best. Now, ironically, just in time for fall hunting seasons all over the country, Roseburg has become the scene of one more mass shooting, another tragedy.

How did we go from a nation with a hunting-target shooting tradition in which firearms were respected to where we are now: a paranoid nation obsessed with self protection and assault weapons? How did we go from “the right to keep and bear arms” with an emphasis on raising militias during the American Revolution to the right to keep and bear assault weapons (with 30-bullet clips) for some “armed citizens” and “concealed carry permits” for everybody else?

This certainly did not begin with the cherished tradition of “American Sportsmen and the History of Conservation,” a book by John F. Reiger which I use in a course at Adelphi University. The founders of the Boone and Crockett Society in the late 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell and others, no doubt would roll over in their graves if they could see our country awash with weaponry today, a nation with over 200 million guns and over 30,000 firearms-related deaths annually.

No, the current scene — the incessant pressure to avoid firearms regulations, weaken gun registration and promote sales of all types of weaponry — goes back to the mid-1970s, when the National Rifle Association, after a leadership takeover, shifted its mission in dramatic fashion. Founded after the American Civil War, the NRA promoted marksmanship, firearms competence, and shooting sports early on. Our first NRA involvement, like many youngsters, was target shooting for camp badges. We wrote a couple of pieces about shotguns and patterning for NRA magazines in the early 1970s and were members of the NRA at that time. Suddenly, after a group of so-called gun rights activists took over the board and the presidency of the venerable organization, the NRA established a new legislative arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), and began to focus heavily on politics. In the 2014 national election, the NRA spent $28 million, and its annual bill for lobbying is around $3 million.

If you belonged to one of our local gun clubs (we, in fact, were members of Mattituck, Oysterponds and Twin Forks during those years) you remember the change. Meetings began with a report on NRA legislative actions. Discussions about pistol registration in Suffolk County became more agitated, although they were truly civil. The best shooters in the Mattituck club were, in fact, involved in Suffolk law enforcement, and were very pragmatic about permitting. Incidentally, registration has always been a touchy issue because serious target shooters and hunters have lots of firearms just as anglers have lots of rods and reels.

Gradually firepower and military weaponry crept into the picture. This began with weaponry from Vietnam and, of course, accelerated after ventures into the Middle East. Suddenly there were recoilless semi-automatic rifles and clips with 30 or more bullets available. Then came the great fear of crime and drugs and the profits to be made from selling the newest, the fastest-shooting, and the most powerful firearms to an anxious public.

Voices of an older generation of sportspersons were drowned out. When an occasional gun editor dared to point out that game animals were, almost everywhere, still being shot with good old, traditional rifles and traditional caliber bullets, the NRA went after that editor, usually resulting in a recantation. Certain manufacturers castigated organizations like the Outdoor Writers Association of America for questioning the applicability of assault rifles in the field and for criticizing the NRA.

Where does that leave us today? The principles are simple enough for most people of goodwill to agree upon: some plainly should not be allowed to possess firearms, and responsible citizens, including all licensed gun dealers, should support thorough background checks to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands, e.g., through straw purchases. Confiscation is not an option, but sales of assault weapons can be halted as they once were, and high-capacity magazines, too. Ammunition sales could be monitored more carefully, and in such a way that target shooters could still purchase what they need legally. All of the above might proceed first at the state level, as it does in New York and Connecticut.

What about returning the NRA to its old mission, too? Maybe it’s helpful to remember the NRA logo hasn’t changed — an American eagle holding two crossed rifles. Neither rifle is an assault weapon with a 30-bullet clip.