Long before the National Rifle Association became influential in Congress, prevailed in Supreme Court cases and prescribed more guns as a solution to gun violence, then-Rep. John Dingell Jr. planned to transform the NRA from what the New York Times calls "a fusty club of sportsmen into a lobbying juggernaut that would enforce elected officials’ allegiance, derail legislation behind the scenes, redefine the legal landscape and deploy 'all available resources at every level to influence the decision making process.' ” Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who died in 2019, sat on the NRA board of directors, positioning him to influence firearms policy and the private lobbying force responsible for shaping it. At least nine senators and representatives served in the same dual role over the last half-century, helping the NRA accumulate and exercise unrivaled power.
The Times obtained thousands of pages of records in a search of lawmakers’ official archives, the papers of other NRA directors and court cases. Over decades, politics, money and ideology altered gun culture, reframed the Second Amendment to embrace broader gun rights and promoted marketing driven by fear. There are more than 400 million firearms in U.S. civilian hands and mass shootings are now routine. Lawmakers, far from the stereotype of pliable politicians accepting talking points from lobbyists, served as NRA leaders. At every hint of a legislative threat, they helped erect a firewall that impeded gun control. As House Commerce Committee chairman, Dingell would send “Dingellgrams” — demands for information from federal agencies — drafted by the NRA. Beginning in the 1970s, he pushed the group to fund legal work that could help win court cases and enshrine policy protections. The impact would be far-reaching: Some NRA-backed scholars were later cited in the Supreme Court’s Heller decision affirming an individual right to own a gun, as well as a ruling last year that established a new legal test invalidating many restrictions. By the time Dingell retired from the House in 2015, his views on gun policy had evolved. His wife Debbie,, who holds his old seat, said he no longer trusted the NRA. “I can’t tell you how many nights I heard him talking to people about how the NRA was going too far, how they didn’t understand the times,” Ms. Dingell said. “He was a deep believer in the Second Amendment, and at the end he still deeply believed, but he also saw the world was changing.”