Rite to Bare Arms

The National Rifle Association has a museum in the bottom floor of their suburban-D.C. office building, a half-hour from my house. I took my dad there a few months ago. He shot competitively in college and I’m a history nut, but neither of us agree with the NRA’s politics of unfettered access to all types of guns including on public property like colleges and airports.

The museum was fascinating. Tons of guns in a small series of rooms, but only loosely organized chronologically, by war and by gun-important periods of U.S. history like the early frontier and the Old West. There were lots of simplified or erroneous conclusions in the caption paragraphs–the discovery of gunpowder was not the key reason for the decline of feudalism in Europe (the rise of the middle class was), and any mention of said discovery should not omit medieval China as its original inventors.

Only about a quarter of the guns in the cases were labeled. The rest were numbered, and there were computer stations to view the full list of labels, but half of those computers were down (thanks Win98). Even still, the captions were threadbare–there were twenty Winchester Model 1873 rifles but nothing telling how they were different.

But they had a lot of gorgeous stuff. Dozens of maple-stocked flintlocks in a display on frontier-era gunsmithing. Stacks of Civil War carbines; the backdrop to the Yankee display case was a factory and to the Confederate one was a sitting room! Over fifty Winchesters and over fifty Colt revolvers. A whole case of Krag rifles like Teddy Rosevelt had in the army for the Spanish-American war. A case each on WWI and WWII and modern weapons, but only a few models of anything deeper than the standard highlights.

They glossed over some of the more subtle historical points. Only a half-case combined on Browning and Thompson and Garand, three great American inventors, and nothing on how the slaughter of WWI made designers of the between-wars era seek increased firepower in shoulder arms to try to break the horrible deadlock of trench warfare. Nothing on how the German mid-cartridge selective fire rifles from the end of WWII were the genesis for modern assault rifles. Nothing on the ’60s move to smaller calibers and cartridges, and nothing on the recent move by many soldiers back to the heavier rounds and cartridges of the 1960s.

So as a museum, it felt a bit amateur. No surprise, given that it’s run by a political organization, not by historians. As a room full of neat guns, it was a fun couple hours if you already knew what you were looking at.

And all through the written bits, there was the standard NRA vitriol equating guns with freedom, as though access to guns guarantees freedom (and restriction of said access guarantees the lack of it). Uh, no–it’s the democratic process that guarantees freedom. For casual shooters like my father used to be or history nuts like me, it’s too bad the NRA has taken their gun-rights crusade to such extremes that there’s no middle ground.

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