It’s hard to imagine, but for most of American history, guns were not a contentious topic. The Second Amendment wasn’t a matter of much debate or even thought — until the 1920s and ‘30s.

That’s when Tommy guns, the first handheld machine guns, were implicated in some very visible shootings, spurring the federal gun control law. The National Firearms Act taxed and heavily regulated machine guns — and originally included handguns, until the National Rifle Association intervened.

But the NRA of the 1930s wasn’t as hardline as it is today: Then-NRA president Karl Frederick testified before Congress that he didn’t believe in the “promiscuous toting of guns.” And he didn’t even cite the Second Amendment — he cited the need for self-defense in rural areas. 

In the first episode of “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust,” host Garrett Graff explored the legacy of Columbine. In the second episode, he delves into the history of the Second Amendment, and how it became a rallying cry for the nascent gun lobby. He discovers that guns are as old as America — but so are gun laws.

“Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust” is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX. Listen and follow on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Garrett Graff: A note for listeners: On and across this season, there are repeated mentions of guns, gun violence, and their collective toll on our society and our psyche. Please take care while you listen.

Garrett Graff: The state bird of Florida has been the same since 1927 — the northern mockingbird. The bird you’re hearing right now. For seven decades the mockingbird sat peacefully on its Florida throne. But it’s also the state bird of Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. So in the 1990s, the Florida Audubon Society started drumming up support for a new candidate: the Florida scrub-jay. The scrub-jay was teetering close to extinction, and the Audubon Society thought a publicity boost could help increase its chances of survival. Plus, the scrub-jay was endemic to Florida — a uniquely Floridian bird to represent a unique state. A high school teacher who had heard about the Audubon Society campaign brought it to his students as a project in civic engagement, and the kids took up the cause with a passion. They wrote letters to their legislators and traveled to other schools in the county. They convinced thousands of fellow students to ask legislators to put forward a bill on the scrub-jay’s behalf. And the legislators did.

Mike Spies: And kids came down to the legislature to testify in support of the new bird and to petition the government to make the change.

Garrett Graff: This is Mike Spies, senior writer for The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering guns in America, and our partner this season.

Mike Spies: They all went through it — it was obviously extremely uncontroversial.

Garrett Graff: State representative Howard Futch sponsored the bill and brought it to committee in April 1999.

Rep. Howard Futch: This bird has really got family values. The young come back to take care of the new ones. The families work closely together for food and everything. 

Garrett Graff: The Audubon Society and the students had thought that the bill would pass easily, but they’d underestimated the vengeful streak of one of Florida’s most influential people.

Mike Spies: So then out of nowhere, Marion showed up. 

Garrett Graff: NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. She had no interest in this break with tradition.

Marion Hammer: You see, scrub-jays are lazy and scurrilous. They eat the eggs and nestlings of other birds. To me, that’s robbery and murder, and it’s not good family values. 

Garrett Graff: She’s one of the voices you heard on that NRA conference call in episode one. She seemed to have a deep-seated dislike for the Florida scrub-jay.

Mike Spies: She was the only person who spoke out against changing the bird, and said that the bird had a welfare mentality, and was known for, like, stealing the eggs from other birds.

Garrett Graff: Why would Hammer, arbiter of all things guns in the state of Florida, care so much about this bird? Turns out, the scrub-jay may have been collateral damage for an entirely different dispute — a dispute about guns.

Mike Spies: Some minor gun restriction got enshrined into law and she blamed one particular guy for that. And that guy had nothing to do with guns. Yeah, he was a bird person.

Garrett Graff: That guy was Clay Henderson.

Clay Henderson: I’m a retired long-time environmental lawyer and advocate. 

Garrett Graff: He was president of Florida’s Audubon Society in 1999. And in 1998, he’d been appointed to Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission. Every 20 years, specially appointed state commissioners propose revisions to the Florida Constitution, revisions then put directly to voters during the next general election.

Clay Henderson: Where I was involved was that we had a bundle of environmental initiatives that we wanted to bring forward — you know, environmental bill of rights, independent wildlife commission, things like that. But one of the other issues that was extremely controversial was to allow local governments the ability to impose a waiting period for purchase of handguns.

Garrett Graff: Much to Hammer’s chagrin, the amendment passed — with more than 70 percent of the popular vote. So when her latest enemy began a campaign to change the state bird, she showed up.

Clay Henderson: And she claimed it wasn’t personal, that she just loved mockingbirds. Well, you know, I didn’t quite buy that. (laughs)

Garrett Graff: The mockingbird had found a powerful ally in Marion Hammer. The scrub-jay had the students; the mockingbird had the NRA’s top lobbyist.

Mike Spies: And she won. The measure got defeated. And then it happened, like, multiple times after that. Every time someone brought up the issue, she would come down to the legislature to lobby against it. And every time she — it almost became like an annual tradition. 

Garrett Graff: The message was clear: Cross Hammer, and you — along with whatever your personal scrub-jay is — will pay.

Mike Spies: And that’s just a good example. You know, it doesn’t matter how marginal it is. I think for her, in order to be effective, she had to demonstrate that she could push people to do what she wanted, that she was able, even arbitrarily, to demonstrate her power. 

Garrett Graff: The campaign for the scrub-jay continues in various forms, but so does Hammer’s vehement opposition: In 2023, more than two decades later, Hammer penned an op-ed for the Tallahassee Democrat, where she described scrub-jays as, quote, “evil little birds” that “can’t even sing.” Mockingbirds, on the other hand, she described as “family protectors” that “chase off intruders who get too close to their nests.” One could extrapolate that Marion Hammer believes, if the opportunity were available to them, mockingbirds are the type of bird that would keep a gun on hand to defend their home and their property. The bio for that op-ed describes Hammer as a mother and a grandmother. But of course, she’s a lot more than that.

Clay Henderson: Florida is like the Wild Wild West when it comes to guns, you know, so … Marion Hammer is primarily responsible for that.

Garrett Graff: Mike Spies spent a year reporting on the NRA lobbyist’s unchecked influence for an investigation published by The Trace and The New Yorker in 2018. In it, he documented how she’s the architect of some of the country’s most pervasive and impactful pro-gun laws, from Stand Your Ground to open carry, and a relentless defender of the Second Amendment.

Mike Spies: The sort of notion to be as confrontational and divisive and harsh as possible, as absolutist as possible, I mean that posture is her posture and has also become the movement’s posture.

Garrett Graff: We take the NRA’s approach for granted today; it’s part of the American political furniture: Republicans are pro-gun, Democrats are anti-gun, and the NRA will do whatever it takes to keep guns in the hands of every law-abiding citizen. But the NRA wasn’t always like this. In fact, America wasn’t always like this. There was a time before, a time with plenty of its own serious problems, but when guns were not the intractable issue they’ve become today. Up until the latter decades of the 20th century, guns weren’t front and center in U.S. politics. And from Long Lead, PRX and Campside Media, in collaboration with The Trace, I’m Garrett Graff and this is Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust. Episode two: “Shall Not Be Infringed.”

Garrett Graff: Guns have been a part of our history since the very beginning — we were after all a country founded in armed revolution — but there are a couple moments that stand out. To understand how guns became a third rail in American political life, we have to go back to the 1920s and ‘30s. America’s relationship with guns begins to change, thanks to a groundbreaking new invention.

[Newsreel: Compared with modern arms, the ancient muskets were as deadly as slings and catapults, though they made more noise. Contrast them for instance with the Thompson submachine gun, or the “Tommy gun,” as it’s called. It’s an automatic weapon capable of delivering a high rate of fire. Let’s see how it works.]

Garrett Graff: The Tommy gun was the first handheld machine gun. It was originally designed for U.S. troops in World War I, but it came too late to be used in the war, and instead was later made available to civilians. In the ‘20s, amid Prohibition, the guns became a key feature of organized crime. 

Robert Spitzer: You begin to hear stories about criminals using Tommy guns to commit pretty heinous crimes. 

Garrett Graff: Professor Robert Spitzer has been studying the history of gun policy for 40 years, and has written five books on the subject.

Robert Spitzer: And in the space of a year or two, this becomes a major, major news story in the way that mass shootings today grab headlines.

Garrett Graff: The Tommy gun became a favorite among bootleggers, bank robbers, and gangsters. There was Machine Gun Kelly, nicknamed for his love of the Tommy gun — and Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bugs Moran, and, of course, Al Capone. 

[Clip from The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: Al Capone. He invented the rubout and the ride, introduced the Tommy gun to gangland. He pushed the button for hundreds of underworld executions.]

Garrett Graff: Two Tommy guns were used in the infamous 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre, a gangland execution of seven men, presumably ordered by Capone. And there was another event that especially captured the public’s attention. One morning in 1933, FBI agents were transporting a notorious gangster named Frank Nash from Kansas City back to the prison he’d escaped in Leavenworth. Back then, the FBI didn’t yet have the power to arrest people or even carry firearms, so they were working with local police officers. They had arrived on an overnight train at Union Station, and needed to transfer the prisoner to a waiting police car for the ride back to Leavenworth. Just as they were loading him into the front seat, a man appeared nearby with a Tommy gun. It was an ambush. As legend has it, someone yelled, “Let ’em have it!” and a stream of bullets pierced the police vehicle and racked the front of Union Station. When the smoke cleared, three officers and one agent were dead. Nash was killed, too. The horror of the scene was quickly telegraphed to Washington, to the FBI’s new director, a young man named J. Edgar Hoover, and made newspaper headlines coast-to-coast. Americans were horrified. The key suspect in what would be known as the Kansas City Massacre was a gangster named Pretty Boy Floyd. Decades later, it would be reported that at least three of the four killed were actually shot by friendly fire, likely from agents carrying weapons they weren’t supposed to have. But at the time, it didn’t matter. The gangsters and their shootouts were seen as an affront to common decency and civilized society. 

Robert Spitzer: In the space of a few years, at least 32 states enact laws to bar or restrict civilian possession of Tommy guns and similar weapons, and pressure builds on Congress to take action. 

Garrett Graff: Because of that pressure, the federal government passed national restrictions on guns for the first time in American history — what would come to be known as the National Firearms Act of 1934. The law wasn’t a ban, but it would impose a tax and registration system on anybody who wanted to buy certain weapons, including machine guns and specially defined categories of rifles and shotguns. The process was akin to getting a driver’s license or registering a car: You had to be fingerprinted and photographed, go through a background check, have your weapon registered, and pay a hefty fee — $200, the equivalent of more than $4,000 today. And the law worked. Machine guns all but disappeared from the American landscape. The gangland shootings became a thing of the past. 

Robert Spitzer: The National Firearms Act of 1934 is arguably the most successful gun law enacted in America. And that kind of set a standard for things that the federal government could do to address what seemed to be the growing gun violence problem at the time.

Garrett Graff: But it set another precedent too — it was the first effort by the NRA to employ the power of its letter-writing campaigns. The original version of the law would have restricted handguns, too, which the NRA believed would make it difficult for people in rural areas with limited police to defend themselves. They mobilized their members to write letters arguing against including handguns in the law. And in the end, the legislation did just that. Machine guns would be taxed and registered, handguns would not. That tweak changed the arc of guns in America — over the decades ahead, gun violence in the U.S. becomes primarily a problem of handguns. Despite their caveat, the NRA cooperated on helping to write the law; they were willing to compromise. And what’s more, in 1934, the NRA’s president told the House Ways and Means Committee that he didn’t believe in the “general promiscuous toting of guns.” He said carrying weapons in public should be “sharply restricted and only under licenses.” And when he was asked whether he thought the 1934 law would violate the Second Amendment, he replied: “I have not given it any study from that point of view.” It’s an astounding comment, given how the NRA would evolve in the next half-century and how the Second Amendment would rise from such relative obscurity to a sacred political totem. That’s after the break.

Garrett Graff: These days, many Americans think of the Bill of Rights as something sacrosanct, a series of protections treated almost with the divine reverence of the Ten Commandments, carved into stone by our Founding Fathers. But the truth is much more chaotic. The Bill of Rights emerged out of roughly a hundred distinct amendments proposed by the states as they originally ratified the Constitution. Many of those proposals overlapped or directly contradicted each other. The Founders didn’t agree about which amendments should be included, or even that they needed a Bill of Rights at all. The right to bear arms ends up in the final Bill of Rights, but not for the reasons we think of today.

Robert Spitzer: The Second Amendment today is the fountainhead of gun rights. But the Second Amendment did not mean when it was written the meaning that has been attached to it in recent years.

Garrett Graff: It was proposed because the states were concerned about handing over too much power to the newly formed federal government — especially military power. 

Robert Spitzer: The right that is described in the Second Amendment is a right of citizens to maintain firearms in the context of their service in a government-organized and regulated militia.

Garrett Graff: Militias were the primary force that the new states had for their collective defense at the time. Across the young nation, there were a lot of concerns about both who had guns and who didn’t want guns. In the original wide-ranging chaotic debate over the proposed Bill of Rights, there was almost as much attention paid to the right to not bear arms. In the North, groups like the Quakers wanted protections that ensured that they wouldn’t have to serve in the military. And in the South, there was the problem of slavery.

Robert Spitzer: In the southern states, they were frantic about slave rebellions. And their militias were extremely important in suppressing the enslaved population of their states, which was massive. In some states, nearly half the people were enslaved persons.

Garrett Graff: It all ended up with what we now call the Second Amendment, which reads: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. What exactly that means, though, has long been a matter of debate. For most of American history, that right to bear arms coexisted with restrictions on guns. 

Robert Spitzer: Gun ownership is as old as the first European settlers who came here in the early 1600s, but so are gun laws.

Garrett Graff: Gun violence was carefully policed for centuries, first in the colonies and then later through city ordinances and state laws. In Boston, the cradle of the revolution, it was illegal to store a loaded firearm at home. Rhode Island required every gun to be registered in a house-to-house survey.

Founder Alexander Hamilton famously died in a duel, shot and killed by Aaron Burr in 1804. Though both men lived in New York, they had decided to duel in New Jersey because of gun laws, as made famous in the musical Hamilton.

[Clip from Hamilton: (rapping) Everything is legal in New Jersey.]

Garrett Graff: In fact, both states had outlawed dueling, but New Jersey’s punishments at the time were less severe.

Robert Spitzer: In many respects, guns were more heavily regulated in our first 300 years than in the last 30 years.

Garrett Graff: Gun restrictions continued to proliferate in the 1800s, even through a chapter of American history we think of as the golden age of guns — the Wild West.

[Clip from Gunsmoke: (narration) Around Dodge City and the territory on West, there’s just one way to handle the killers and the spoilers, and that’s with a U.S. Marshall and the smell of … gunsmoke.]

Garrett Graff: Trains robbed at gunpoint, gunfights on horseback, shootouts on Main Street outside the saloon … Countless films and stories have immortalized the idea of the western frontier as a place of lawless gun violence. But that’s more myth than reality. There were lots of guns, but by the same token there were also lots of gun laws. Even in the iconic Dodge City, Kansas — the capital of our Wild West mythology — there was a sign in the middle of the street that read: The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited. The reason for such restrictions was simple: Frontier towns wanted to attract businesses and grow their population, and they used gun restrictions to help prevent random and indiscriminate violence on their streets. After all, it’s hard to attract new saloon owners and schoolteachers, if they’re afraid of getting robbed or shot. Through all that time, there was never a mainstream gun rights movement; Americans accepted local and state gun regulations. And so did the NRA. Its original mission wasn’t to staunchly defend the right to bear arms. It was to improve the marksmanship of American soldiers.

Robert Spitzer: The National Rifle Association was formed in 1871 by two veterans of the Civil War because both had witnessed firsthand the fact that the typical military recruit during the Civil War basically didn’t know one end of a gun from the other. 

Garrett Graff: During and after WWII, the debate over guns died down. More than half of the NRA’s members served in the war. And the NRA loaned dozens of its affiliated gun ranges to the government for free for training. NRA leaders helped draft state laws in the 1930s and ‘40s that restricted or prohibited people from carrying concealed handguns in public. But the 1960s would spell the beginning of the end of the NRA’s era of compromise, and it would radicalize a new generation of activists and lobbyists — the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and a series of political assassinations shook the nation.

[News clip: Here is a flash from the Associated Press, dateline Dallas: Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds.]

[Robert F. Kennedy: I have some very sad news, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in … ]

[News clip: Senator Kennedy has been shot, is that possible? // Oh, my God. Senator Kennedy has been shot.]

Garrett Graff: Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, a wave of riots swept across major cities. Some department stores like Macy’s and Sears even temporarily stopped selling firearms in places like New York and Newark, where protesters might take up arms.

Robert Spitzer: And in the 1960s, new pressure builds for the federal government to enact some new gun laws, which it eventually did in 1968, enacting the Gun Control Act of that year. 

Garrett Graff: The Gun Control Act of 1968 set a minimum age for gun purchasers and required serial numbers on all firearms. It also banned gun sales to people who had a history of drug use or who’d been committed involuntarily for mental health treatment. But the years following the GCA, the 1970s, would mark another significant turning point in the history of America’s relationship with firearms and the gun rights movement. The GCA was full of loopholes. It banned the import of many foreign firearms but not the import of gun parts. As a result, domestic gunmakers actually started making more handguns. And so-called Saturday night specials, became a major concern for Americans. These were cheap pistols that you could pick up for a few dollars. They were small, easily concealable and according to the Treasury Department, they were the main reason for rising crime in 1974. There were more than 100 million guns in circulation at the time. And as crime continued to rise, a majority of Americans supported even more gun laws. But there was an ideological shift beginning to take hold in the country — a rethinking of the 2nd Amendment — that it wasn’t just about militias, but that it gave individuals the right to bear arms for self-defense. And a large number of fearful Americans began to arm themselves. 

[News clip: Today ordinary citizens who would not otherwise dream of having a gun are buying one because they are scared out of their wits. Fear is the biggest seller of guns. Studies have shown each urban crime wave has touched off a new round of gun buying. And yet there is a paradox: People buy guns because there are so many other people with guns out there, especially young toughs. And the more we arm ourselves, the more guns there are for lawful and unlawful use.]

Garrett Graff: Once again, even the President was not immune to the violence. In 1975, President Ford was out shaking hands when he saw a woman in a colorful dress in the crowd. Her name was Squeaky Fromme — a devotee of convicted mass murderer Charles Manson. 

[President Gerald Ford: I saw a hand come through the crowd in the first row, but in the hand was a weapon.]

Garrett Graff: Squeaky Fromme pulled the trigger from within two feet of the President, but the gun didn’t go off. She made front-page news across the country and later would be sentenced to life in prison. Then, a little over two weeks after the would-be assassin’s misfire, another woman, a political activist this time, was inspired. She tried to kill the president, too, in hopes of getting attention to her cause — ending the Vietnam War. President Ford survived both assassination attempts uninjured. But he decided to sport a bulletproof vest at public events. This and other high-profile acts of violence prompted another push for firearms legislation; 150 new gun control bills were introduced that year. Gun owners grew fearful of an outright ban on firearms. And amidst all this debate, NRA membership surged to over a million members.

[News clip: The members of the National Rifle Association and gun owners throughout the country are sick and tired of getting the blame for the criminal element that uses firearms. We are tired of seeing the criminals receive probation. We are tired of seeing the courts let the criminals go and watch the legislature concentrate on lawful people who own firearms, the honest citizen because he owns a gun to defend himself. That’s what the NRA is about.]

Garrett Graff: The NRA had been against banning Saturday night specials, claiming it would disproportionately burden those who couldn’t afford pricier weapons. And they continued to lobby effectively against new regulations. In the end not a single new bill was passed. President Ford himself blocked the handgun ban in D.C. in 1976 and he opposed the registration of firearms. The NRA denounced the D.C. law and praised Ford for affirming the right of Americans to bear arms. But in the late 1970s, some NRA leaders began to show signs that the organization was backing away from political fights and redirecting its focus back to its more traditional values — hunting and marksmanship. Officials had made plans to move the organization’s headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Colorado Springs and they were going to open a 30,000-acre gun range in New Mexico. Some members were furious, accusing NRA leaders of negotiating on gun control in exchange for financial support for these projects. And a fissure began to form within the NRA that would transform the organization and irrevocably alter its future, as well as the future of the country.

Robert Spitzer: There was a growing sense that the NRA was not being strenuous enough in supporting gun rights and trying to push back more successfully against gun laws or proposed gun laws. And a dissident group within the NRA decided to try and take control of the organization.

Garrett Graff: This dissident group began to organize a coup. They convinced more than 1,000 life members to travel to the annual meeting for a vote that would blindside NRA leadership. It’s known as the “Cincinnati Revolt.”

[News clip: Only life members can vote at conventions, and at the last convention, they were able to vote out the former leadership, which was suspected of having gone soft on the gun control issue. The vote gave warning to gun control advocates in Congress that the hardliners were back in charge of the NRA.] 

Garrett Graff: This swift, hostile takeover would mark a new era for the NRA — the beginnings of the NRA we know today. This new NRA would require a worthy leader, and there was only one man for the job — the man who helped orchestrate the Cincinnati Revolt. His name was Harlon Carter.

[Harlon Carter: Any national gun law, no matter how innocent in appearance, no matter how simple it might be, presupposes a still further growth in a centralized, computerized, gun control bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.; a monstrous invasion of the rights to privacy of you law-abiding and decent people, who have never committed a crime and concerning whom there is no evidence you ever will.]

Garrett Graff: Under Carter’s leadership, the NRA would recommit to defending and preserving the Second Amendment at all costs. It would not concede or be intimidated after Oklahoma City or Columbine or any of the hundreds of tragedies that would follow. It would become an organization willing to pay the human toll in exchange for the right to bear arms.

Next time on Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust.

Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX.

This series is hosted and reported by me, Garrett Graff Graff. It was created by myself and executive producer John Patrick Pullen, of Long Lead.

Jennifer Mascia of The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering guns in America, is my co-reporter and a contributing producer for this season. 

The show is written by Emily Martinez. Aleah Papes is the associate producer and a contributing writer as well. Matthew Shaer and Emily Martinez also served as executive producers on this season.

Our theme song was composed by Netta Hadari. Sound design by Claire Mullen. Additional engineering by Yi-Wen Lai-Tremewan. Music by Blue Dot Sessions and APM.

This series was recorded by Joe Egan at Egan Media Productions.

Fact-checking by Emily Barone and Sarah Baum. Audience development by Heather Muse. Cover art by Long Lead’s creative director, Sarah Rogers. Special thanks to Lindsey Kilbride, Ashleyanne Krigbaum, and Jennifer Bassett who consulted on the podcast.

Stay up to date on this podcast and learn more about Long Lead’s award-winning journalism by subscribing to our newsletter, at

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Thanks for listening.