- The late Rep. John Dingell played a major role in the rise of the NRA’s lobbying operation in DC.
- In the 1970s, Dingell advocated for the NRA, in an era where many Democrats backed the group.
- The New York Times examined a trove of documents which outlined Dingell’s relationship with the NRA.
The late Democrat Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, an institution in US politics who served in Congress from 1955 to 2015, played a significant role in enacting countless pieces of legislation over the course of generations, with his eye always on the constituents that he represented in his Detroit-area district.
But a trove of documents recently examined by The New York Times also reveals the role that Dingell played in the rise of the National Rife Association’s political influence beginning in the 1970s, with the congressman’s efforts playing a major role in the development of the organization’s lobbying outfit.
“An organization with as many members, and as many potential resources, both financial and influential within its ranks, should not have to go 2d or 3d Class in a fight for survival,” Dingell wrote in a 1975 memo obtained by The Times, where he outlined how the NRA could become a force on Capitol Hill. “It should go First Class.”
In addition to his congressional work, Dingell for years also served on the board of the NRA, stepping down in 1994 after supporting that year’s highly consequential crime bill — which included the landmark assault weapons ban that was overwhelmingly supported by most Democrats and vehemently opposed by Republicans.
Although Dingell voted for the crime bill after intense lobbying from then-President Bill Clinton, the congressman almost immediately sought out ways to repeal the assault weapons provision after the larger bill was signed into law, according to The Times.
In that year’s midterm elections, Republicans flipped both houses of Congress fueled in part by intense opposition to gun control in a slew of rural districts anchored in the Midwest and South.
As Dingell’s staff pondered a potential repeal push in a 1995 memo, they also realized that “a solid explanation will have to be made to the majority of our voters who favor gun control.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, who succeeded her husband in Congress in 2015, told The Times that the congressman needed police protection for several months after the assault weapons ban went on the books. (The ban expired in September 2004 and has yet to be renewed.)
“We had people scream and yell at us. It was the first time I had seen that real hate,” she told the newspaper.
John Dingell continued to have talks with the NRA over gun policy throughout the rest of the career — notably after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
But according to Debbie Dingell, her late husband’s views on the NRA and guns had shifted during his nearly 60-year political career.
“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,” the congresswoman told The Times. “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.”
John Dingell died in February 2019. He was 92 years old.