And in that regard, the National Firearms Museum has few peers. More than 3,000 weapons are on display in the 15 galleries that make up this 15,000-square-foot space, which opened in May 1998. For the most part, the exhibits are arranged chronologically, starting with the oldest piece in the museum: The 14th-century medieval hand cannon is one of the earliest known hand-held firearms in the world. The nearby Mayflower Wheellock Carbine is thought to have accompanied twenty-year old cooper John Alden on his 1620 voyage on the Mayflower.
Down the hall is a heavy four-bore elephant gun that was carried by Henry Morgan Stanley on his 1871 quest to find David Livingstone. When he finally did come across the man he was seeking, with perhaps this rifle under his arm, he asked that famed question—“Mr. Livingstone, I presume?” There are modern firearms, as well, including a Winchester shotgun given to General Eisenhower by the President of Coca-Cola, a Colt made for President Kennedy and an air rifle presented to President George H.W. Bush by the Crosman company.
A stainless steel revolver on display made it out of the rubble of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Officer Walter Weaver, who was carrying the gun that day, did not. A special exhibit features famed firearms of the silver screen, including Dirty Harry’s Magnum, John Wayne’s Winchester and John McClane’s Beretta. There are guns owned by Anne Oakley, rifles used by Teddy Roosevelt and a revolver that won Olympic gold medals. Walking through the exhibits, the loud echo of America is clearly heard.
“Guns go in and out of style,” Supica says, “but we are going to keep showing them come hell or high water.”
And yet while few would argue guns are a big part of this country’s history, the museum’s strong affiliation with one of the largest gun-rights lobby in the world clouds its claim to be beyond politics.
For instance, there’s the quote from one-time NRA president Charlton Heston that lines the wall of the museum’s entrance, clearly connecting the museum to the organization. Or take its view of recent history: One exhibit purports to show a boy’s bedroom “circa 1952.” It’s filled ceiling to floor with air rifles, cap pistols, toy guns, gun coloring books and, spread across the bed, gun paraphernalia of every kind. “When you access the website,” says Kym Rice, the director of museum studies at George Washington University, “you can join the NRA right there on the corner of the page.” If that link wasn’t there, Rice said, the museum’s claims to existing beyond the national debate on guns “would be more true.”
Supica says funding for the museum comes from the NRA Foundation, “a separate organization from the NRA, a different corporation…they are certainly closely related, but the Foundation is the education branch.” The foundation gives to numerous other causes, involving education, charity and gun safety, he says. According to the group’s most recent publicly available IRS filing, it gave away millions of dollars in 2013 to “community support grants”, including $100,000 to George Mason University for “Second Amendment Study,” multiple grants to 4-H programs and shooting clubs, and $13 million to the NRA, for “Youth Education” and development/improvement of ranges.
In its 2014 NRA Foundation annual report, the Foundation’s mission statement says the group works “in support of a wide range of firearm-related public interest activities of the National Rifle Association of America and other organizations that defend and foster the Second Amendment rights of all law-abiding Americans.”
Supica has been at the helm of the museum since 2007. Prior to that, he was on the NRA’s Board of Directors. He was elected in 2000 and held the position for seven years. Even though Supica’s specific committee work was centered on museums, gun collecting and publications, he says he was involved in oversight of the entire organization. “When a recommendation of a committee comes in front of the board, the entire boards votes on it. If something was coming out of [NRA lobbying operation] ILA that the board was voting on, then I would have been involved in voting on it,” Supica explains when asked about his time on the NRA’s Board of Directors. The museum director position, was his dream job, he says, and precipitated his resignation from the board. “You can’t be a NRA staff member and a board member at the time,” Supica says.
There’s nothing necessarily untoward about the museum’s close alignment, Rice says. “They go through the steps that do connect them to the museum profession and it doesn’t look like they are doing anything unethical…they are a museum and do describe their facility, galleries and all the things one would see there–that’s all appropriate.”
And lots of other museums that have ties to corporations that have an interest in how their point of view gets portrayed too. Rice specifically mentions the Wells Fargo Museums, exhibits on display at various corporate properties, and the Smithsonian Institution, which recently received $1.5 million to open a “Wegmans Wonderplace” at the National Museum of American History. “There’s certainly an advocacy piece in everyone of those museums,” says Rice. Of course, banks and grocery stores don’t lobby for an expansive view of gun rights. When asked if it is hard for her to disconnect the museum from the NRA’s agenda, Rice says, “For me, personally… yes. Their visitors may not feel that way, though.”
“This is a historical and educational collection,” Supica says. “We have plenty of people who don’t support what the NRA does come away fascinated by this museum.”