FAIRFAX, Va. - From a musket that came over on the Mayflower to an M-16 from the Vietnam War, from Annie Oakley's rifle to the pearl-handled pistol Teddy Roosevelt kept by his White House bed, from a buffalo hunter's Sharps carbine to a baby boomer's Daisy "Red Ryder" BB gun, a new museum recalls the nation's history through its guns.
The National Rifle Association's $3.1 million National Firearms Museum provides an array of dramatic displays illustrating the notion that guns are as all-American as baseball or Old Glory - a controversial concept in an era when schoolchildren shoot classmates and politicians bemoan the availability of assault weapons.
An "objective gun museum" would have a display on the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., said Naomi Paiff, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc., a political opponent of the National Rifle Association. "America's guns have, at best, a very mixed tradition," she said.
However, curator Doug Wicklund said the museum is educational and historical rather than political and simply "tells the story of Americans and their guns."
Nearly 2,000 guns
The museum - it has nearly 2,000 guns displayed in 15 high-tech galleries - is in the NRA headquarters beside Interstate 66 in this suburb of the nation's capital and is free to the public. Since opening in early summer, the attraction has averaged about 100 visitors a day, said Wicklund.
What they see is an arsenal of Americana.
There's the wheel-lock carbine that Pilgrim John Alden brought to Massachusetts from England and a display of weapons from Colonial Jamestown and muskets of the sort that fired "the shot heard round the world" at the start of the Revolutionary War. There are biographical displays on America's great gunsmiths - Samuel Colt and Eliphalet Remington and Eli Whitney (who invented interchangeable gun parts as well as the cotton gin), Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson. Also included are John M. Browning, who developed an automatic rifle for GIs, and John T. Thompson, whose submachine guns were popular with gangsters, at least in the movies.
There are weapons of America's wars from the Revolution to the Persian Gulf conflict, with displays showing doughboys in the trenches of World War I and GIs in World War II's European theater.
There are guns of famous people: Lyndon Baines Johnson's revolver, as well as guns owned by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Grover Cleveland. There's Napoleon's ornate rifle and a whole room devoted to the guns of Teddy Roosevelt, including one with the presidential seal, another used on safaris and one that was carried by a comrade on the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill.
There are displays that target the cultural nostalgia of guns.
A restored 1903 Coney Island shooting gallery harkens back to the boardwalk, for example. And a boy's bedroom from the 1950s offers a bonanza of baby boomer memories: Hopalong Cassidy linoleum floor, ranch-style wallpaper and bedspread, Davy Crockett coonskin cap, Hardy Boys mysteries, Daisy air rifle, booklet on Boy Scout marksmanship merit badges and dozens of other reminders of childhoods where Roy Rogers capshooters and cowboy hats were essential.
There are real guns from the Wild West, too, including Buffalo Bill Cody's revolver and a shotgun and rifle used by Annie Oakley. There's a whole wall of Winchesters. A model of an 1849 San Francisco store shows guns of the Gold Rush. Moving a century ahead, a display of the guns of law enforcement includes the FBI Most Wanted posters for John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, "Babyface" Nelson and bank robber Willie Sutton.
The new museum replaces an earlier NRA facility, which closed five years ago to facilitate the improvements.
"Certainly the NRA views it as a marketing tool" in its campaigns against gun-control legislation, said Josh Sugarman, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center, another political opponent. He said the museum provides "a wistful look back to a time when 'guns were good,' " and reassurances for the NRA membership. But he doubted that there will be much impact with the general public.
However, in dedicating the new museum three months ago, outgoing NRA President Marion Hammer called it "a crucial link to our nation's future, and to the survival of Second Amendment freedom in the hearts and minds of future generations."
The museum has an introductory video on the NRA and a display on the historical development of the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, which protects the right to "keep and bear arms." NRA materials are for sale in an adjoining gift shop. Otherwise, there is no overt political message expressed in the displays.
The new museum will be a mecca for gun collectors, predicted curator Wicklund. He recalled one enthusiast who drove for six hours to see the museum's Wall of Winchesters and spent two days examining it.
Wicklund -- described himself as "the only fourth-generation life member of the NRA" -- is a walking encyclopedia of American gun lore. With degrees in history and museum studies and a personal collection of historical rifles that he enjoys shooting, he concedes this is his ideal job. "My vocation and personal interests are 100 percent in harmony," he said, after spending over an hour pointing out details of scores of guns.
Pub Date: 9/16/98