Behind Park’s Name, a Civil War Soldier Who Helped Give the N.R.A. Birth

A few months ago, Andrew Soar wondered why somebody named Wingate was so important that a park had been named for him — the 5.89 acres in the shadow of Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn where Mr. Soar sometimes works out.

So he did a Google search of “Wingate.” He learned that, among other things, George W. Wingate was a founder of the National Rifle Association and was its president for more than 20 years.

Mr. Soar paused during his workout in Wingate Park the other day to talk about what he said was an irony: The city has a mayor who has made gun control a priority and has a park honoring the Brooklyn lawyer who wanted to “promote marksmanship.”

“I guess he was not a bad person,” Mr. Soar said of Wingate, who lived from 1840 to 1928 and also helped start the city’s Public Schools Athletic League. But Mr. Soar said he disagreed with the N.R.A.’s call for armed guards in schools after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. “I think they should leave that to the police,” he said.

Wingate Park fills about half a square block between Winthrop Street and Rutland Road on the fringe of the Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhoods. It opened in 1957, three years after George W. Wingate High School, whose campus covered the other half of the block and which was sometimes called the “banjo school” for its distinctive shape.

Wingate High School was closed several years ago after years of poor academic performance. The building, rechristened Wingate Campus, now houses four smaller high schools.

The city’s parks department says the park was known as Hawthorne Field and later as George Wingate High School Park, something of a mouthful, as park names go. In 1987, the name was trimmed to simply Wingate Park.

So who was Wingate?

He was a lawyer whose name lives on in the Brooklyn firm of Wingate Kearney & Cullen, where Wingate’s son also practiced (before and after he was the surrogate of Kings County).

As Mr. Soar discovered, George W. Wingate was a Union Army officer in the Civil War who was troubled by soldiers’ poor marksmanship. “Soldiers who could not shoot straight were of little value,” Wingate wrote in 1901.

He prepared rules for rifle practice in the New York National Guard that were the first of their kind in this country and, according to Wingate himself, “led to the formation of the National Rifle Association” in 1871.

(He started the N.R.A. with another well-connected New Yorker, the journalist William Conant Church. According to his entry in “Who’s Who in America,” Church had been the publisher of The New York Sun in 1860 and a Washington correspondent for The New York Times in 1861 and 1862, when he volunteered to fight for the Union. Church’s time with The Times was not mentioned in his obituary in 1917.)

In its early years, the N.R.A.’s main goal, as outlined by Chase, was to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” The organization’s Web site says that in 1872, it bought a farm in what is now Queens “with financial help from New York State” and opened a rifle range there the same year. But “political opposition to the promotion of marksmanship in New York forced the N.R.A. to find a new home for its range,” the Web site says. The state took back the land and eventually built the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center there.

Wingate’s background was a surprise to some who frequent the park. “That’s amazing,” Edell Jamal Fair, a regular, said after hearing a summation of Wingate’s career.

But Mr. Fair said gun violence was a complicated problem — too complicated to be solved with a ban on guns or background checks. “You have to have a clean record,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean you’re a law-abiding citizen. It just means you didn’t get caught.”

On the swings in the park, Khristian Willis, 15, said he was “shocked” to learn who Wingate was.

Should the park’s name be changed? “Honestly, I’m not sure,” he said. “I personally despise the N.R.A. for what they said after Sandy Hook.”

But he also said, “A pistol is O.K., not a rifle.”

Across the park, Michelle White was looking after her four children. She said her husband was an N.R.A. member and, after calling him on the phone, she said he knew who Wingate was.

She took issue with President Obama’s proposals to reduce gun violence.

“It’s an invasion of the Second Amendment, and not his place,” Ms. White said. “Criminals will get guns anyway. Only the law-abiding citizens won’t have guns or will give up guns. That puts us in a place of trouble.”

She said that women in particular should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. “There are a lot of muggings in this neighborhood,” she said.

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