Back in the late Bronze Age, when I was a kid going to summer camp, the NRA was a sportsmen's organization. They taught firearms safety, and sponsored marksmanship competitions, and published The American Rifleman, which was pretty much the only gun magazine available, aside from maybe Shotgun News, which was basically classified ads. I learned to shoot at Camp Chewonki - I was ten or eleven, if memory serves - and I was awarded the NRA pins and patches for whichever level I got to. I think Sharpshooter, that first year. We shot prone, sitting, kneeling, standing. Single-shot .22 bolt actions. Paper targets at fifty feet. Ten rounds. You needed to score in the black. I want to emphasize, though, that riflery was one of a mix of activities, swimming, canoeing, lanyard-weaving, woodcraft. They wanted to keep us busy, that critical mass of boys.
My dad let me buy my own .22 when I was fourteen. He was from Ohio, he'd served in the war, and like a lot of people his age, it seemed perfectly natural for kids to learn basic shooting skills. How not? He and I shot up a lot of tin cans.
I went in the military, then, with a little preparation, and qualified Expert on the .30 caliber carbine. Now, the .30 carbine is a lightweight compared to the M-14 the Marines were still being issued at the time, or the M-16 the Army had transitioned to, and they were shooting at distances out to three hundred yards, but still. Iron sights on a little gun that fired what wasn't all that much more than a pistol load? I thought I did okay.
In the years since that first .22, I've had a few other guns, a couple of single-actions, cowboy guns, a couple of auto-loaders. One of the things I've always liked about guns is their simplicity of function. I'm no good at working on cars, I couldn't take a carburetor apart, but guns are straightforward, mechanically, like a watch. The single-action Army, for example, a design that dates to 1873, has six moving parts, with three springs. There aren't that many more in a .45 auto, the 1911. Guns you can drop in sand, or salt water, and they'll still operate. That's why they were military-issue.
This is prologue. I'm telling you so you know where my sympathies lie. It's a familiar story. Anybody of a certain generation, or anybody with a certain background, is going to say more or less the same thing. They grew up in a culture where hunting and shooting were part of the metric. It didn't make you a nut. Of course, this is also a culture where military service was often the norm. So, it depends on your attitude toward that. If you can't see yourself in uniform, you might be unsympathetic. Same with guns. Or broccoli.
But my actual question here is, What the heck happened to the NRA? How did they shape-shift from a generic bunch of hunters and recreational shooters, back in the day, into this pack of rabid crazies? (Exaggeration for effect, of course, but that's how they're perceived by many.) The answer is that there was a coup, at the national meeting in Cincinnati, in 1977.
Forty years ago, a dissident group led by Harlon Carter waged a floor fight, and voted the NRA board of directors out of office. Carter's platform was simple: on 2nd Amendment issues, there's no room for compromise. Compromise means erosion, and the end result of gun control can only be confiscation and tyranny.
This is how the argument continues to be framed. If the gun-control advocates suggest banning high-cap mags, to take an example, 2nd Amendment absolutists say this is gradualism, a wolf in sheep's clothing. They've got a point. Once you start loosening the bricks in the wall, you hasten its collapse, and gun rights people simply don't believe it, when you tell them these are just common-sense measures. They know your real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. And when you come right down to it, there are people whose real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. It flies in the face of reason and experience to say that isn't true. So the problem isn't just the gun guys. The problem is that both sides believe themselves to possess the True Cross, and Satan rules their adversaries.
Where do I stand, personally? Like more than a few gun guys, I'm for gun control. But the dialogue, if you can call it that, is owned by the extremes, and what's in short supply is trust.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.