In the wake of Wednesday's on-camera shooting in Virginia, Evan Dickson posted the above meme on Twitter, in which a past National Rifle Association president says the "promiscuous toting" of guns should be "sharply restricted." The quote is accurate, and Frederick wasn't alone — for much of the 20th century, the NRA's leaders sympathized with and even supported gun control measures.
The story of how the NRA changed is best told in two excellent books, Osha Gray Davidson's Under Fire and Adam Winkler's Gunfight (which contains the Frederick quote). In the organization's earliest years, it was a riflery and sharpshooting club founded because some Union officers had been disappointed by their troops' lack of marksmanship during the Civil War. By the mid-20th century, it increasingly focused on hunting and sportsmen. Back then, the organization was large, but it wasn't particularly political — indeed, guns weren't really a matter of political controversy.
The '60s changed gun politics
In Winkler's telling, the high-profile assassinations and race riots of the 1960s led to the modern push for gun control. Many politicians began to blame the widespread availability of guns for this increasing violence, with President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, coming out in support of federal gun registration and licensing. In 1968, he ended up signing two compromise laws placing some restrictions on gun sales, which, while minor, were the first federal gun control laws since the era of Prohibition-related gang violence.
And the NRA's leadership backed them.
But a backlash soon brewed among the group's rank and file. Some felt threatened by rising crime and wanted guns for protection. Others lived in low-crime rural areas and disdained gun restrictions as a pointless inconvenience. Still others nursed dark conspiracy theories that the government was plotting to take all their guns away. "It was the concept of gun control itself that they disliked, even hated," Davidson writes.
As the years went on, new gun control proposals kept coming, from both the federal government and the states. Yet the NRA's leaders seemed unconcerned — in 1976, they actually announced a plan to withdraw from political lobbying, move their headquarters out of DC, and refocus on hunting and sporting.
A 1977 revolt changed everything
That move sparked a backlash among the hard-liners, whose leader was Harlon Carter, who had headed the NRA's lobbying faction. Carter deeply believed that once the government started placing new restrictions on guns, it would never stop — and he found a great deal of support for his views among the NRA's members.
So at the NRA's May 1977 annual meeting, Carter mobilized the rank and file to push out the existing leadership, to install him instead, and to affirm that the NRA would continue to fight new gun control proposals. He won overwhelmingly, and his victory, as Davidson writes, "changed forever the face of the NRA," making it truly the "gun lobby" for the first time — the tireless lobbying group known today for advocating against even minor gun control measures.
Investigative reporters later unearthed that decades earlier, at the age of 17, Carter had been convicted for murder after shooting a Mexican teenager. They had gotten into an argument as Carter tried to find out who stole his family car, and Carter said the 15-year-old boy pulled a knife on him. (The conviction was later overturned on appeal because the jury hadn't been appropriately told to consider a self-defense argument.)