The History of Gun Control in America, Part One: Up to 1930
Since 1911, politicians and activists have tried to pass laws restricting access to guns, thinking that this will somehow take them out of the hands of criminals.
(Author’s Note: What follows is a brief history of gun control in America. While attempting to write this article in an objective manner, it is inevitable that soon my freedom-loving bias will come out. My apologies in advance if my accounting of the many and varied attempts to curtail my constitutional right to defend myself and my family seem somehow colored by this strange predilection for survival.)
It is the contention of this article that the majority of gun control supporters in this country are under the mistaken assumption that taking guns away from law-abiding citizens will somehow reduce crime. They seem to believe that banning guns somehow takes them out of criminals hands. In my research on the subject, I found that this is anything but the case.
It is my belief that there is also another faction of the gun grabbers, an upper echelon. The elites in our country, just some of them mind you, want to take guns away from people because they want control, pure and simple. They see themselves as being on a higher level, and that they are the only ones who should be entrusted with the responsibility of firearms.
I also believe that the vast majority of people are good and are capable of using firearms responsibly, that it is their right to do so, and that that right should not be removed unless an individual proves demonstrably that he or she is not to be trusted with them. With rights come responsibilities of course, and citizens who own and use firearms need to be properly trained. But the vast majority of people are capable of this and should be allowed to do so.
Furthermore, I believe the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and for that purpose, I believe as many law-abiding citizens as possible should be armed and ready to defend themselves and their families. I think that with enough good people carrying firearms while going about their daily business unmolested by hyper-vigilant law enforcement officials, criminals will not find the intestinal fortitude to break the law in their presence.
Guns And The Birth of America
It is a well-known fact that there are more privately owned guns in the United States than in any other country in the world. Estimates vary widely of course, and it is not the intention of this document to attempt to cite an accurate number for them all. Gun ownership is a great tradition in this country; our War of Independence was won by them and several times in our history we've had to ensure our freedom with them.
Some say this is a bad thing; to them, guns are the danger, not the people wielding them. Take away the guns and you take away the violent crime, they'll tell you. Those of us with a better understanding of human nature know this is not true. Any attempts to take away guns only remove them from the hands of lawful people.
But America has a long history with guns. In the early days of our country, the frontier was won by them. They were necessary for the hunting of wild game and for survival against Indians or other attackers. In the Revolutionary War period, colonists sometimes had to protect themselves against the whims of British troops. Ever since this era, the mentality of being ready to protect oneself against all predators, non-human and human alike has been ingrained in the American psyche, including against a potentially aggressive and unjust government.
So for these reasons, and for the relaxation and joy of target shooting, guns were ever-present in the early days of America. Gun use and ownership was such a part of everyday life that to ban them was considered unthinkable.
This opinion was shared by the vast majority of America for well over a century, which no doubt coincided with the fact that most of America was still rural or wilderness, and guns were seen as very necessary for survival there. Even as the untamed portions of the nation began to be settled towards the onset of the First World War, in rural America firearms were viewed with almost equal necessity as in the past, for pest control and fresh game on the kitchen table, even though the constant threat to personal safety had passed. Since the vast majority of America was still rural at the turn of the last century, firearm ownership was as it had always been, an unchallenged necessity for most.
The Dawn of Gun Control
As the urban centers of the east began filling up with people, alarming crime rates began to show, particularly in New York City. Attempts to make some sense of what was happening began to attribute the crime to the prevalence of handguns everywhere, and a misguided mindset began to develop that reducing crime by controlling the availability of handguns might be possible. Some urbanites who were removed from the rural world of hunting, target shooting, and self-defense began to associate guns with crime and tragic accidents and began to question the reasons for gun ownership.
This is where the Gun Control argument began. If we simply remove the guns, they mistakenly reasoned, crimes that typically involve a gun won’t happen. This reasoning is flawed for two basic reasons, both of which should be obvious to most people reading this article, but I’ll reiterate them for the record.
- First, a gun is an inanimate object, and any attempt to control it would be futile and much better served by instead examining how to control the behavior of those who abuse the killing power of guns. Any question involving crime and firearms must focus on the individuals committing the vile acts, not merely all gun owners.
- Secondly, Gun Control can only be enacted via one avenue: legislation. Laws are passed to outlaw some firearms or at least infringe upon the rights of individuals to own or use them, but they are only laws. And when laws are passed, the majority of citizens observe them, and the criminal element does not, which takes them out of the hands of precisely the wrong group of people and further emboldens another precisely wrong group of people. Throughout the years, in any given time and place, the statistics almost always bear this out. As we move to the next section of this article, we’ll look at the first instance of the adoption of Gun Control measures, and then examine their long-term effects upon crime rates.
The Sullivan Act of 1911 - New York State
The first significant gun control law to be adopted in the United States was The Sullivan Act of 1911. This was merely a local NY State law, but it was a harbinger of things to come.
Named for its author, Timothy D. Sullivan, and influenced by New York County Coroner George P. Le Brun, the catalyst for the act was a growing sense of alarm from New York City about the growing crime rate and the wounding by gunshot of New York City's Mayor William Gaynor in November 1910. This incident turned a mere sense of concern overnight into a unified sentiment of NY State politicians against guns and sparked a push to adopt some form of anti-gun legislation which ended up with the passage of this poorly conceived bill.
With the Sullivan Act now in place, a New York State resident had to obtain a permit to purchase a handgun and another to own it. Originally, the non-refundable purchase permit was $.50, but within ten years this figure was raised to $20; this figure is equivalent to about $516 dollars in 2018. The purchaser had to endure an interview with police officers and had to convince them that he had “good reason” to own a handgun.
(At this point I’ll try really hard not to go off on a tangent about how arbitrary the judgments of police officers and other public officials may sometimes be, how prone to bias, racism, and unfair discrimination of many types a government employee of New York State in the year 1911 could have been. Really, I’ll try...oh, wait. Never mind.)
The gun purchaser also had to be fingerprinted and provide three personal references as to his good character and provide four photographs of himself. If, after all of this was provided and permission was granted by the whims of the powers that be, the owner was then authorized to keep the pistol in only one place, usually his residence. Recreational target shooters and hunters then had to apply for another special license to allow them to transport their handguns, and only if they were intended to be used for this purpose. When the owner died, the handgun would be confiscated by the state, with no recompense to the estate of the deceased.
One particular provision would come back to haunt the creators of the Sullivan Act: the ban on non-citizens carrying firearms of any type.
Originally the bill was praised roundly by the NY press. One NY Times editorial expressed hopes that “evil habits of pistol owning and carrying will gain a new odium, and will be abandoned by many — perhaps all outside the distinctly criminal class." Arguments against the bill were attributed to “greedy gun manufacturers and dealers”, with the Times stating ridiculously that there was "...no argument against the bill except that it will reduce sales and thereby profits." Timothy Sullivan himself upped the ante on the wrong-o-meter by proclaiming that the bill would save more souls than all the preachers in the city giving sermons for ten years.
Truth be told, there was surprisingly little opposition to the bill at first. This must be attributed to the fact that the bill received almost no publicity between its passage in February of 1911 and its signing into law that May. Prophetically, the one strong voice against the bill, State Senator Ferris, voiced a sentiment which would be heard again and again in other battles over gun control throughout the years when he said: “You can't force a criminal to get a license for a gun.”
(NY state Gun Grabbers didn't get it then, and they don't get it now.)
Upon the signing of the bill into law on May 30th, an uproar began, most likely as a result of the sudden publicity that the media finally decided to bestow upon it. When the question was asked of whether a person who already had a handgun would have to surrender it if he failed to receive a permit, and the answer was yes, outrage began to be seen among the populace.
On September 2, the day after the new law went into effect, Italian immigrant James Palermo was arrested leaving a hardware store with a brand new shotgun he had purchased; under the new law, foreigners were prohibited from carrying arms. Within the next few days, several incidents of this nature made their way into the newspapers, and public outrage quickly began to build.
On September 6, 1911, New York district attorney Charles Whitman stated that the section prohibiting keeping unlicensed pistols in the home was an unconstitutional infringement on the right to bear arms. Emboldened by this, New York City lawyer Joseph Darling boastfully and publicly informed a police captain that he was in possession of an unregistered handgun. After his inevitable arrest for flouting the Sullivan Act, he stated:
"There are 500,000 persons with pistols in their homes and I want this law defined. I want to know what are my rights; what are the rights of any citizen... I have not procured a license because I think this law is unconstitutional."
Supporting Darling's cause was Justice Francis Pendleton of the state Supreme Court, who also said the law should not apply to guns kept in the home. He stated, “...any broader construction would bring the constitutionality of the law itself into question as an act exceeding the police power and interfering with the rights of citizens to take measures for self-protection." Darwin's case was settled on January 4th, 1912 in the state Appellate Court. Unfortunately, the majority of judges held that the law could restrict handguns in the home and held that the act was "regulatory, not prohibitive”. Two judges who broke with the mainstream view said that the law “prevents householders from defending themselves against marauders.”
Few comments were recorded favoring the law in the next few years. The Times reported no decrease in lawlessness, and Magistrate Joseph E. Corrigan famously declared: "The new anti-pistol carrying law is ridiculous… You can't pick up a paper nowadays without reading of a shooting scrape.” Reported figures show a 23% increase in shooting homicides from 1911 to 1912.
In addition, consternation rose that while criminals were still well armed, those who applied for permits were being turned down. In one case, a doctor who had previously been held up was refused a handgun permit. This was a common scenario at the time; there was no uniform standard for granting or refusing permits, and they were routinely refused at the whims of the police.
After 1914 the furor over the Sullivan Law abated and the law even earned some praise. In this year the number of homicides stabilized, and in an interview with the Times George P. Le Brun stated that “75% of all homicides are caused by the presence of a weapon” and, incredibly, that “guns are of little value for defensive purposes”.
(Statistics do show that the number of the number of homicides decreased substantially from 1914 to 1919, however in hindsight it seems likely that some other event in the year 1914 may have had something to do with this. Hmm...anyone know of anything important that might have happened in 1914? Bueller?)
When World War One broke out in Europe in 1914, employment opportunities arose for those who may have otherwise been involved in crime. Perhaps·some of those who would otherwise have been shooting New Yorkers were instead engaged in the more socially acceptable pastime of shooting Germans. This theory seems to bear some fruit, as by the 1920’s, murder rates were again soaring.
Today, the Sullivan Act is touted by fans of Gun Control for the recorded drop in handgun murder rates for a few years after its passing, disregarding the entire picture of shooting homicide incidence over a longer period of time. New York City is hardly a paragon of safety and non-violence since the passage of the Sullivan Act, and the fact that fewer people are killed with guns in New York seems irrelevant. If the goal of this bill is to prevent violent crime, it seems to have failed miserably, as New York City still seems to have quite a high murder rate. In addition to its ineffectiveness in reducing crime, there is no doubt that the Sullivan Act negatively affects the honest citizens seeking to own a handgun. Perhaps the greatest advocate of the Sullivan Act, the New York Times, even stated in 1924: ''A harsh critic would have some excuse for saying it is ignored by those who alone would make nefarious use of deadly weapons and is effective only in imposing inconvenience and expense on those whose one purpose in arming themselves would be legitimate defense of their persons and property.”
The 1920’s - Prohibition and Gun Control
Or, “Hey, That Banning Alcohol Thing Worked So Well, Let’s See How It Works On Guns”
As the urbanization of America continued, so too did the country see its crime rate begin to climb. In this decade, the same idealistic spirit for reform which fueled prohibition also took hold firmly on the side of Gun Control.
Most of the more extreme measures of this cause died quietly and with little support in the hands of lawmakers, but one rather pointless federal regulation did come to life. Echoing the clearly naive logic that many of that time still possessed, one Baptist minister proclaimed that “If nobody had a gun, nobody would need a gun.”
Captain Paul Curtis, Jr., responded rather poignantly in Field & Stream magazine, stating, "Truly we are in a dangerously Puritanical age when a few mollycoddles with good intentions, can try out their theories for the prevention of crime at the expense of every honest, red-blooded man in the land.”
The Wall Street Journal also publicly opposed any new Gun Control regulations, reminding that the experience with the Sullivan Law had shown Gun Control to be ineffective: “It sends to jail honest people, ignorant of the law, and it makes the armed miscreant safe in carrying a gun.…”
Several more pieces of legislation were proposed throughout the 1920’s, with the anti-gun forces enjoying at least one victory in 1924 when Sears & Roebuck announced that it was discontinuing the sale of all firearms: “We feel the moral side of all public questions is the right side, not only because we want to be right, but because it is good business."
Apparently good business was ultimately more important to Sears than right or wrong, as gun sales were discontinued for only a brief time when the Board of Directors discovered a slide in sales after the adoption of this policy.
Also that year, another victory for the Gun Control proponents was almost realized. HR 9093 was introduced to ban the sale of pistols through the mail and was passed by the House of Representatives. Since this would only have affected the U.S. Mail, the only effect of the bill would have been the nuisance of paying higher delivery charges for handguns via other carriers. Regardless, the bill was fiercely fought by both sides in Congress in that year because the anti-gun forces and pro-gun forces alike saw it for what it was, a first round in the new war on guns.
When HR 9093 was referred to committee by the Senate without debate, effectively killing the measure, Gun Control proponents were not discouraged. In 1926, New York City Chief City Magistrate William McAdoo proposed a federal law.which would have effectively banned all handgun sales. An ardent supporter of the Sullivan Law, he now wanted the nation to enact a similar measure. His bill proposed a $100 tax ($1424 in 2018 money) on the sale, gift, or barter of every handgun, and a tax of $1 on every round of handgun ammunition, with ammunition to be sold in quantities of fifty, one hundred, or one thousand.
(For those who don’t feel like doing the math, this would have meant a minimum mortgage payment, I mean investment, of $712 for a box of ammo in today’s money).
MacAdoo’s bill would have also decreed that any handgun already owned would be seized and destroyed. In the 1926 book, Outlawing the Pistol, author Lamar Berman supported legislation like that proposed by McAdoo. He argued that any Gun Control measures needed to be strictly on a federal level, and based his assertion on the presumption that prohibition had not been effective until enacted on that level.
We at gunrightswatch.com, who read our history books before the liberals started rewriting them, are of the opinion that all prohibition did was to turn a legal business into a black market one, and to turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals, much like most Gun Control laws have the potential to do.
Whackadoo McAdoo, as one might guess, was an early proponent of prohibition. It does seem odd that with his early and close connection to the prohibition issue, he couldn’t see how poorly that particular endeavor worked for the betterment of the United States of America. He also was one of the first to suggest banning or at least placing greater restrictions on automobiles, which he somehow linked to a greater incidence of crime. Luckily for the rest of us, not one of McAdoo’s proposed bills were blessed with acceptance.
In 1927 a new bill, HR 4502, was crafted and proposed to do almost precisely what HR 9093 would have done — the banning of handguns via the U.S. Mail. Though both bills were virtually identical, HR 4502 passed easily in the House and Senate where HR 9093 had failed. It was signed into law on February 8th, 1927 by then President Calvin Coolidge, who reportedly signed it “to prevent the passage of any stricter measures.”
To this day it is still not possible to ship a handgun via U.S. Mail in most circumstances except through a Federal Firearms License holder, but this now seems irrelevant. Not one politician or talking head has dared to present the silly notion that this arbitrary ban has had any effect on reducing crime or any actual effect at all other than to have a minor consequence of costing the average citizen a little bit more for postage and to help illustrate the obsolescence of the U.S. Postal Service. This is the single most common effect of Gun Control legislation: to exact hardship upon honest, hard-working citizens while having no effect, or possibly an enabling effect upon the common criminal.
This is part one in this series. Part two will focus on the history of gun control after 1930.