The History of Gun Control in America, Part Four: 1980 to Now

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An older model AK-47

The History of Gun Control in America, Part Four

The Late 1970’s - Organized Factions Form

(Continued from The History of Gun Control in America, Part Three)

In 1974, the National Council to Control Handguns (NCCH) was founded by armed robbery victim Mark Borinsky with Republican marketing manager Pete Shields, whose son had been a victim of murder by handgun, joining shortly thereafter. By 1980 they would change the name of the group to Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI). For a short time, they partnered with the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH), although this partnership did not last long. The NCBH soon decided that the HCI did not share their fervor to promote anti-gun legislation, and renamed themselves in 1990 as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). This split seems unfortunate for the CSGV, as the HCI has had considerably more traction following the assassination of John Lennon in 1980.

By 1981, HCI's membership had grown beyond 100,000; in 1983, the HCI spawned the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV) as an educational outreach project, and in 1989, CPHV established the Legal Action Project to push for anti-gun legislation in the courts. In 2001, the HCI renamed itself again to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which was instrumental in the passing of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Bill).

Gun Owners of AmericaAt about the same time as the formation of the NCCH / HCI / Brady Campaign, in 1975, despite the change in tone and direction of the NRA during the 1970’s away from any attempts at compromise or appeasement with the advocates of Gun Control, and towards a previously unseen level of political activism, some gun rights activists felt a that a more unified group of gun owners strictly against the anti-gun movement was called for, and formed the Gun Owners of America (GOA).

H. L. Richardson, a state Senator from California and the founder of GOA and the Gun Owners of California, still serves as its chairman after 42 years. Richardson has gone on record publicly criticizing the NRA on multiple occasions for what the GOA considers to be an attitude of compromise on gun rights issues and for selling out the gun rights movement in general. Retired Congressman Ron Paul further describes the GOA as “the only no-compromise gun rights lobby in Washington.” For more than 30 years, GOA has been building an active network of attorneys who sole aim is to challenge any anti-gun legislation in the courts.

The murder of John Lennon

The Dawn of the 1980’s

(All We Are Saying, Is Give A Piece A Chance)

South entrance of the Dakota buildingOn the evening of December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was shot dead at point-blank range by Mark David Chapman in the archway of his home in New York City. This was the first major news event to affect the issue of gun rights in the 1980’s. For this senseless act, Chapman was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison at the Wende Correctional Facility, where he has remained ever since, being denied parole 9 times already.

Lennon’s murder in 1980 renewed interest in stricter gun control laws. “John Lennon’s death appears to have done more to center attention on handguns than any recent event,” reported the Washington Post. Still, the notion of any new gun control legislation was rejected by then President-elect Ronald Reagan. Ironically, Reagan’s own assassination attempt merely 3 months later would eventually spur the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993.

On Monday, March 30, 1981, new President Ronald Reagan was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. As Reagan got into his limousine, John Hinckley, Jr. opened fire from just a few feet away with his revolver. Incredibly, despite the extremely close range, Hinckley’s six shots almost hit everything but President Reagan. The first hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head, actually causing the most damage of any bullet Hinckley fired that day; Brady suffered brain damage and was permanently paralyzed. The second round hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck as he turned to protect Reagan, wounding him moderately. Delahanty later recovered completely.

With Delahanty out of the way, Hinckley had a clear shot at Reagan but missed again anyway and hit the window of a building across the street. As the Special Agent In Charge Jerry Parr frantically shoved Reagan into the back seat of the armored limousine, his fourth shot hit Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen, who also later recovered completely. The fifth bullet hit the bullet-resistant glass of the window on the open limo door, and the sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the armored side of the limo and hit the president under his left arm, grazing one rib and lodging in his lung, stopping almost an inch from his heart.  Reagan’s injury proved to be relatively minor; he was able to speak to reporters and sign legislation the next day and was out of the hospital less than two weeks later. It is generally acknowledged that Parr’s quick reaction is what saved the President’s life.

In the aftermath of the shooting, amazingly, no new strong voice for Gun Control rang out immediately. It would take years for the passage of the Brady Bill. Reagan retained his strong stance for gun rights, although after his presidency he did support the background checks enumerated in the Brady Bill.

Late 1980’s Reagan-Era Legislation

(The Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act, The Firearm Owners Protection Act and the Undetectable Firearms Act)

The 1986 Firearm Owner's Protection ActThere were three pieces of significant legislation related to gun rights during the Reagan administration. The first was the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986, which illegalized the manufacture or import of armor piercing ammunition, or "cop-killer bullets," which are designed to penetrate bullet-resistant clothing.

This relatively minor act was quickly overshadowed by the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. On May 19, 1986, President Reagan signed this bill, which amended the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, repealing parts of the FGCA that were declared by studies to be unconstitutional. This was something that the NRA had long lobbied for, and it was generally declared a victory for gun rights. This act accomplished several things; it was now easier to transport long rifles across the United States, it ended federal record keeping of ammunition sales, and it prevented the prosecution of someone passing through states with strict gun control with firearms in their vehicle as long as the gun, or guns, were properly stored. The act, however, also contained a provision outlawing ownership of any fully automatic firearms that were not registered by May 19, 1986. This provision was cleverly slipped into the legislation as a last-minute amendment by Rep. William J. Hughes (D) of New Jersey. Reagan has been roundly criticized by some gun rights groups and gun owners for signing the legislation with the Hughes amendment intact.

The Defense Distributed Liberator pistolOn November 10, 1988, President Reagan signed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which HCI supported Congress in passing. The United States Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 makes it illegal to manufacture, transport, sell or possess any firearm that is undetectable by walk-through metal detectors, or any firearm whose major components do not generate a recognizable, accurate image before standard airport imaging machines. This bill was designed to ban firearms that could foil standard metal detection, and also required handguns to assume the traditional shape of a handgun so that imaging machines could recognize them easily. It began as an attempt to ban handguns like the Glock 17 that had much less metal content than other handguns in the mid-1980s. This particular bill might have faded into obscurity, but in recent years the advent of 3D printing with high-grade plastics (and now, even as metal parts) has given this measure a new degree of relevance.

The NRA originally chose not to fight this bill, because its restrictions did not affect any guns being made at the time, but this may prove to have been a short-sighted decision with the advent of 3D printing. Also, the passage of this bill was seen as a major victory by the anti-gun crowd; it seems to have added an air of legitimacy to HCI, who was instrumental later as The Brady Campaign in passing the Brady Bill. The UFA originally had a ten-year lifespan, but when it came up for renewal in 1998, it was endorsed by the NRA. Further renewals in 2003 and 2013 were similarly endorsed, and this 30-year-old law is now making new headlines against the possibility of 3D printing technology.

Older model AK-47

A final event of the 1980’s would prove to further impact gun laws. On January 17, 1989, at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, Patrick Purdy, a man with a long criminal history, shot and killed five schoolchildren and wounded 32 others before committing suicide. This incident immediately received national news coverage and was cause for renewed calls for regulation of semiautomatic weapons. Time magazine asked, “Why could Purdy, an alcoholic who had been arrested for such offenses as selling weapons and attempted robbery, walk into a gun shop in Sandy, Oregon, and leave with an AK-47 under his arm?" The state of California soon passed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which banned anything they considered an assault weapon. The federal government was more divided on this issue, but this event is considered to be the catalyst for the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act and the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

The 1990’s

Gun Free Zone signThe Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 prohibits any individual from possessing a firearm anywhere within 1000 feet of any place that is defined as a school zone. First introduced in the Senate in February 1990 by Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, it was then incorporated into the Crime Control Act of 1990, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. In 1995 the Supreme Court subsequently maintained that the Act was an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional authority, but then-Attorney General Janet Reno found a loophole to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling; in the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997 she buried an exception that if the firearm in question "has moved in or otherwise affects interstate commerce" it is still subject to the GFSZA, which affects nearly all firearms.

In 1993, the  Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, commonly referred to as the Brady Bill, was the culmination of almost 20 years of the efforts of the Brady Campaign, formerly known as the National Council to Control Handguns (NCCH), then known as Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI). The Brady Bill mandated federal background checks on anyone purchasing a firearm in the United States and instituted a five-day waiting period before any purchase could be claimed. The waiting period was replaced in 1998 by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This system determines whether prospective firearms or explosives buyers' identification and birth date match those of a person who is listed as ineligible to buy. The Brady Bill was quite restrictive, yet it was overshadowed by the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

The National Instant Background Check System logoThe Brady Campaign also lobbied for the passage of this ban, which used rather ambiguous terms to define an 'assault weapon'. Nonsensical characteristics, such as the color of the weapon in some cases, were used to outlaw some rifles, pistols, and shotguns. (There were actually a detailed and complex set of rules for whether a specific firearm would be banned, such as the inclusion on the gun such features as folding stocks, flash suppressors, pistol grips, and detachable magazines, but a complete list of features and the rules for banning firearms based on them is outside the scope of this article.)

This law, officially called the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, is merely a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, barely passed by Congress on September 13, 1994 (52–48 in the Senate), and signed immediately that day by President Clinton. It was enacted with a ten-year lifespan, and due to lobbying efforts on behalf of the NRA, it was failed to be renewed in 2004. In October 2003, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report about the effectiveness of gun violence prevention strategies which concluded, "Evidence was insufficient to determine the effectiveness of any of these laws.” A similar survey of firearms research by the National Academy of Sciences arrived at nearly identical conclusions in 2004. None of the renewal bills have left committee, and, despite the stated intentions of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to re-enact the ban, no movement was made on this until the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. On January 24, 2013, Senator Diane Feinstein introduced S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, basically a copycat of the 1994 AWB but without an expiration date. This bill failed its vote in the Senate 40 to 60. To date, this is the closest the 1994 AWB has come to renewal.

The 21st Century

This century so far has been much kinder to gun owners than the heyday of the anti-gun sentiment of the 1960’s and 70’s. Increased public awareness about gun rights issues, courtesy of the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, and other groups like them, as well as lobbying efforts on behalf of the NRA, can all be thanked for that.

In 2003, The Tiahrt Amendment, proposed by Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), prohibited the ATF from publicly releasing data showing where criminals purchased their firearms, with the stipulation that only law enforcement officials could access such information. The Washington Post indignantly declared of this law in 2010, “The law effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study, and public scrutiny. It also keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.” Gun owners and lobbying groups have steadily maintained that public release of this information would unfairly target certain gun shops. There have been efforts to repeal this amendment, but none have come to fruition as of yet.

Guns on a table at a gun show

In 2004, The Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act was enacted. This law allows qualified law enforcement officers, current and retired, to carry a concealed firearm anywhere in the United States, regardless of state or local laws, with certain exceptions. Later amended by the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act Improvements Act of 2010, this expansion of scope specifically extended its coverage to include officers of the Amtrak Police, Federal Reserve Police, and police officers of the executive branch of U.S. Government. On January 2, 2013, LEOSA was again expanded by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by President Obama, furthering the law’s scope to include military police and civilian police officers within the Department of Defense.

On June 6, 2005,  Gun Owners of America helped in lobbying the House of Representatives to vote against the Moran Amendment, by a vote of 278 to 149. The amendment would have banned .50 caliber weapons from being licensed for export. This bill started with another media event: On January 9, 2005, CBS's "60 Minutes" show demonized .50-caliber rifles. The CBS/VPC storyline was that a .50 caliber weapon is "too dangerous to be in the hands of private citizens." As if on cue, anti-gun zealot Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) immediately introduced his "50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Reduction Act" in Congress.

Guns on display in a gun storeIn effect since October 26, 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed by President George W. Bush, prevents gun manufacturers from being held liable in federal or state civil suits by crime victims involving guns made by that company. Gun manufacturers and even dealers can still be subject to a lawsuit for damages from defective equipment, breaches of contract, or any other criminal actions that they may be directly responsible for, just as any other U.S. company can (and should) be.

This law stemmed from the backlash of several lawsuits, perhaps the most notable of which was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1998 lawsuit targeting gun makers and dealers. He was quoted as saying: "You can't expect the status quo on businesses which make money and then have no responsibility to us as citizens." Mayor Joseph Ganim of Bridgeport, Connecticut stated flatly that their tactic of pursuing gun manufacturers with litigation was the route that he and his city’s administration would take from now on.

In the legislative aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, On Jan. 8, 2008, President Bush signed H.R. 2640 into law. This was New York Senator Chuck Schumer's NICS Improvement Amendments Act, designed to address loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence, Democratic gun control advocates, some mental health experts, and the NRA all supported the NICS Improvement Amendments Act (also known as the School Safety And Law Enforcement Improvement Act), but the GOA took issue with a portion of the bill, which they termed the "Veterans' Disarmament Act." This portion of the bill famously put many veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or combat fatigue), or even anyone who had applied for Social Security Disability benefits on a “no-buy” list, prohibiting them from purchasing any firearms.

District of Columbia vs. Heller, copyright The Miami HeraldOn June 26, 2008, District of Columbia vs. Heller (554 U.S. 570) was decided. This landmark case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an individual’s right to possess a firearm is the central issue of the Second Amendment, and was the first case in which the Supreme Court declared that an individual’s right to have firearms for home defense was a fundamental freedom. It further declared that Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban was unconstitutional and would be abolished, and the requirement that legally-owned rifles and shotguns should be kept "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock" violated Second Amendment rights. It did, however, declare that the right to keep and bear arms was not unlimited and that it would continue to be regulated.

It should be noted that this case essentially reversed the almost 70-year precedent set by the United States vs. Miller case of 1939. Also, it redefined the focus of the Second Amendment in favor of individual rights and away from that of a “well-regulated militia”.

Decided June 28, 2010, McDonald vs. Chicago (561 U.S. 742) is another landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the rights of the individual to "keep and bear arms" as protected via the Second Amendment is incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against the states. This decision cleared up any uncertainty left after the District of Columbia v. Heller decision as to the scope of an individual's gun rights in regard to the states.

Whereas Heller was about citizens gun rights as pertaining to federal law, this case was all about the state’s ability to interfere with those rights. In this case, several suits against Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois challenged their gun bans after the District of Columbia vs. Heller decision. The suits, including one by Chicago resident Otis McDonald, a 76-year-old retired janitor, were thrown out of court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit later affirmed their appeal, which then went to the US Supreme Court and on to a victory for Otis McDonald and for all American gun owners.

Otis McDonald

In early 2013, President Obama proposed sweeping changes to Gun Control, after the massacres of 20 first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, and 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. Throughout his presidency, upon news of any mass shooting, he would publicly scold the American People about the dangers of guns (I’ll take a moment to note that not at any time did he adequately lay the blame on the wackos who did the shooting, but instead blame it on the easy availability of firearms) and introduce proposals to tighten Gun Control laws. His plans included universal background checks for gun sales, the reinstatement and strengthening of the assault weapons ban, limiting ammunition magazines to a 10-round capacity, and other measures. These measures all failed at the national level, but some individual states did begin enacting tighter legislation to encroach on Second Amendment rights, flouting the precedent set by the McDonald vs. Chicago decision just three years earlier.

On Sept. 10, 2013, The normally left-leaning (but liberty-minded) State of Colorado recalled two pro-Gun-Control State Senators. Voters in the state threw out of office Democrats John Morse and Angela Giron for supporting recently enacted Gun Control laws that require background checks on private gun sales and limit magazine clips to 15 rounds. The election became a media storm, drawing national attention not only for the removal of the officials but also for the mass influx of money from both sides of the political aisle, from the National Rifle Association and from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a noted Gun Control advocate.

Seal of the National Council on DisabilityIn February 2017, the Trump administration signed into law a bill that rolled back the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, returning Second Amendment rights to approximately 75,000 individuals who were receiving Social Security disability and had representative payees. This new Trump administration bill was supported by the ACLU, the National Association for Mental Health, The American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Council on Disability, and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, as well as other disability rights advocates.

And, finally, in 2018, in the political aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a number of students who survived this incident took to the national stage to call for tighter gun control. One student named David Hogg seized the opportunity to declare himself as a spokesman for the anti-gun crowd, leading the students in chants of “We call BS!” (I’m sure Barbara Streisand changed her phone number shortly after this battle cry was heard.) Though Congress’ reaction varied, Florida state legislators promptly prepared new rounds of legislation. This is one more Gun Control scenario that will likely be playing itself out in courtrooms and more (unconstitutional) legislation.

This is part four in this series and the conclusion of our History of Gun Control in America.

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The History of Gun Control in America, Part Three: 1968 to 1980

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Raven Arms MP25 Pistol (Saturday Night Special)

The Martin Luther King Assassination: Backlash

(Continued from The History of Gun Control in America, Part Two)

As expected, the shooting of MLK led to an ad nauseam tidal wave of articles in the media damning guns and the people who owned them. The Boston Sunday Globe had this quote at the end of an article about the heated controversy from Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal:

"I am against all your gun laws. It is argued that the Constitution supports them by holding that every citizen has the right·to bear arms. Then to hell with the Constitution."

In spite of all the anger and controversy, no further legislative action was forthcoming for the time being. A month after the assassination, an attempt by Senator Dodd to add all long barreled guns to the mail order ban was voted down in the Senate. Another month went by.

Then, on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

1968 Anti-gun posterThis single event led to the most fervent opposition to gun rights the nation had yet seen. This very same day, a Senate Judiciary Committee approved a provision of the Omnibus Crime Bill to ban the mail order sale of handguns.

The NRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., was picketed for a week, with the first appearance of signs that may still be familiar today, “Lobby For Murder” and “Stop Violence, Stop The NRA”. Unprecedented vitriol was directed their way in the form of thousands of telegrams blaming the NRA directly for Kennedy’s shooting. Dozens upon dozens of bills were brought before Congress, with a wide range of restrictions imposed.

The media, popular political magazines like Time and Newsweek in particular, had a field day with the anti-gun sentiment raging nationwide, calling gun owners in rural areas “anti-social misfits”. The NRA, it was implied, had defeated a ban on the importation of military arms, and this had somehow meant that RFK’s death was their fault. Even the wording of the second amendment was challenged, with some arguing that there was no constitutional right to bear arms, that there was no right to home defense, and that the NRA’s claim that gun registration is the first step towards confiscation was silly paranoid nonsense.

(Ironically, those exact sentiments of the anti-gun forces, and the multiple bills demanding confiscation presented to Congress during this period, may be the best argument that their concerns were and are perfectly justified.)

Newsweek full-page anti-gun adNewsweek in particular went for a full-on attack, fueled apparently by their staff’s assumption that the constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms did not apply to individuals. One article actually stated, “With their frontier traditions, Americans have long assumed that they have a constitutional right to bear arms.” They seem to have correctly surmised the nature of pro-gun attitudes when assigning them due to a fondness for self-reliance and individual responsibility, but mistakenly derided the possibility of anti-gun legislation having a possibility of leading to confiscation at any point. They actually showed in an article a copy of an ad for a non-firing replica of a firearm and made the text stating it was not able to be fired so tiny that it couldn’t be read, leaving the impression that the gun shown could be bought for $15.33.

Other anti-gun periodicals of the time were much more forthright, even if grossly misguided.

The New Republic flatly stated, “Put simply, private citizens should be disarmed. A modest effort in this direction would include the following first steps: No person should be permitted to buy or possess a handgun or ammunition for any handgun. Possession of all automatic and semiautomatic firearms should be banned. So should all rifles. However, licenses for the purchase of shotguns for sporting purposes could be obtained from the local police chief, who would be required to enforce certain federal standards.” An editorial in the Detroit Daily Press said it even more succinctly: “No private citizen has any need or reason at any time to possess a gun. "

Clearly, the anti-gun movement had grown to a now-unprecedented level with traction from the violence of the preceding months. The editors at Advertising Age issued an unheard-of challenge to their industry to create ads meant to provoke popular support for a bill that would bring about significant new restrictions on gun ownership. A nationwide advertising campaign soon popularized such slogans as,”Buy Now, Kill Later”, "More and more people are buying guns to protect themselves from more and more people who are buying guns”, and “O.K. National Rifle Association, now look at it from our side”, with the latter slogan accompanying a poster depicting a handgun pointed straight toward the viewer.

full-page anti-gun ad in the New York TimesHollywood stars soon joined in, financing their own campaign in support of the stalled bill. Elizabeth Taylor, one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time, took out a $50,000 full-page ad in the New York Times demanding gun control. It was signed by more than 100 other celebrities, including Mel Brooks and Richard Burton.

Some sort of impending legislative action seemed inevitable. The legal battle that formed concerned primarily three measures: the ban on mail order sales, registration, and a ban on foreign imports of military arms. Many other measures were proposed, both more lenient and harsher, but these were the central issues. The majority of firearms manufacturers nationwide backed a proposal for gun licensing, which was opposed by the NRA (once again dispelling the notion that the NRA is a flunky of the gun manufacturers) and was ignored by Congress.

The mood in the country by this time clearly favored some form of Gun Control. A Harris poll taken in June 1968 showed 81% favoring registration, which was almost surely an inflated number (the reader can find the reasons why I believe this in Part Two of this series), but it does accurately reflect how the mood in the country was changing markedly against gun rights. An onslaught of new local regulations began appearing; New York City in August added registration of rifles and shotguns to the Sullivan Law, and Chicago now required registration of all guns. New Jersey narrowly missed garnering enough votes to confiscate all handguns and register long guns.

Three bills to register guns came and went before Congress in July 1968, but in the end, the anti-gun forces had their victory with the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 (FGCA). This act completely banned any mail order sales of firearms and ammunition made since 1898 (except for muzzleloaders), banned the importation of all military-style weapons, banned interstate sales of guns and ammunition, and required record keeping by dealers of all ammunition sales. Importing small foreign handguns was also prohibited in certain cases, instituting a new system which ranked pistols individually by points based on a number of factor including size, weight, and caliber.

LBJ signs the Gun Control Act of 1968

It should be noted at this time that for at least 25 years after the passage of the Federal Gun Control Act, the crime rate rose steadily, including murder and armed robbery rates. Additionally, the FGCA has placed unreasonable restrictions on gun owners, forcing them to buy whatever arms are available locally and pay whatever the local going rates are for guns and ammunition. Gun owners with rare guns chambered for hard to find ammunition may have to abandon the idea of shooting it. Military style guns have climbed steadily in value to several times their former price. Out-of-state hunters and target shooters cannot replenish their ammo.

The FCGA, possibly the most far-reaching and restrictive federal gun law ever passed, shares its most defining characteristic with every other Gun Control law: it hinders honest citizens while not affecting criminals in the least.

Gun Control in the 1970’s

(Or, Gimme Back My Bullets)

The wave of anti-gun legislation continued on into the seventies. Once the victory of the FGCA was realized, emboldened Gun Control advocates continued with bill after bill. Few bills saw the light of day, however, and in late 1970 the record-keeping provision of the FGCA was actually amended to exclude rifle and shotgun cartridges, despite fervent opposition from Senators Dodd, Kennedy, and Brooke.

Polar bears as seen from a helicopterThe media attack on gun owners and sportsmen continued unabated. That same year, a network television special entitled "Say Goodbye," about endangered species of animals, included many scenes of endangered animals being ruthlessly hunted and shot via unsportsmanlike means, such as one scene featuring a mother polar bear and her cubs being shot from the seat of a helicopter. Unknown to viewers, all of the hunting footage in the film had been staged, apparently to pursue an agenda. Several of the scenes were not as they appeared to be; for instance, in the bear scene, the mother and cubs were being shot with a tranquilizer, but this was not mentioned in the film. After its airing, stricter rules were imposed to raise the standard of nature programs, but the damage to the American view of the hunter had been done.

It can be noted that at this time a change was becoming apparent in the attitude of the NRA. What my research for this article has led me to believe is that before 1970, the National Rifle Association had adopted a policy of working with the advocates of Gun Control; with the increased level of bias and unrelenting attacks came a sea change in their demeanor. Rarely after this period have I read of any NRA compromises with the Gun Control crowd. From this point on, it becomes much clearer what the underlying theme was…
...It’s Us Against Them.

Raven Arms MP25Where this change first becomes noticeable is in the fight that evolved over the “Saturday Night Special”. This was a cheap, low-powered revolver, usually in .22, .25 or .32 caliber, that was readily available on the market but of little interest to the average NRA member. They were unreliable, inaccurate, and useless for hunting or target shooting, but criminals loved them for their cost and availability. Senator Birch Bayh introduced the bill to ban this little innocuous handgun, and the NRA leaped into the fray.

They didn’t need to object for long. The assassinations and violence of the late 60’s were quickly fading from public memory.

Senator Bayh’s bill went nowhere, as did a string of bills to follow:

  • Congressman Emmanuel Celler’s 1971 bill to ban all handguns and register all rifles and shotguns was defeated.
  • Senator Philip Hart of Michigan’s late 1971 bill to outlaw ownership of handguns by everyone except police and security guards was defeated 84 to 7.
  • Congressman Abner Mikva of Illinois’ bill to outlaw handguns was ignored.
  • Senator Ted Kennedy’s push to register all firearms failed 78 to 11.
  • And, Senator Adlai Stevenson III’s bill to license and register handguns also went down 75 to 16.

Some of the credit for the quick defeat of these bills must be given to the Nixon Administration, which had a very different attitude towards gun rights than did the Johnson Administration. Nixon did favor some legislation against the “special”, but no new bill appeared to outlaw them.

An Assassin's Diary bookThen on May 15th, 1972, Governor George Wallace of Alabama was shot five times and paralyzed by Arthur Bremer with a short barreled .38 revolver. As expected, the gun grabbers didn’t let the tragedy go to waste and public sentiment turned decidedly anti-gun once again. A Senate Subcommittee approved one of the “Saturday Night Special” bills, a rather crudely worded one which would have simply banned all handguns with barrels less than three inches in length. Although much supported, it got no further probably because the majority of legislators realized that an eight-inch barreled handgun can be turned into a two-inch barreled handgun with just a hacksaw.

Senator Bayh presented a similar bill which fared better. It passed the Senate, then was referred to a committee in the House. Then, however, an interesting thing happened. Bayh received a letter from Myron Lance, a convicted murderer serving a long prison sentence, with a criminal record that was longer. At the end of his rambling letter was the following: "I hope they pass that gun law. It'll make it harder for citizens to protect themselves. That way we could get guns easier." This bill died in committee, likely as a result of a general consensus that the measures introduced in the bill would have been ineffective.

Enter a New Dynamic: Police Overreach

On June 7, 1971, 26 Treasury Department agents and Montgomery County, Maryland police officers raided Mr. and Mrs. Kenyon Ballew’s apartment, responding to a tip that Ballew’s apartment was loaded with live hand grenades. A seventeen-year-old burglar had recently broken into the apartment, and upon his arrest had mentioned what he had seen there. Foolishly, law enforcement authorities believed this incredible story by a young thief.

The agents knocked on the door to the apartment. Mrs. Ballew, who was naked and changing at the time, called out, “Who is it?” At this point the testimonies diverge; the agents supposedly identified themselves but Mrs. Ballew maintains that she heard nothing. The agents knocked a second time, then a few seconds later began ramming the steel door with a battering ram. Mrs. Ballew screamed and called to her husband who was also naked and about to enter the shower; he had time to run out of the bathroom and grab his revolver and point it at the door, still naked. The two had been broken into before, as previously mentioned, and had installed the door and had guns ready for another attempt. After six quick rams, the door gave way. The first officers through the door were dressed as hippies, apparently undercover. One officer shouted, “He’s got a gun!” and the police opened fire, striking Ballew in the head. Mrs. Ballew screamed, “Murder! Police! Help!”, still thinking that hippies were breaking in. The police arrested Mrs. Ballew and sent her husband to the hospital.

The 1971 Kenyon Ballew raid

As a result of this reckless raid, Kenyon Ballew was permanently paralyzed until his death in 1995.

No live grenades were ever found in the apartment. Ken Ballew did have 2 dummy grenades and 3 demilitarized grenades that had been turned into party favors. This case attracted a firestorm of publicity due to the haphazard nature of the raid and shoddy investigative work that had led to it, and the raid was criticized by groups ranging from the ACLU to the NRA. Ballew’s lawsuit against the federal government was decided against him and he was ordered to pay court costs. The judge in the case insisted that he thought that the agents properly identified themselves, though he didn’t comment on why he thought 2 innocent naked people would try to resist 26 police and ATF agents. This case galvanized support on both sides of the gun issue, though much more so for the NRA and pro-gun groups. It also marked more evidence of the gun issue polarizing people into two camps, and the NRA abandoning any effort to work with the anti-gun crowd and taking a more hard-line stance.

Senator Stennis President Richard Nixon, and Vice President Gerald FordMore speedily written and poorly conceived legislation followed the shooting of Senator John Stennis in January of 1973. Echoing the familiar patterns of the past, several bills were introduced, but none passed. Senator Ted Kennedy brought forth a bill that would have banned virtually all handguns (except those with barrels over ten inches, of which only 2 or 3 models available qualified). Interestingly, and possibly a factor in the quick dismissal of all anti-gun bills generated at this time, is that Wallace and Stennis both maintained a firm pro-gun rights stance after their shootings.

Most gun bills of the 1970’s focused on handguns. Much was made of the argument that handguns have no use for sporting, and are virtually useless for the defense, despite both of these statements being patently untrue. In Massachusetts in 1974, gun owners were now required to be licensed and to obtain a Firearms Identification Card (FID). Since that time, anyone possessing a firearm, even a BB gun, without an FID is subject to imprisonment for a minimum of one year.

And so it went throughout 1974 and 1975. Several measures were proposed but went nowhere, including one outrageous bill in Washington, D.C. to confiscate all handguns and shotguns immediately, with no compensation to the owner. Another bill called for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban handgun bullets as a hazardous substance (cute trick, eh?).

On September 5th, 1975, Lynette Fromme, one of Charles Manson’s group of anarchists, attempted to shoot President Gerald Ford with a U.S. Government Colt M1911 at a distance of two feet, apparently to make a statement to people to stop polluting the environment. Luckily for Ford, she forgot to put a round in the chamber and he avoided any sudden lead poisoning. Just 17 days later, Sally Moore shot at Ford with a new .38 revolver from a distance of 40 feet; the revolver had yet to be sighted in, and a result her bullet went 6 inches off the mark, just barely enough to miss Ford’s skull. As she aimed for another shot, a quick-thinking ex-marine in the crowd jumped on her, saving Ford’s life. For these unrelated attempts, both women were sentenced to prison for life and were released only after Ford’s death in 2006.

Given new life, the media circus and legislation by Gun Control advocates began anew. Senator Kennedy slurred, ''The overriding lessons of these nearly tragic events is that if America cares about the safety of its leaders, it can no longer ignore the shocking absence of responsible gun control.” Richard Daley, Mayor of Chicago said: "You don't see someone shooting rabbits with a handgun. The only thing you hunt is human beings." (Well...about that. I just typed “shooting rabbits with a handgun” in Google and got a bunch of pictures and videos of people doing exactly that.)

Some mention must be made of the agenda-driven content of the pictures which accompanied the text of the many anti-gun articles of this time. One cartoon printed in Newsweek not long after the JFK assassination showed a mock mail order gun ad with the heading, “Sportsmen! Kids! Maniacs!” A similar cartoon appeared in Time magazine after the shooting of President Ford featuring Lynette Fromme, with the caption, “1975 National Rifle Association Poster Girl.” This photo showed her holding a revolver in one hand and a sign in the other saying, “Preserve our sacred right to bear arms.”

Cark Bakal's book, The Right to Bear ArmsThe various women’s magazines of the 1970’s seemed to showcase some of the worst anti-Second Amendment rights propaganda to be found. Good Housekeeping ran an article entitled, “Let’s Turn In Our Guns As An Act of Conscience.” Carl Bakals’ infamous and movement-defining book, The Right To Bear Arms (later reprinted in vast numbers as No Right To Bear Arms) started as a series of articles for Harpers. In point of fact, the only publications where any sort of pro-gun viewpoint is seen are the hunting and shooting magazines, and various conservative publications. But, of course, these journals only reach a small percentage of the population, and they are largely preaching to the choir. And yet, the National Rifle Association and pro-gun forces have been accused of using a vast network of lobbyists, and in the case of Congressman Michael Harrington, of the, “...use of their extensive media connections to state the details of proposed bills."

The television networks continued the attack. A special NBC program on Gun Control was entitled “A Shooting Gallery Called America”, which showed inflated numbers of gun sales and made the connection with a rise in crime. The TV special showed actual footage of gun crimes in progress, and interviews with tearful crime victims. As a means of showing the other side of the argument, the program showed a smiling man with a gun gleefully describing how he was going to shoot an assailant. A Shooting Gallery Called America may have actually been so over the top against guns that it had a reverse effect; Patrick Buchanan later wrote in TV Guide that it was a simplistic, emotional, single dimensional cri de coeur against the handgun in American society."

The Ad Astra 680 .38 SpecialThe later years of the 1970’s saw more of the same; it should also be noted that this was the decade in which the mainstream media really coalesced into a unified force to condemn gun rights and the Second Amendment. Though it picked up steam with the Kennedy and MLK assassinations of the 1960’s, in the 1970’s anti-gun fervor can be said to have come of age. Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, and several other periodicals worked together with the major television networks to create a social consciousness that de facto opposed to gun ownership of any kind. Polls of the 1970’s show a level of opposition to gun rights never seen before or since; one poll taken after the dual assassination attempts of President Ford show 77% in favor of universal registration (undoubtedly reflecting how few people of the time understood the extent of the fees, fingerprinting, photographing, and other ordeals prospective gun owners already had to face).

Research from the result of polling at this time versus other decades leads me to conclude with a fair degree of certainty that the mid-1970’s may well have been the high water mark of anti-gun sentiment in America. In the later years of the 70’s, a growing opposition to handgun bans marked a growing realization among some Americans that such an action would only disarm honest citizens and make them more vulnerable to the criminal element of society. The growing sales of handguns throughout the 1970’s may be seen as an indicator that more people felt that they could not rely on the police for protection.

With the fading memories of the 1960’s assassinations and the early- to mid-1970’s assassination attempts, and more focused and unified efforts by the NRA beginning to take form in this decade, the pro-gun advocates would fare better in the 1980’s.

This is part three in this series. Part four will focus on the history of gun control from the 1980’s to today.

<< Back to Part Two On to Part Four >>



The History of Gun Control in America, Part Two: 1930 to 1968

By GRW Senior Staff Comments (1)

Thompson Submachine Gun

The 1930’s: National Gun Control Begins

(Continued from The History of Gun Control in America, Part One)

The 1930’s were a period ripe for the kind of opportunities the gun grabbers were patiently waiting for. They were to see their first major national victories in this decade, though on the other side of the fence, the 1930’s were also the first decade to see the National Rifle Association (NRA) get involved in the battle over gun control legislation. They were very nearly successful in the early part of the decade in getting a full repeal of New York’s Sullivan Law.

Due to some of the fervor and idealism of the 1920’s carrying over into the next decade, the Gun Control activism was still going strong, although it had abated somewhat when the reality of the failure of prohibition began to dawn on the populace as a whole, despite the continued preachings of it success of Baptist ministers. Concerns about what to do about the ever-increasing threat of organized crime turned to wrongheaded propositions, fueled by attempted political assassinations.

1934 National Firearms Act HandbookThe near-repeal of the Sullivan Act came about as a result of the attempt to pass the Uniform Firearms Act in New York. Conceived in the 1920’s by, among others, Karl T. Frederick, a New York attorney and NRA member, and later the NRA president, this act banned possession of handguns by anyone who had been convicted of a violent crime, minors under 18, drug addicts, and habitual drunks, it required a permit to carry a concealed weapon in a vehicle, and it required dealers to be licensed, and it provided a 48-hour cooling off period between purchase a handgun and receiving it as a method to help prevent crimes of passion. Laws like this are common today and even accepted by many pro-gun people, but at the time they were relatively unheard of; indeed, this was the first appearance of them. In the 1920’s, the Uniform Firearms Act was catching on, being adopted in California, North Dakota, and New Hampshire, and spreading to Alabama, Indiana, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Washington in the 1930’s.

But in New York state, the Uniform Firearms Act met a hostile reception. New York City Police Commissioner George v. McLaughlin had attacked the wording of the law in 1926, attributing the law to gun manufacturers eager to protect their income. He also challenged its definition of a pistol as a firearm with a barrel shorter than twelve inches by saying that a criminal could easily obtain a handgun with a barrel thirteen inches in length, which the criminal probably couldn’t since handguns with barrels that long are almost non-existent and would be hardly concealable even if they could be found, which would make them a pretty poor choice for a burglar.

The Uniform Firearms Act was re-skinned and was introduced in New York in 1931 as the Hanley-Fake Act, which passed handily in both the Senate and the assembly. Next, it was due to be signed into law and replace the Sullivan Act by the current New York State Governor… Franklin D. Roosevelt.

New York City Police Commissioner Edward P. MulrooneyAt FDR’s March 1932 hearing on the bill, the current New York City Police Commissioner Edward P. Mulrooney had already succeeded in having New York City exempted from it. Now he fought vocally against it replacing the Sullivan Act anywhere in NY State, declaring that it would enable residents of New York City to avoid the harsher act by simply purchasing guns outside the city.

Testifying for the Hanley-Fake bill, Karl Frederick objected that the current law unfairly forced the honest citizen to be fingerprinted like a common criminal before he could purchase a gun; FDR replied that no one should feel a stigma in being fingerprinted. Facing vocal opposition from several court judges, including one who flatly stated that constituents in his district were simply evading the fingerprinting portion of the Sullivan Law due to the widespread consensus of its unfairness, FDR nevertheless bucked the clear sentiment favoring the law and vetoed its passage. Despite the obvious message to the contrary, he again urged that citizens should not be offended by the fingerprinting requirement of the Sullivan Act, and also denigrated the legitimate applications of handguns. Thus did the only real chance for a repeal of the Sullivan Act die with the failure to enact Hanley-Fake.

In July of 1933, Attorney-General Homer Cummings stated that existing gun controls were inadequate and that legislation on the matter was required. He soon appeared as the dominant force for enacting new Gun Control laws in the 1930’s. A staunch enemy of crime, he occasionally used wild exaggerations to make his point; he once famously claimed that the armed underworld was twice the size of the entire U. S. Armed Forces, which incidentally would have worked out to 1 in every 244 people being an armed gangster. Despite obvious evidence that Mr. Cummings had poor math and deductive reasoning skills, he felt confident enough to urge passage of a law which would place extreme regulation on anything deemed a “gangster” weapon; “machine guns” (fully automatic firearms), silencers, sawed-off shotguns, and all handguns. Gun owners can at least thank him for bringing the NRA into the fight with the demand for the banning of handguns.

The NRA at that time had barely 50,000 members, in sharp contrast to several groups arrayed against them, not the least of which was the General Federation of Women's Clubs, which boasted two million members. But when they notified their members, they sprang to action, a large percentage of them immediately writing to their legislators to make their determined opposition known.

Al Capone and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The Federation of Women's Clubs did about the same with their two million members to promote the bill as the NRA did against it. The final result of this struggle was made clear in transcripts of the congressional debate over the final version of the bill which had eliminated provisions on handguns. Despite this minor victory, when the handgun portion of the bill was removed, the NRA actually capitulated and supported it in a strange and disheartening reversal of policy, stating that it was, “to keep gangsters from buying machine guns.” Little is recorded about the reasoning behind this reversal to gain much insight over why this happened.

In early 1934, when new President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempted assassination by Guissepe Zangara coincided with the aforementioned legal struggle and provided the push for new Gun Control legislation that the gun grabbers were looking for; the National Firearms Act was signed into law. It put a virtually confiscatory $200 tax (I say that with authority; that’s $3,735.21 in 2018 money) on the purchase of machine guns, silencers, sawed-off shotguns and rifles, and certain other “gangster-type” weapons.

1941 Federal Firearms Act licenseDespite this victory, Cummings and his supporters were discouraged by the final version of the National Firearms Act and began working immediately in favor of registration of all guns. He also wrote Congress repeatedly, asking them to consider adding handguns to the National Firearms Act. Throughout the rest of the decade, Cummings introduced or inspired a string of similar bills, all calling for more strict Gun Control laws.

The second major act of Gun Control occurred in 1938, with the passage of the Federal Firearms Act. This Act was actually proposed as an alternative to one of Cummings' bills, which would have banned all mail order sales of handguns and registered all guns; the NRA apparently feared the former bill’s passage and endorsed the Federal Firearms Act. The major provisions of this act make it a federal offense for a felon to transport, ship, receive, or carry firearms or handgun ammunition across state borders, made it illegal to possess a firearm on which the serial number had been altered, and required dealers to keep records of gun sales. With this Act passed, the gun-grabbers rested on their laurels some sense of satisfaction, and the 1930’s era of pushing for serious gun control ended, as both sides rapidly began to turn their attention to the coming conflict in Europe.

The mid- 20th Century - 1940 to 1960

(World War 2, The Korean War, and The Vietnam War)

A 1950's family dinner postcardThe mid-century period from 1940 to 1960 was relatively quiet for Gun Control, at least on a national level. Assuredly, the majority of this interruption in Gun Control efforts can be attributed to the re-arming influence of the trio of major conflicts that the United States found itself embroiled in. War has a way of making it seem unreasonable to a nation’s people to be without the presence of a firearm. Americans had no way of knowing whether their own country was about to be invaded or attacked as so many others had been, and the resulting healthy paranoia led to a great national desire for firearms ownership.

Likewise, the relative absence of organized crime activity in this period as compared to the two preceding decades, and with no attempts at major political assassination attempts occurring at this time, meant that there was no great social impetus for another major push for Gun Control. Any minor attempts in this regard, and there were a few, can be attributed to a desire to disarm subversive groups and individuals, and because the notion was raised that firearms registration would be a helpful method of taking an inventory of privately owned arms which might be useful for national defense.

(It’s unclear to me whether Gun Control advocates of this era expected German spies to dutifully step forward and identify themselves before registering their guns or not. Also, it seems to me that if the situation in the American homeland were so dire as to require that every civilian’s private guns were called into action, why would it matter if they were registered? Any gun would be useful, registered or not.)

Americans saw what was happening in 1940 in Britain, and the news from that beleaguered little island was enough to douse the fires of gun grabbing activism for a long period of time. No one was going to take American citizens’ guns away during such a time or push any for legislation curtailing their Second Amendment rights. Britain had had strong anti-gun laws for decades prior to the outbreak of the war, and when Germany threatened, they were so desperate for weapons that many of the Home Guardsmen had old 18th-century muskets, or they had nothing at all. Many drilled with swords, clubs, or makeshift weapons. Begging Americans for help, they received 7,000 guns from the private ownership of U.S. citizens.

All in favor of gun control, raise your handIn the rest of Europe, the situation was similar. In every country they invaded, the Nazis immediately demanded registration of firearms, or more often, simply took them away. It at least some countries it seems that Hitler had issued a proclamation ordering the immediate surrender of guns and prescribing harsh penalties for those failing to comply. Carl Bakal, in his book (which has proven to be very popular for decades with the anti-gun crowd) The Right To Bear Arms, asserts that all Hitler had to do was issue his proclamation and everyone in the invaded countries turned in their firearms. History does not bear this out.

(I personally have read a fair amount about the French, Polish and Greek resistance movements in particular, and this was certainly not the case in those countries. The heroic members of those movements harassed the Nazis incessantly throughout the war, diverting badly needed military resources from the front lines, particularly emboldened after the Allied invasion of June 1944.)

Consider the mindset of a patriot whose country was invaded at that time. Some of the population, say 3% or so in the case of the American Revolution, (I’m tipping my hat here to the III% movement) will always resist to the death any invasion of their homeland. If they were facing a death penalty for resisting, why should they fear the same for merely keeping their guns?

(I also find Bakal’s conclusion that privately owned guns were inconsequential against an armed invasion to be ridiculous. If this was so, why did the Nazis confiscate them from the people in every country they invaded? Why do totalitarian governments always take them away immediately as a matter of course?)

Given all of this, it’s rather easy to understand why Americans in 1940 were very stridently opposed to any anti-gun laws at the time. When the United States entered the war on December 7th, 1941, this sentiment became even more fervent, as one might expect. The NRA suddenly lost a large measure of the stigma that had been attached to it in the 1930’s, as the many training films and manuals that they had created and provided free of charge were re-purposed for military use. They loaned over 150 shooting ranges for government use. They drew up plans for Home Guard units much like the English had, and the NRA even recruited dogs and trainers for Coast Guard Beach Patrols through its many contacts.

No mention could be found while researching this article of any public acknowledgment of the NRA’s contribution to the war effort by President Roosevelt, but President Truman did finally have this to say for them on November 14th, 1945:

NRA patch from 1945

“The National Rifle Association, in the periods between our last four wars, has done much to encourage the improvement of small arms and marksmanship in the Regular services, as well as in the National Guard, Reserve units, and the civilian population. During the war just ended, the contributions of the association... have materially aided our war effort. I hope the splendid program which the National Rifle Association has followed during the past three-quarters of a century will be continued. It is a program which is good for a free America.”

This was high praise not only for the NRA but for civilian gun ownership in general. During this mid-century period, it seemed that the lessons of the benefits of a well-armed citizenry had finally been learned, and after World War 2 and the Korean Conflict, and with the new Cold War looming, it took until the late 1950’s before the anti-gun crowd once again began to gain any traction with public opinion.

Perhaps with the absence of war for a period of time comes a sense of complacency, and memories fade about the threat faced by the nation just a few years earlier. But my research into news articles of the time don’t reveal a great deal of interest by the media in Gun Control, nor was there any significant rise in violent crime nor any political assassinations. Yet many polls of the time show a marked rise in public opinion favoring gun permits, and even one poll showing 59% of all respondent favoring a total ban on handguns. The only cause I have found at all was possible concern over the eruption of violence in the American south over the civil rights issue.

(I am left to conclude from my research that these polls were either inaccurate, worded with leading questions, or were blatantly untrue. All five of the Gun Control bills introduced in the late fifties died in committee. I believe that there was not yet any great interest in anti-gun legislation at this time and that the polls were simply a fabrication or at least a gross exaggeration.)

The Turbulent 1960’s

(Or, We Can’t Trust You With Guns Because They Shot The President)

1960s You Can Help anti-gun posterAs one might expect, the turbulent 1960’s, a time of great social upheaval and questioning the norms of society, had its worst effects yet on gun rights. The multiple and sensational political assassinations and widespread urban violence of the time caused many to turn their attention to the firearms question and lay the finger of blame squarely on the gun as the culprit, rather than examining the underlying social issues causing the strife. A new wave of anti-gun fervor began with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, surely tied with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese as the two most jarring and disturbing incidents in 20th century America.

And yet, the 1960’s began with a general feeling of harmony between pro-gun forces and gun opponents. Many on both sides believed that gun sales via mail were a problem. At this time, a prospective mail order gun buyer needed only to sign a statement that he was over 18 (or 21 if purchasing a handgun) and had not been convicted of a felony. No proof was needed. As the gun grabbers most often do, instead of trying to enforce an existing law with some certainty, a new push for legislation was made. Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut, concerned with the problems in mail order gun sales, co-authored the new S.1975 bill with support from the NRA; it merely required the addition of a notarized sworn statement to any mail order for a handgun.

The Kennedy assassination on November 22nd, 1963 kicked the 1960’s wave of anti-gun legislation into high gear. On November 27th, Dodd began with multiple amendments to his bill and coined the phase at this time of using a “tragic opportunity” to enhance it. The newly amended bill included all firearms, not just handguns, and the new affidavit to be added to any mail order now required the signature of the Chief of Police or Sheriff in the buyer’s town. The NRA soon requested and received the change that the buyer instead simply furnish the name and address of the law enforcement official, and that the seller must notify said official of the purchase. Even when the bill was further amended to include rifles and shotguns, it must be noted that the NRA still supported it — it was around this time that the NRA began to be accused of supporting some firearms legislative efforts, which was clearly not the case and this was even corroborated by Senator Dodd himself.

1960's Anti-war posterAs public sentiment was growing in favor of more anti-gun legislation, many in the shooting community began to feel disenfranchised, fearing that very restrictive measures might soon be passed in the wave of emotion currently sweeping the nation in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. A rash of news articles supporting stricter gun laws swept through the media at this time, fueling their fears. One article in Newsweek pointed out that a .22 caliber pen gun was available via mail order (never mind that the actual pen gun displayed in the ad was useless as a weapon since it would only fire blanks).

Articles like this constantly attacked the "frontiersman” attitude of shooters who relied on the protection of the Second Amendment, saying that they, "...seem to miss the fact that the frontier is secure and the armed forces, National Guard and local police protect the nation…” (Really. So help me, I won’t even get started on trying to refute the stupidity of that statement....)

While this media frenzy was occurring and pressing for ever more strict anti-gun measures, Dodd’s bill actually gained little traction. Why this happened is difficult to ascertain, as it did have the backing of the NRA the arms industry and 78% of the population according to the (as mentioned before, unreliable) polls. S.1975 died at the end of the 88th Congress in 1964; Dodd replaced it with an identical bill in 1965, then withdrew it and replaced it with S.1592 at the request of the Johnson Administration.

Senate Bill 1592 would have completely outlawed all interstate mail order firearms sales and prevented importing any guns thought to be unsuitable for “sporting purposes” - meaning, handguns. Naturally, the shooting world and the NRA alike voiced a profound vocal opposition to the bill, but the Johnson Administration favored it and pushed its passage. The battle for this bill rang clear through the press in 1965 and 1966, until August of 1966, when Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas, shot 44 of his fellow students and killed 13 of them. The next day, seizing yet again upon a “tragic opportunity”, President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly called for gun registration and stricter gun laws.

As often follows these incidents, the media coverage overwhelmingly backed stricter gun legislation, and a poll taken at this time showed 68% of Americans favoring this. The only opposing opinion came from a National Review article by William Buckley, Jr., defending all of the usual reasons for keeping arms, and pointing out that no bill ever presented before Congress would have prevented Whitman from acquiring a gun.

Despite the massive boost from the media and the Whitman shooting, S.1592 made no more progress than did S.1975, but it did pave the way for further anti-gun legislation. Dodd introduced a third and similar bill, S.1, in 1967. This too made some headway with a push from the usual suspects in the media and the Johnson Administration but gained no significant ground until April 4th, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

This is part two in this series. Part three will focus on the history of gun control in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back to Part One Forward to Part Three

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Asassination