The History of Gun Control in America, Part Three: 1968 to 1980
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.
This 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 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.
Hollywood 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.
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.
The 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.
Where 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.
Then 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.
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.
More 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.”
The 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 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.