The History of Gun Control in America, Part Two: 1930 to 1968
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.
The 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.
At 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.
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.
Despite 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)
The 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.
In 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:
“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)
As 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.
As 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.
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