This is the first part of a three-part series on gun control in the 20th Century.
In the ongoing struggle to preserve our right to keep and bear arms, we can look over the last hundred years for lessons learned that we can apply to today’s fight.
In a paper titled “The Great Gun Control War of the 20th Century — And its Lessons for Gun Laws Today,” David B. Kopel of the Sturm College of Law at Denver University recounts the gun debate that raged on at both the national and state level leading up to the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision.
Kopel notes that gun control primarily originated after the Civil War as a means to keep freed slaves from having access to firearms, as well as to prevent dueling. Throughout the 1800s, he writes, gun control laws were almost “exclusively a Southern phenomenon.” Outside of that region, the only type of gun control that really caught on was prohibition of concealed-carry, although open carry was still permitted.
What finally brought gun control into the national spotlight was apprehension over revolutionary movements after the communists overthrew of the Russian provisional government in 1917. The gun control movement gained further support for restricting handguns when Prohibition led to a major crime wave in the 1920s.
“Nationally, the leading voices for handgun prohibition were conservative, Northeastern, urban, upper-class businessmen and attorneys” Kopel writes. “Pacifists who wanted to end war by getting rid of all weapons, including firearms, also played a role, but they were much less powerful than the business élite, which was used to getting its way.”
However, the movement mainly worked at the state-level, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) fought against it by promoting an alternative model law called the Uniform Pistol and Revolver Act, which required a license for concealed carry.
With the election of Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency, Homer Cummings became Attorney General and made a major push for national gun control, specifically “a national registration for all firearms and the de facto prohibition of handguns,” according to Kopel.
The first move in the effort was the National Firearms Act (NFA). Rather than outright ban on handguns, the law utilized a hefty tax to get around the Second Amendment in order to create a de facto ban. This is not some conspiracy theory, either. According to Kopel, Cummings openly declared the intent to a House Committee. After the NRA protested, the application of the NFA to handguns was removed from the bill, at which point the NRA ceased its opposition.
The NFA became law in 1934.
But Cummings wasn’t done. After FRD’s re-election, he went for the next step: a national gun registry.
“Show me the man who does not want his gun registered, and I will show you a man who should not have a gun,” he declared.
This time, the bill went nowhere.
Ironically enough, the NRA itself supported a separate gun control law, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 (FFA), which required persons engaged in the interstate business of selling or repairing firearms to obtain a one-dollar license before shipping or receiving any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce.
According to Kopel:
Licensed dealers were required to keep a record of firearms sales and were prohibited from shipping guns in interstate commerce to anyone indicted for or convicted of a violent crime or otherwise prohibited from owning firearms under state law.
The next concern over gun control was the Property Requisition Act passed during World War II, which gave the President the authority to seize privately owned “machinery, tools, or materials” that were immediately needed for the national defense. The bill’s language was eventually altered to include guaranteed protections of gun rights.
The gun rights movement also gained support as the Nazis and communist regimes instituted gun confiscations in their respective countries, which Kopel writes “become central to American resistance against gun registration, as they remain to this day.”
During President Eisenhower’s second term in 1957, numerous federal bureaucracies, including the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Internal Revenue Service, attempted to create a national dealer-based system of gun registration as part of a list of proposed regulations, but opposition in the House put a stop to it.
In a twist of irony, the 1960 election featured Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, who was against firearms, though he kept these thoughts private. Meanwhile, the two Democrat candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey, openly voiced their support for the Second Amendment.
Although JFK wasn’t the first president to be assassinated, his murder in 1963, and that of his brother, Robert, several years later, brought new life to the gun control movement. In response, the Emergency Committee for Effective Gun Control was formed, with former astronaut and future Senator John Glenn as chairman. Its objectives, according to Kopel, included “national gun registration, national gun licensing, a ban on interstate gun sales, and a ban on mail order sales of long guns (mail order handgun sales had been banned since 1927).” Gun control advocates are also went after Saturday Night Specials, which were inexpensive handguns.
“The idea that civilian gun ownership should be entirely prohibited moved from the fringe into the mainstream of public debate,” Kopel writes.
Once more, rather than merely oppose gun grabbers, the gun lobby and gun manufacturers countered these efforts by introducing their own legislation, which included some of the provisions from the ECEGC’s agenda, such as the national ban on mail order gun sales.
Finally, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 following a compromise with the NRA. While there would be no federal licensing of gun owners, the sales would be registered, albeit by the gun dealer.
The Act required gun dealers to keep a federal form (now known as Form 4473) detailing information for each sale (such as the gun’s model and serial number, the buyer’s name, address, age, race, and so on).125 The forms would be available for government inspection and for criminal investigations, but the forms would not be collected in a central registration list.In addition, mail-order sales of long guns were effectively banned, as were all interstate gun sales to consumers (except where states enacted legislation allowing the purchase of long guns in contiguous states).The GCA also banned all gun possession by prohibited persons, such as convicted felons, illegal aliens, and illegal drug users.Buyers had to certify in writing that they were not in a prohibited category.Gun imports were banned, except for the guns determined by the Treasury Secretary to be “particularly suitable for sporting purposes.” As initially implemented, this prohibited small, inexpensive foreign handguns, and surplus WWII rifles, but allowed almost all other gun imports.
In 1972, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to ban roughly one-third of all handguns by labeling them “Saturday Night Specials,” and although it failed to become law, Nixon continued to pressure the NRA to compromise, especially when gun manufacturers were willing to accept some regulations.
At that point, the situation was growing bleak for the gun rights movement.
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