Opinion

As Long As There Have Been Guns in America, There Have Been Attempts to Regulate Them

The legal history of the United States is strongly on the side of the sensible regulation of firearms, no matter what the gun-fondling political right might say.
IMAGE GEORGE FREY / GETTY IMAGES

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On October 22, 1968, one month short of five years since Lyndon B. Johnson had ascended to the presidency in a burst of rifle fire in Dallas, he was just about the lamest lame duck the White House had seen since Herbert Hoover had handed the keys over to Franklin Roosevelt. Vietnam had devoured his legacy over the previous two years. People were marching in the streets, chanting his name, and not in a very supportive way, either. In March, he had taken himself out of the 1968 presidential election, which had ground on without him. The Democratic National Convention had turned into a violent clusterfck on the streets of Chicago and inside the convention hall, too. Richard Nixon, of all people, was even money or better to be elected president, and Johnson was sitting on evidence that Nixon and his campaign were actively working to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks so that LBJ couldn’t drop a sudden peace in Southeast Asia on the Nixon campaign during the homestretch. On the surface, it seemed that LBJ’s influence on the American government in October of 1968 approximated that enjoyed by Moby Grape.

Nevertheless, on October 22, 1968, President Johnson was signing a bill that he had shepherded through the Congress. It was not everything he’d wanted, but it was a significant bill addressing a significant national problem. Ever since the previous spring, when the twin assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had deepened the national shell-shock, the country had been calling loudly for some kind of gun-control law. (There hadn’t been one passed since the 1930s.) There had been a gun control act kicking around the Congress for several years, bulldogged by Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut. Now, LBJ put his shoulder to the wheel. Several of the provisions he really wanted got lost in the sausage-making; there would be no federal national gun registration, nor would there be a national license requirement. But, in his address on the occasion of his signing the bill, Johnson was quite clear about what he perceived to be the magnitude of the problem, and about the nature of the political forces that forced the dilution of the eventual legislation.

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Congress adopted most of our recommendations. But this bill—as big as this bill is—still falls short, because we just could not get the Congress to carry out the requests we made of them. I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry those guns. For the fact of life is that there are over 160 million guns in this country—more firearms than families. If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we just must have licensing. If the criminal with a gun is to be tracked down quickly, then we must have registration in this country.

The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for the moment in an election year.

Despite its congressional barbering, the bill did achieve certain landmark goals. It banned the interstate shipment of arms and ammunition, and it forbade the sale of firearms to convicted felons, minors, drug addicts and “mental incompetents.” It was the first time gun sales to convicted felons and the mentally unbalanced was prohibited by law. Over the next several decades, a newly extreme and increasingly well-financed gun lobby managed to whittle away even the restrictions that had survived in 1968. And they went on whittling, at the state and local level, until we reached the stage where a troubled young man could buy himself twin AR-15s to celebrate his 18th birthday, which is where we are today.

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In 2018 Time magazine did an entire issue on America’s gun culture. By then, of course, combat weapons like the AR-15 had become all the rage. In 2008, the Supreme Court had handed down its decision in Heller v. DC, in which the Court established an individual right to bear arms. In 1968, LBJ had warned of the danger inherent in 160 million guns, “more guns than families.” We now have 393 million guns in the United States, more than one gun for each individual American. Johnson’s concerns seem positively quaint. As part of its package, Time featured an interview with Robert Spitzer, a historian who’d written several books on the history of guns and gun culture in this country. Spitzer told Time that, contrary to popular myth, as long as there have been guns in America, there have been attempts to regulate them:

One of the great myths is the idea that gun-control laws are an artifact of the modern era, the 20th century. Gun laws are as old as America, literally to the very early colonial beginnings of the nation. From the beginning of the late 1600s to the end of the 1800s, gun laws were everywhere, thousands of gun laws of every imaginable variety. You find virtually every state in the union enacting laws that bar people from carrying concealed weapons. That’s something people don’t realize.

When we were all colonies, there were laws in the 1600s making it illegal to discharge a weapon near a road, near buildings, populated areas or on Sundays, and that barred discharge of a gun during social occasions. In New Jersey there was a law that said you weren’t allowed to discharge a weapon when you were drunk and the two exceptions were at weddings and funerals. In the old ‘Wild West,’ they took people’s guns away when they were in a populated area, only to be retrieved when they left. That exemplifies how laws were much tougher 150 years ago than in the last 30 years.

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For example, in 1786, the City of Boston had what can only be called a “safe storage” law; it was prohibited for any citizen in Boston to keep a firearm in a private dwelling, and all firearms had to be stored unloaded. In the 1700s, English common law prohibited the carrying of concealed firearms within the city of London. This prohibition made it over to the American colonies and became so solidly entrenched here that it dominated the gun laws of the 1800s.

Indeed, Virginia's legislature was so concerned with concealed weapons that the application of the state's ban on the weapons was rather broad. In Virginia, it was against the law for a person to "habitually or generally keep or carry about his person any pistol, dirk, bowie knife, or any other weapon of the like kind.., hidden or concealed from common observation." Under the Virginia law, if a person was tried for "murder or felony" and used a concealed weapon to commit the murder or felony, he could still be charged under the concealed weapon law, even if the jury acquitted him of the murder or felony because of self-defense.

A second wave of more restrictive regulations went even further, prohibiting the sale of concealed weapons. An 1837 Georgia law criminalized the sale of concealed weapons, effectively moving toward the complete prohibition of this class of weapon."' A similar statute was enacted by Tennessee in 1838. The Supreme Court of Tennessee upheld the law, declaring that "the Legislature intended to abolish these most dangerous weapons entirely from use.”

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The legal history of the United States is strongly on the side of the sensible regulation of firearms, no matter what the gun-fondling political right might say. President Johnson knew he was on solid historical ground when he managed to get a gun-control bill passed even though his political capital was deep in the red. When he was signing the bill in 1968, LBJ concluded:

“…the key to effective crime control remains, in my judgment, effective gun control. And those of us who are really concerned about crime just must—somehow, someday—make our voices felt. We must continue to work for the day when Americans can get the full protection that every American citizen is entitled to and deserves-the kind of protection that most civilized nations have long ago adopted. We have been through a great deal of anguish these last few months and these last few years-too much anguish to forget so quickly. So now we must complete the task which this long needed legislation begins. We have come a long way. We have made much progress—but not nearly enough.”

None of this was considered In any way remarkable. Now, mass shootings are becoming unremarkable. This is not progress, not in any way at all.

FromEsquire US

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About The Author
Charles P. Pierce
Charles P. Pierce, lead for Esquire Politics US, has been a working journalist since 1976. He is the author of four books, most recently 'Idiot America.' He lives near Boston with his wife but no longer his three children.
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