As I am wont to do, I picked up a number of old magazines at a flea market this weekend. In a batch of old issues of Playboy, I was interested to run into a few articles, observations and letters that helped illustrate the early days of what we now know to be the modern debate over gun laws. I was especially enlightened to find that the debate, and the rhetoric that drives it, is today nearly identical to how it initially appeared nearly 50 years ago.
In an essay called Americans and the Gun, published in March, 1969, Maryland Senator Joseph Tydings [1965 – 1971] outlined his position in favor of gun control. The Senator’s focus on gun laws would ultimately cost him his seat.
He traced the initial effort to the assassination of President Kennedy:
Out fight began in March 1964, after President Kennedy was killed by a sniper in Dallas, using a rifle bought by mail from Chicago. The case was irrefutable. A man clearly deranged should not be able to buy a gun, and certainly not by mail from another state.
So much of what Tydings laid out in his essay is nearly identical to the narrative, rhetoric and arguments employed today, down to the disparity between public support for legislation and political will to put gun laws into place:
That there is public support for real gun laws is clear. Polls show that as much as 80 percent of the American people support them. Two thirds to 73 percent, the Harris and Gallup polls say, support registration and licensing of all firearms and licensing of gun purchasers.
The remainder of the piece is a point-by-point takedown of gun control opponents’ arguments:
Opponents said that registration and licensing proposals—indeed, any gun-control proposal—are a plot to disarm the lawful. Criminals, they said, will not register their guns—only the law-abiding will. Of course, confirmed criminals might not register their guns. But so what? If caught with an unregistered gun, the criminal or would-be criminal will go to jail. And registration records are immensely useful in tracing stolen weapons and in tracing guns to criminals, even if those guns are not registered in their names.
When a crime is committed by the driver of a car—in a hit-and-run accident or by fleeing the scene of a crime—the police have a good chance of identifying eh owner of that car through his license plate. But when a gun is found near the scene of a crime, there is little chance in most states of identifying the owner, because the possession of that gun is not kept track of once it has been sold.
Tydings addressed the gun lobby’s retort that “people commit crimes guns do not.”
But we do know that crimes are committed by people using guns. And, as 22 of the nation’s most noted criminologists wrote to me in a jointly signed letter, ‘The availability of guns contributes to the incidence of murder, serious assault and other crimes of violence. […] Effective gun-control legislation could reduce the availability of guns and thereby the incidence off crimes of violence.’
Further, he examined mortality rates of guns versus other weapons, and dispels the myth that harsher prison terms are better deterrents against crimes than legislating access to guns.
Tydings also broke down the NRA’s signature claim, that “no dictatorship has ever been imposed on a nation of free men who have not previously been required to register their privately owned firearms.”
This argument, ludicrous as it is, was so widely spread during the legislative fight on gun-control legislation that I asked the Library of Congress to research it for me. Here is what the library reported:
“We can make no positive correlation between gun laws and dictatorships, as the following examples will show: First, four countries were examined that are democracies now, but in recent history came under Nazi dictatorships (Germany, Italy, France and Austria). One may reasonably assume that if gun-registration laws constituted a primary factor in the rise of dictatorships, these countries would have since revised their laws to prevent future dictatorships.
“This has not been the case. The four countries today have substantially the same gun laws as those in force prior to the advent of dictatorship. In fact, in Italy, where gun laws were relaxed by Mussolini, they have recently been restrengthened approximately to their pre-Mussolini level.
“Secondly, two democracies were examined that have not suffered dictatorships in recent history (England and Switzerland). Switzerland, has had gun-registration laws since 1874; England since 1831.”
Even if lists of firearms owners would be useful to an enemy of the United States, undoubtedly the single largest and most useful list would be the membership list of the N.R.A. itself. That mailing list of more than 1,000,000 names and addresses is conveniently maintained on computer cards at N.R.A. Headquarters in the heart of Washington.
The Senator went on to outline the N.R.A.’s leveraging of racial anxieties, particularly among white conservatives in the midst of the then budding cultural revolution:
The N.R.A. fights the most reasonable legislation as unconstitutional. And it appeals to the basest, most irrational prejudices of its members.
For example, an editorial in The American Rifleman last year titled ‘Who Guards America’s Homes?’ asked what would happen if a race riot broke out in your community while every American combat unit and the entire National Guard were overseas in a major war. What of the fate of citizens who may be trapped and beleaguered by howling mobs that brush police aside?
The radical right’s philosophy, fears and militant racism pervade the gun lobby. Those who believe that foreign influences are already taking over in America naturally believe that they must have guns to protect themselves. Those who hate or fear blacks, and who worry about reports of armed African American groups, naturally believe they must keep guns for protection.
This thinly veiled racism, common in the extremist publications of the gun lobby and recurrent in Congressional mail opposing gun laws, is, no doubt, in part responsible for the domestic arms race in our cities.
Tydings concluded by offering what may have been the first iteration of a nearly identical suggestion I made in my column last week:
Sincere sportsmen, in whose ranks I count myself, must realize that eventually, when enough gun atrocities are committed, the public will demand legislation so strong that our pleasures really will be endangered. No organization, not even one as powerful as the N.R.A., can intimidate for long in a free society. A gun policy that is insane for society is also insane for hunters. And the N.R.A. serves its members ill when, instead of seizing the opportunity to help right gun crime regulation, it opposes all effective gun-control proposals.
[Unrelated directly, though wholly related in a larger sense, the same issue features a lengthy essay about the supposedly mind-and-spirit freeing virtues of libertarianism penned by Karl Hess.]
In an issue published about a half-year prior (November 1968), the Playboy Forum segment (“a survey of events related to issues raised by “the playboy philosophy”) reported on the month in gun violence that feels eerily familiar:
- A construction worker shot his wife, 18-month old son and a police officer. He was then shot to death by police.
- A small-town mayor shot at one of his aldermen.
- An 11-year-old girl was shot to death by one of her playmates.
- A man entered a gun store, bought a box of shells, loaded a floor-sample shotgun and blew off his head.
- A 23-year-old girl was shot in the back when a revolver went off accidentally. She died before reaching the hospital.
Meanwhile, the gun lobby continues to insist that criminals, not guns, kill people and to imply that gun control will not save lives… Congress consistently rejects effective gun legislation. On the eve of Congress’ most recent rejection, the Justice Department released the following statistics:
- On the average, an American is fatally shot every half hour.
- There are 42,500,000 gun owners in the United States.
- In 1967, 4,700,000 guns were bought for private use.
- States that have strong firearms laws tend to have fewer murders with guns and they tend rot have lower over-all murder rates.
In that same issue, among a few letters meditating upon gun control, reader Barbara Rurik offered a hypothesis for the so-called gun nut’s fixation on his weapon and, it being published in Playboy, it’s freudian origin is fitting:
The writers of the motion picture Bonnie and Clyde showed shrewd psychological insight in portraying gun nut Clyde Barrow as impotent. Men who are obsessed with guns are men who have taken up pistols and rifles as substitutes for their pathetic, malfunctioning penises. A man who is truly virile doesn’t have to prove it by waving a fake phallus in the form of a manufactured weapon. From my own experience and in comparing notes with other women, the facts are plain: Gun nuts make lousy lovers.