President Obama recently announced that he would act without Congress to direct the federal government to expand background checks on firearms purchasers to close the so-called “gun show loophole,” and multiple media outlets rushed to give him credit for “taking action” on the issue.
A New York Daily News frontpage headline screamed:
“Republican leadership is composed of pandering liars stoking irrational fear. Their answer to Obama's measured plan to stop crazies from getting guns is simple deceit. All in a blood-soaked chase for cheap votes.”
A New York Times article took a different approach, with Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting asserting:
“Our permissive gun laws are a manifestation of racism, an evil that, in other contexts, most gun-control advocates see as a fundamental threat to American society.”
The history of gun control in the United States, nonetheless, is a complicated one and lends itself to in-the-moment distortion. Before we get to why the president may be the greatest gun salesman in U.S. history, let's put the White House and the media's claims in perspective.
Americans' support for gun rights comes from a steep and storied historical experience of fighting repression, resisting slavery and upholding individual rights.
Prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the Second Amendment, the experience of colonialists under the British, and slaves in their respective colonies, hardened appreciation for the individual right to self-defense, expressed more recently as “the right to bear arms.”
The pre-eminent English jurist William Blackstone encapsulated this right in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, as noted by Stephen Cooper:
Blackstone states that the subject has three principal and absolute rights – to enjoyment of life and limb, health and reputation; liberty; and property – and five auxiliary or subordinate rights. These are (1) the powers and privileges of Parliament; (2) the limitation of the king’s prerogative; (3) the right to apply to the courts for redress of injuries; (4) the right to petition the king, or either House of Parliament, for the redress of grievances; and last but by no means least (5) that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition or degree, and such as are allowed law.
The philosophical conflict was played out in blood during the American Revolutionary War.
The flashpoint for armed resistance came when colonialists rebelled against the Coercive Acts: the British Empire's oppressive reaction to the Boston Tea Party.
Also known as the Intolerable Acts, the Coercive Acts restricted democratic functions, made British officials immune to criminal prosecution, and implemented other suppressive measures.
None other than the statesman Edmund Burke warned that the acts would provoke a "fierce spirit of liberty” in the colonies. As described by David Kopel:
The Patriots of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resolved: “That in the event of Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and our rifles.” A South Carolina newspaper essay, reprinted in Virginia, urged that any law that had to be enforced by the military was necessarily illegitimate.
Possessing only a local force of 2,000 men, the British attempted to put down the rebellion through restricting ammunition; namely, gunpowder. The “Powder Alarm” of 1774 stoked the fires of revolutionary sentiment, and fueled the Founders' suspicion of and animosity towards gun restrictions.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote pointedly in his draft of the Virginia Constitution in 1776:
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
Prior to the American Revolutionary War, there was a rich and varied experience of British subjects, slaves and freemen in the respective colonies too vast and complex to recount in detail.
An account from a freed slave and tenant farmer, Roda Ann Childs of Griffin, Georgia, who testified on September 25, 1866, drives home the import of depriving a person's legal ability to bear arms. As the author of The New American article, Thomas R. Eddlem, points out about the harrowing incident when Childs was assaulted by eight armed men:
Mrs. Childs’ husband had been entitled to own a gun as a soldier in the Union army during the war, but pre-war Georgia law had banned even free blacks from owning guns. Such laws threatened to leave millions of newly freed slaves to the ravages of savage men, some of whom worked with local police, others who worked openly in unofficial gangs, and still others who worked secretly behind the white sheets of the Ku Klux Klan.
The attitude that black Americans were less than citizens and not fully “freemen” had been perpetuated no less than by judicial fiat in the Dred Scott case. In 1856, Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney issued the opinion that if black Americans were recognized as citizens:
“It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right … to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
Taney would refute this finding by pointing out that the right to bear arms came to be recognized in the U.S. Constitution due to the Revolutionary War.
It should thus be clear that the divergence into such legalistic formulations that the spirit of the right to bear arms as a fundamental individual right has been stripped away and recast as contingent upon historical exigencies.
The “moral outrage” that is often talked about regarding taking executive action to restrict citizens' right to bear arms can thus be seen in a different light: One that views state encroachment upon the rights and prerogatives of the individual as inconceivable and historically precarious.
The legacy of gun control in the United States from the Civil War onwards is one of legalistic pitched battles and regulations proceeding from various crises and outrages against the public consciousness. David Kopel once again formulates the legal landscape prior to the 20th century well in “The Great Gun Control War”:
During the nineteenth century, gun control was almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon.' It was concerned with keeping guns out of the hands of slaves or free blacks before the Civil War, curbing dueling, and suppressing the freedmen after the Civil War.
The first strong push for gun control came in the 1920s, due to crime sprees in major cities. FDR would pass the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938.
The 1934 law stipulated that a Federal Firearms License (FFL) be registered for those “in the business of selling firearms” (similar verbiage as the President's recent executive action). The 1938 law also forbade convicted felons from possessing firearms.
Another national crisis, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. spurred a new wave of gun control legislation. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968.
The Washington Post summarizes these acts as, “prohibit[ing] all convicted felons, drug users and the mentally ill from buying guns; raises the age to purchase handguns from a federally licensed dealer to 21; and expands the licensing requirements to more gun dealers and requires more detailed record-keeping.”
Interestingly, the backdrop to gun control legislation has a tie-in to racial tension in a major inner city: Chicago.
A secretly taped conversation between President Lyndon Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley illustrates the backdrop, as recounted in a transcript:
President Lyndon Johnson got on the phone with Mayor Daley. The White House secretly recorded their call, as Daley made the case for gun control.
WHITE HOUSE TAPE DALEY: Something has to be done, Mr. President, about the sale of the guns. [...]
DALEY: Outside the suburbs in the city, we have control, but what the hell, in the suburbs, there are — you go out to all around our suburbs and you've got people out there, especially the non-white, are buying guns right and left. Shotguns and rifles and pistols and everything else. There's no registration. … There's no, and you know, they've had trouble with this national gun law, but after the president's assassination, someone ought to do something.
The gun lobby, or “conservatation league,” is once again cast as the vehicle for public opposition to gun control, and the familiar argument once again surfaces that “someone ought to do something.”
Five years after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 sought to limit BATF inspections of gun dealers and restrict Americans' ownership of automatic weapons manufactured after a certain date in 1986.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, named after Reagan's press secretary who was shot in the head during the assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr., was passed in 1994 and expanded gun control to include an FBI-maintained National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
The more recent gun control measures can be summarized as follows:
- The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (“Assault Weapons Ban”): “A 10-year federal ban on the manufacture of new semi-automatic assault weapons... The act also bans large-capacity ammunition magazines, limiting them to 10 rounds.” (WaPo)
- Tiahrt Amendment: "Prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing firearm trace data for use by cities, states, researchers, litigants and members of the public... (LCPGV)
- Expiration of the “Assault Weapons Ban.”
- President George W. Bush blocks attempts to hold gun manufacturers legally culpable for crimes committed with purchased firearms by signing the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
- District of Columbia vs. Heller upholds American citizens' individual right to bear arms and use them in self-defense under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
- In 2013, President Obama unveils extensive gun control proposals, such as: Reinstating the “assault weapons ban” limiting magazine capacity to 10 rounds; armor-piercing ammunition bans; and expanding background checks.
- In 2016, the president announces executive action to expand background checks with the intent of closing the so-called “gun show loophole”
The history of the gun control in the United States is a complicated and involved issue, and support for gun rights cannot reductively be ascribed to “racist” or other nefarious motivations.
While firearms ownership in America is at an all-time high, gun violence continues to plummet. As Pew Research reports, the public is largely unaware of this trend, although gun homicides are down 49% since 1993.
It is thus unclear what the president's executive action will produce in the context of record FBI firearms background checks and surging firearms sales.
One thing is clear about the White House's calls for more gun control, as the New York Times illustrates in this recently published graphic: The president may unintentionally be the greatest gun salesman in American history.