Ronald Reagan in the 1953 film Law and Order. (AP Photo.)
In 1972, the Republican platform supported gun control, abiding by a simple proposition with which many of us in the reality-based community agree: less guns, less crime.
We pledge a tireless campaign against crime—to restore safety to our streets, and security to law-abiding citizens who have a right to enjoy their homes and communities free from fear. We pledge to…[i]ntensify efforts to prevent criminal access to all weapons, including special emphasis on cheap, readily-obtainable handguns…with such federal law as necessary to enable the states to meet their responsibilities.
Which shouldn’t be all that surprising given that, despite the beginnings of the movement in the other direction I documented in my last post, the National Rifle Association supported the same sort of gun control, too.
But by 1980, the Republican platform said this:
We believe the right of citizens to keep and bear arms must be preserved. Accordingly, we oppose federal registration of firearms…. We therefore support Congressional initiatives to remove those provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 that do not significantly impact on crime but serve rather to restrain the law-abiding citizen in his legitimate use of firearms.
That same year, for the first time in its 109-year history, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate: the Republican nominee, of course, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan, they said, would see to it that the Justice Department “will pursue and prosecute those in government who abuse citizens for the political ends of gun control.” (How’s that for paranoia?)
What happened in between? For one thing, as I suggested in my last post, gun-toting was no longer associated with the far left—with Black Panthers and other aspirants to armed revolution. More importantly, though, the culture of Americans who owned guns had evolved more and more toward what some have been mistakenly associating with the 1990s: the “tactical turn”—a moral vision of the world in which good guys and bad guys are obviously distinguishable, and the self-declared good guys wash themselves in fantasies about good guys overpowering bad guys via stockpiles of increasingly powerful weaponry. Joined, of course, by fantasies of liberal Gestapos ever poised to take those stockpiles away.
Start this story with the debate over the “Saturday night specials.”
The Gun Control Act of 1968 referred to in the 1980 Republican platform, among other things, banned the sale of firearms by mail, and established a federal system of licensing individuals and companies who bought and sold guns—“the Communist line,” according to the NRA’s magazine American Rifleman. It also included a “sporting purpose” test to attempt to ban guns known as “Saturday night specials”: cheap, throwaway guns some believed all but useless for anything but the commission of crimes. That statutory formula (no guns with short barrels, small calibers and non-adjustable sights) did not work. Saturday night specials stayed on the streets. And by the 1970s one of the most active lobbies in new attempts to control them was… the NRA. In 1971, their director said, “We are for it 100 percent. We would like to get rid of these guns.” In 1973, their man in Congress, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, introduced the latest bill to ban them.