The defeat of President Obama’s gun-control package last week undoubtedly represents the most dramatic disappointment in the entire history of the movement to restrict firearms abuse in the United States. Many observers sadly noted that it might take another tragedy on the scale of December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary to secure enough votes for a serious reform measure. It is interesting, though, and perhaps even instructive, to recall just how brief is the history of gun control advocacy.
Rather than critique the outsized role guns play in American culture and society, as many Nation articles do now, our earliest pieces on the subject discussed firearms much as one would talk about books or paintings: public discussion of guns was seemingly limited to comparison, criticism, and review.
The Nation doesn’t appear to have even noticed the first modern gun control legislation, the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed heavy taxes and other restrictions on sawed-off rifles and machine guns. The issue was not an especially divisive one at the time, and the bill was supported by the National Rifle Association.
The first Nation article to critically consider the prevalence of guns in America was “Get Your Gun From the Army,” in June 1964 by Stanley Meisler, which used the Kennedy assassination as a jumping-off point to explore the unseemly collaboration between the US Army and the NRA—“the main force in the gun lobby that has prevented Congress so far from passing any meaningful legislation to restrict the ownership and use of guns,” Meisler wrote—to distribute weapons to hundreds of thousands of civilians and train them in their use. In effect, Meisler argued, the federal government, through the Army and the NRA, was subsidizing far-right-wing militias. If some of Meisler’s criticisms of the Civilian Marksmanship Program are no longer relevant—it was privatized in 1996, though it remains quasi-governmental and tax-exempt—his broad characterization of the gun lobby remains as apt as it was 49 years ago: “Despite the shock of the assassination,” gun legislation “will not be easy. It will be resisted every step of the way by the National Rifle Association.”
Public support for gun legislation after the JFK assassination reached a crescendo after the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spring of 1968. “Guns, Congress and the Networks,” by Maureen Christopher, an editor of Advertising Age, examined the now-forgotten role the advertising industry played in early gun-control advocacy. “These image makers, adroit at consumer persuasion, are having much less success convincing Congressmen that the United States needs a strong national firearms law,” Christopher wrote. Eventually, the Gun Control Act of 1968 did pass, prohibiting felons and the mentally ill from purchasing weapons, broadly speaking.
Gun control advocacy in The Nation really took off in the early 1970s, with articles like “Getting Serious About Guns,” “The Demographics of Gun Control,” and “The Politics of Gun Control.” In the last of those, Michael Harrington—the congressman, not the socialist—bullet-pointed some of the NRA’s time-tested strategies: “They use their extensive media connections to misstate the details of proposed bills, and to play to fears about race, government domination and subversion by radicals.”
An editorial from the following year, 1975, offers an optimistic analysis depressingly similar to those heard after Newtown: “Congress has let [the] slaughter continue—despite polls showing more than 70 per cent of the American people favor gun control—primarily because of the power of the National Rifle Association… But there are signs that the NRA’s ability to veto gun control legislation is eroding.” Richard Bruner announced a similar false dawn in 1988, beginning his article, “How Citizens Can Beat the Gun Lobby,” by declaring: “Suddenly, the National Rifle Association is on the defensive.” If The Nation has made a habit of wishfully heralding the imminent demise of the powerful gun lobby, the key for truly defeating it is not magic, and it has long been known. “You’ve got to be willing to stand up and take them on,” as Bruner quoted one New Jersey politician saying.
Yet the Senate’s rejection of universal background checks should be the start of a popular movement to hold our leaders accountable. As I argue this week, we’ve forgotten that it took five years of persistent effort across the nation to pass the Brady Billl, the ban on assault weapons and the ban on large capacity magazines in the ’90s. In that period we built a national movement, changed the dialogue, and did what everyone thought was impossible. We slayed the dragon.
Americans need to be mobilized to overcome the intensity of the NRA. As long as the struggle remains one between a passion and a preference, the NRA—armed with a battery of scare tactics and willful lies—will win every time. As the President said Wednesday night, “all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. But this effort is not over.” If we act like it is, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.
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