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.