Column: A history of gun control laws
Commenting on the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the British historian A.J.P. Taylor remarked that “German history reached its turning point and failed to.” This winter, in the wake of the shootings in Parkland, Fla., and amid Washington discussion of background checks, bump-stock bans and assault-weapon restrictions, the United States may have reached a turning point on gun control.
Yet in truth there have been several turning-points in America’s romance with, and debate over, our relationship with firearms, which began with the earliest days of European settlement.
Though the country always has had large stocks of guns, it has not wanted for turning points in the history of our relationship with them. Here are some:
1610-1611Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall:
These laws represent perhaps the first effort to regulate firearms in the New World, restricting the use of ammunition in colonial Jamestown, mainly to conserve ammunition. Later Jamestown laws removed from blacks the right to bear arms.
Dec. 15, 1791. Ratification of the Bill of Rights:
This landmark document, intended to supplement the Constitution ratified in 1788, included in its Second Amendment these words: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
April 9, 1865. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox:
This brought to an end America’s deadliest war, and as part of the surrender, Confederate combatants relinquished 27,000 guns.
American lore celebrates Grant’s decision to permit Confederate soldiers to return home with their horses for spring planting, but the peace agreement also permitted the defeated combatants to return to their plantations, farms, villages and cities with their sidearms. (It was a .44 Derringer pistol that killed Abraham Lincoln five days later.)
Sept. 14, 1901. The ascension of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency:
This occurred as the direct result of a pistol, used on the grounds of Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition to assassinate William McKinley. Roosevelt was a life member of the National Rifle Association, a gun enthusiast and a gun collector, particularly of Winchesters, the first one of which he ordered at age 22. In his famous Badlands trip of 1883 he used a .45-caliber rifle and a double-barreled shotgun to shoot a bison, a blacktail buck, and some rabbits, grouse, and other game. “When it came to gun knowledge or shooting skill,” according to an account in The American Rifleman, the magazine of the NRA, “no chief executive, now or then, was his peer.”
May 28, 1902. The publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian:
No single piece of literature so enshrined the notion of the cowboy (and his gun) as this novel, written a decade after the official closing of the frontier by a Harvard graduate from Pennsylvania and a great friend of Theodore Roosevelt. Gunplay is a prominent feature of the novel.
Feb. 14, 1929. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre:
This grisly event, perversely celebrated in legend and lore, represents the high point of the Chicago gangster, bootlegger and prostitution culture and its personification, Al Capone. The ruthless killing of seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side gang by 70 rounds of Tommy-gun ammunition became the inspiration for the 1959 romantic comedy “Some Like it Hot,” remembered in part for the appearance of Marilyn Monroe. It also inspired the 1934 National Firearms Act, heavily taxing and regulating machine guns.
March 1, 1952. The television premiere of Death Valley Days:
Built on a radio broadcast beginning seven years earlier, this program (host: Ronald Reagan) brought the Western and gunplay to a new level of cultural importance. It was followed by “Gunsmoke” (1955), “Bat Masterson” (1958) and “Bonanza” (1959), starring Lorne Greene, who, born in Ottawa, wasn’t even American. These shows were important cultural landmarks for baby boomers and their parents.
May 22, 1977. The Revolt at Cincinnati:
For a century following its 1871 founding, the NRA was mostly a sportsmans’ organization, promoting marksmanship, gun safety and hunting.
Then, at the NRA conference in Cincinnati, the NRA old guard was ambushed by insurrectionists who feared popular movements for gun control following the earlier assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The new leadership that emerged gradually transformed the NRA’s identity from the “gun group” to the “gun lobby.”
June 26, 2008. The District of Columbia v Heller case:
For almost two centuries, many scholars agreed the Second Amendment was aimed at militia, not at individual gun owners. This Supreme Court decision, written primarily by Antonin Scalia, associated the Second Amendment with individuals.
April 20, 1999. The shooting at Columbine High School:
There had been mass shootings before, even in educational institutions — Marine sharpshooter Charles Whitman killed 14 from the University of Texas Tower in 1966 — but this episode, which killed 13, jolted the nation. The word “Columbine” came to mean “school shooting,” and academic experts believe the incident, perpetrated by two seniors who killed themselves, became a script for other school shootings, including the ones at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that could produce another turning point.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.