U.S. History of Reactive Gun Control Legislation

By Javin Dana '17

In the U.S., the issue of gun control regulation and legislation has been beaten and gnawed to the point of stagnation. United States politicians can’t seem to decide whether the right to own firearms is the solution, the method of quelling gun-violence, or if it’s the cause of the violence in the first place.

Gun control legislation is heavily debated because of the rapid enforcement of gun laws throughout America’s recent history. Those who feel that the right to bear arms is unalienable claim to be discounted by the rapid, seemingly-reactive gun-control legislation, while those who abhor the flagrant abuse of weaponry continually fight to tighten these same restrictions.

Throughout the United States’ history, the fear spurred by gun violence has manifested itself through gun-control legislation and reactive measures to protect the general public. However, this has posed an interesting question for lobbyists and party combatants on both the left and the right: how to properly handle the manufacturing, distribution and regulation of lethal weaponry, while trying to mitigate public hysteria and protect the public.

The root of the issue began back in 1791, when the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which had been ratified just two year prior, came into effect. The public was imbued with a sense of pride and American-driven fervor after reading the statement: “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Timeline of gun control legislation and policies throughout U.S. history. (Photo: Ben Waitches-Eubanks)

Timeline of gun control legislation and policies throughout U.S. history. (Photo: Ben Waitches-Eubanks)

Today, politicians in favor of the freedom to bear weaponry reiterate this phrase, while their opposition has concluded that times have changed, militia organizations have been abolished, and as such, firearms “cause more harm than good.”

Militia and other supplementary military organizations were crucial to the foundation of America’s constitution, leading into the mid-1800s, meaning that this constitutional law was not challenged for over a century. Neighborhoods stocked up on guns for recreational activities and the protection of their homes, furthering the spread of gun-enthusiasm.

In 1871, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded in hopes of promoting and encouraging “rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” Nobody challenged the aggrandizement of the gun market, nor did they need to given the times. The rapid-expanse of the market originated from the monetary value of selling and producing weaponry, along with the lack of substantial gang-related violence prior to the 20th century.

However, the difference between the uses of weaponry in contemporary America and 19th century America is that the prevalence of militia across the states made it near impossible for gun distribution and the abuse of firearms to go unpunished by the general public. Unfortunately, ever since the 20th century, a “neighborhood watch” has been the closest any town in “The Land of the Free” could come to boasting a militia.

As the remaining militia began to dwindle in the early 1900s, crime organizations saw their opportunity to expand. In the 1920s-30s, famous gangsters such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde used the production and distribution of “Tommy guns” to fuel their criminal escapades, such as robbing banks and households. Their actions generated mass hysteria, leading to widespread FBI investigations and period appropriately named “The Tommy Gun Era.”

In 1934, in reaction to the brazen abuse of firearms during prohibition, Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the “National Firearms Act,” which placed a sizable tax on the production and distribution of any automatic firearms. This included concealed weaponry, such as cane guns, and even sawed-off shotguns.

Unfortunately, this was the start of inevitable political stagnation, as it shattered the existing precedent that the Constitution was unwavering and wholly just. In modern day politics, this kind of reactive reform has become an essential problem in dealing with gun control legislation. While politicians agree that gang-related violence is an issue, because of the failure to completely quell gang-violence during the 19th century, many disagree with gun control being the “best method” of subduing gang organizations.

Following the National Firearms Act, in 1938 Congress enacted the “Federal Firearms Law” that attempted to ban the shipping and distribution of guns through the interstate by requiring that gun manufacturers and distributors have a Federal Firearms License.

Protestors at the March on Washington for Gun Control rallies tried to convince legislators to enforce more restrictive gun control policies. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Protestors at the March on Washington for Gun Control rallies tried to convince legislators to enforce more restrictive gun control policies. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

However, the anti-firearm fervor and fear only truly took off in 1968, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Furthermore, in the span of just ten year the murder rates had doubled. There was public anxiety regarding the general use of firearms at this point in history, and legislators knew that something had to be done. In turn, they passed the “Gun Control Act” which furthered license requirements for gun ownership, and made sure that dealers were properly vetted and government-regulated. Once again, the reactive measures had taken the form of legislation in order to mitigate the damage caused by gun-violence.

These reactive restrictions were furthered in 1990 during the “Crime Control Act” which outlawed the assembly of illegal semiautomatic rifles and shotguns from legally imported gun parts. The bills and acts of gun-control legislators now stunted the shipping and manufacturing of firearms.

And most recently, after years of debate around proper gun-control legislation, in response to the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 27 individuals, including a number of schoolchildren, President Barack Obama introduced a series of proposals to further enforce gun control laws, and restrict the illegal use and distribution of firearms. However, unsurprisingly, his proposals did not pass.

This all relates to the primary problem with gun control regulation: specifically, the speed at which all of the recent legislation has been enacted. The freedom to bear arms has been ingrained in United States history since its conception. However, with the daunting and terrifying abuse of weaponry since the early 20th century, legislators and politicians struggled with restricting gun manufacturing and firearm control, without moving the process of legislation along far too quickly for the general populace and gun enthusiasts alike.

Rather than perpetuating a standard of unnecessary political quibbling over gun-control legislation, it’s necessary for political parties to assess the reactive gun control legislation throughout recent U.S. history, and evaluate whether or not contemporary society will function better or worse without the “freedom to bear arms.”