This is the second part of a three-part series based on David B. Kopel’s paper “The Great Gun Control War of the 20th Century — And its Lessons for Gun Laws Today.” The first part of the series can be read here.
Prior to the 1970s, it was common, or at least not regarded with suspicion, for a northern liberal Democrat like John F. Kennedy to be a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
According to Kopel, that all changed when, a “a tremendous cultural shift took place among American élites.” Suddenly, they viewed private gun ownership with disgust. An example of this attitude can be found in a statement by historian Richard Hofstadter lamenting how “Americans cling with pathetic stubbornness” to “the supposed ‘right’ to bear arms.” To new elites, it was acceptable to use guns perhaps for recreational hunting or sports shooting, but the notion that guns might be used as a defensive tool was considered barbarian. Their solution: America needed to embrace European-style gun control laws.
Prior to 1974, no national organization existed to promote this viewpoint to the public. Gun control activists merely relied on a sympathetic media. That all changed when the National Coalition to Control Handguns (NCCH) was formed. It was headed by business executive Nelson “Pete” Shields, whose son had been murdered in San Francisco.
Like others before him, Shields was not discreet about his long-term plan, which included the following:
- Decrease the number of handguns being produced and sold in the country.
- Getting handguns registered.
- Making the possession of all handguns and all handgun ammunition—except for the military, policemen, licensed security guards, licensed sporting clubs, and licensed gun collectors—totally illegal
Meanwhile, a civil war of sorts within the NRA nearly brought its political lobbying days to an end in favor of focusing exclusively on outdoor recreation. However, the plan was crushed during the organization’s Annual Meeting of the Members, known as the “Revolt at Cincinnati.” According to Kopel, one of the reasons this shift in focus failed was the fact that one-fourth of NRA members did not even own a gun and supported the organization solely as a way to protect the right to keep and bear arms.
“The gun rights movement regained momentum,” Kopel writes, and “the impulse for this growth in membership was also sufficient to fuel the birth of two new gun rights organizations, the Second Amendment Foundation in 1974 and Gun Owners of America in 1975.”
Yet at the same time, the idea of a national handgun ban was also gaining support in no small part aided by President Ford’s Attorney General Edward Levi. However, his proposed plan would only apply to large cities with crime rates above a certain level. Obviously unenforceable, it went nowhere.
From there, gun control activists tried to implement bans state-by-state. The attempt came during the 1976 Massachusetts general election. A ballot initiative called for the confiscation all handguns in the state, including BB guns.
According to Kopel, if the initiative had passed, gun owners would have six months to surrender their firearms, after which they would face a mandatory year in prison for owning a handgun. The state Supreme Judicial Court had unanimously ruled that same year in Commonwealth v. Davis that “there was no individual right to arms in Massachusetts,” despite the 1780 State Constitution guaranteeing that “the people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence.”
The Massachusetts court joined New Jersey, where its Supreme Court became the first in American history to declare the Second Amendment to be a collective right, arguing that it “was not framed with individual rights in mind,” but in connection with “a well-regulated militia.”
“The New Jersey court’s version of the ‘collective right’ in the Second Amendment,” Kopel writes, “was akin to ‘collective property’ in a Communist dictatorship. The ‘collective right’ to arms supposedly belonged to everybody at once, but could never be asserted by an individual. Thus, the “right” actually belonged to nobody and nothing, and had no practical existence.”
The Massachusetts referendum revealed the true objective of gun-grabbers no matter what jurisdiction they’re operating in. As the election drew near, it became apparent that the initiative was aimed at disarming law-abiding citizens, not criminals. At an anti-gun rally the week before the vote, Kopel writes, Senator Edward Kennedy admitted, “We won’t keep guns out of the hands of criminals.”
This revealing statement about the futility of gun control as a means of keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals would later be substantiated in a 1982 document published by the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, a part of the Judiciary Committee. The document found, among other things, that an astounding 75 percent of ATF gun prosecutions were “aimed at ordinary citizens who had neither criminal intent nor knowledge, but were enticed by agents into unknowing technical violations,” according to Kopel.
After the Massachusetts election, an official with the League of Women Voters who had vigorously supported the ban said, “I think a lot of voters have the idea this was designed to get guns away from the criminals. That’s not the real purpose.” [Emphasis added]
Both sides knew the implications of the vote and what it would mean if the ban was implemented.
“If handgun confiscation could win in Massachusetts, then it could be pushed in city after city and state after state,” Kopel writes, adding that a similar initiative was being planned in Michigan, with the goal of getting enough states and local laws introduced to provide the backing for a national ban.
In a fundraising letter for the National Council to Control Handguns, board of directors member called the Massachusetts vote the “single most important event in the history of handgun control.”
Gun control activists soon learned that staunchest opponents of the ban weren’t just NRA members, but also state law enforcement agencies. If it passed, their officers would be prohibited from carrying handguns while off-duty. The opposition was so great, in fact, the Planning and Research Department of the Boston Police Department conducted first national survey of police attitudes toward guns, according to Kopel.
The result: An incredible 83 percent of leading police officials did not believe that “only the police should be allowed to have handguns.”
The Massachusetts initiative was ultimately defeated by a wide margin, 69 percent to 31 percent.
“Police opposition would continue to be one of the most serious problems faced by handgun prohibition advocates almost everywhere in the United States,” Kopel writes. “Many rank and file police supported self-defense by law-abiding citizens and viewed gun bans as unrealistic. Many police also had a long-standing respect for the NRA based on its decades of service in providing firearms training for police departments.”
In the years that followed, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) was passed, which revised several provisions of the Gun Control Act. Among them were restrictions on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) power of forfeiture, as well as search and seizure. The act also explicitly forbade a federal gun register and stated the Second Amendment was an individual right. But it also banned machine gun sales to the public.
Despite these setbacks, the gun control lobby was still in the fight, and in the years to come would find unexpected allies providing a vital impetus to their cause.