Once Upon a Time, the United States Believed in Genuine Gun Control

Nearly fifty years ago, in the wake of the assassinations of MLK and RFK and not that long after JFK, there was a moment when the United States Congress actually considered, seriously, strict gun control laws. As part of an omnibus crime bill that was debated in June of 1968, shortly after Bobby Kennedy was shot dead, gun registration and licensing was on the table. It was a fascinating debate in the nation, with bizarro bedfellows, as well as organizations and the media taking stands that not only seem surprising now, but are considered downright un-American in many quarters.

In a cover story on Time magazine for June 21, 1968 was "The Gun Under Fire," with a Roy Lichtenstein image of a gun pointing at the reader. The article contains a paragraph that is unthinkable in a mainstream magazine today: "High on the list of reforms sought by many gun-control advocates is a system of dual registration, similar to the one for autos. The driver is licensed, and his vehicle is registered separately. The same principle could apply to guns - licensing for the owner, registration for each of his firearms. It would be a nuisance, to be sure, but, given the destructive power of guns, it would hardly be an outrageous imposition in an industrial society that demands registration of cars, businesses, private planes, dogs and marriages, as well as prescriptions for many mild drugs. Even the Bedouins of Jordan, rootless wanderers and fierce individualists all, are required to register their rifles with desert police."

The attitude there is one of "No shit. What kind of assholes wouldn't agree to this?"

In fact, the Republican Governors Conference approved of greater gun control in their June meeting in 1968, and the U.S. Mayors Conference recommended banning handgun ownership for anyone but law enforcement. The thinking among many conservatives was that the gun nuts were fucking everything up for the hunters. And a majority of Americans, 84%, supported strong gun control legislation.

One extraordinary moment was President Lyndon Johnson's message to Congress on gun control as the bill was being debated. "I propose, first, the national registration of every gun in America," Johnson said. "Registration will tell us how many guns there are, where they are, and in whose hands they are held." He also proposed licensing. And, in case anyone wanted to fuck with the man with the big dick, he continued, "Nothing in these proposals will impair the legitimate ownership or use of guns in this country...Nor are they threats to the mystique of manhood or to the heritage of our people...The only heritage that is harmed is the record of violent death and destruction that shames our history."

If President Obama even hinted at this, he would be lynched faster than you can say, "NRA." But here we were, in a time when we were allowed to talk about everything up to and including confiscation of and outlawing handguns.

In the end, this debate was the event that made the NRA shift into full-on batshit paranoia. And the organization had some interesting partners in this. The Black Panthers, for example, feared that registration would allow their guns to be confiscated. Leftists wanted to be able to keep their guns as self-defense against the "abundantly armed" state. Sounds horribly familiar, no?

The gun control law that did pass contained some provisions about the sale and transfer of firearms, but, as LBJ admitted after signing it, it fell far, far short of what he felt was needed. Of course, these days, those provisions about the importation and shipping of certain guns would be considered an attempt to go into a gun owner's home, kill their family, rape their dog, and take their guns out of their cold, dead asses. Not necessarily in that order.

Since then, the whole window of what can be accomplished on gun control has closed more and more. We once could get an assault weapons ban or a waiting period. Now, even after yesterday's really beautiful filibuster by a large number of senators, the best we can hope for is that the people on the perverse (and punitive) terrorist watch list will be prevented from buying guns and maybe expanded background checks. Registration and licensing is not something you can even bring up without being considered an insane radical. We have devolved since the 1960s. And we can barely conceive of reducing the number of guns.

Oh, one more thing about 1968. On May 27, just 10 days before his murder, Robert Kennedy was speaking in Roseburg, Oregon, and good many people in the crowd were angry at his support of gun control measures. Kennedy was booed as he defended the proposals. One man told Kennedy that he was against gun control because "Nazi Germany started with the registration of guns." Yeah, nothing's new. Nothing.  Kennedy's caravan would head south, down the West Coast, towards his nearly inevitable end.