Until 1989, there were only a few school shootings in which more than two victims were killed. This was despite widespread ownership of — and familiarity with — weapons and an absence of “gun-free zones.” As George Mason University economist Walter E. Williams has observed, for most of American history “private transfers of guns to juveniles were unrestricted. Often a youngster’s 12th or 14th birthday present was a shiny new .22-caliber rifle, given to him by his father.” This was a right of passage, conventional and uncontroversial across the country. “Gee, Dad . . . A Winchester!” read one particularly famous ad. “In Virginia,” Williams writes, “rural areas had a long tradition of high-school students going hunting in the morning before school, and sometimes storing their guns in the trunk of their cars during the school day, parked on the school grounds.” Many of these guns they could buy at almost any hardware store or gas station — or even by mail order. The 1968 Gun Control Act, supported happily by major gun manufacturers who wished to push out their competition, put a stop to this.
Catalogs and magazines from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s are packed full of gun advertisements aimed at children or parents. “What Every Parent Should Know When a Boy or Girl Wants a Gun,” one proclaims, next to a picture of a young boy and his sister excitedly presenting a “Rifle Catalog.” “Get This Cowboy Carbine with Your Christmas Money,” suggests another. It was placed widely in boys’ magazines by the Daisy Manufacturing Company of Plymouth, Mich. All a teenager needed do to be sent a rifle was send a money order for $2.50 and tick a box confirming they were old enough.
In one cartoon from the 1950s, two boys discuss a rifle in front of their father. “It’s safe for him to use, isn’t it, Dad?” the first boy asks. “Sure,” Dad responds. “Pete knows the code of the junior rifleman.” Back then, Pete almost certainly did.