Politics & Policy

Gun-Control Activists Need a History Lesson

(Edward Olive/Dreamstime)
The Left’s selective retelling of America's past is a convenient fiction.

The battle over guns in America is a battle over the Constitution, natural law, and American history, and a key part of the effort to delegitimize gun ownership is the witting or unwitting revision of our nation’s recent past — of the rise of the modern National Rifle Association and the political drive to protect the Second Amendment.

On the left, there is a version of the story that goes something like this: There was a time when the NRA focused primarily on hunters and sport shooters, and even frowned upon the “promiscuous” carrying of weapons. But as hunting declined, firearms makers and others began to market weapons through fear, including fear of a diversifying America. In the late 1970s, there was internal coup in the NRA. The gun-rights absolutists took charge, and America has never been the same.

Here’s how New Yorker writer Evan Osnos described the shift to NPR’s Terry Gross in an interview last week:

It was a response to the broader political developments of the time. You know, you remember, after all, this was a time in which the Republican party was reorienting itself. Richard Nixon had been the law-and-order candidate. In some ways, he sort of crystallized the anxieties of a generation that had grown up in America and now looked around and looked at a more diverse country and felt as if they were losing ground. And they were afraid in many ways. I mean, there was an uptick in crime in the United States. And in many ways, the change in the NRA mirrored very closely the change that was going on in the Republican party.

The problem with this explanation is that it both dramatically understates the crime problem of the time and ignores the larger political context in which the shift it describes occurred.

First, let’s deal with crime. The arc of violent crime in the U.S. was no mere “uptick.” Crime rates surged. In 1960 there were just over 9,000 murders and 17,000 rapes in the entire United States. By 1977 — the time of the NRA coup — those numbers had surged to almost 19,000 and 57,000, respectively. Adjusting for population growth, the murder rate had almost doubled, and the rape rate had more than tripled. The overall violent crime rate tripled, and it kept going up, peaking at almost five times the 1960 rate:

At the same time, the federal government was getting back into the gun-control business. Prior to the 1968 Gun Control Act, there had been no new federal firearms legislation since the 1930s, when the first such legislation — regulating sales of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns and prohibiting sales to people convicted of violent crimes — was passed. But in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, gun-control proposals proliferated, and conversations sometimes even drifted well beyond most modern gun-control proposals. President Richard Nixon privately expressed a desire to ban all handguns and publicly pressed for bans on cheap handguns then known as “Saturday night specials.” Gerald Ford’s attorney general wanted to outlaw guns in high-crime areas.

Why did the NRA change? Because the nation was changing.

Why did the NRA change? Because the nation was changing. Yes, there was a coup at the top of the organization, and yes, it represented a dramatic shift in organizational philosophy. But dramatic things were happening in the United States, and an entity that devoted itself merely to hunting, gun safety, and skeet shooting was going to be left behind. If the NRA hadn’t reinvented itself, some other organization would have risen in its place.

America has come a long way since then. In 1980, the murder rate peaked at double the rate in 1960 — before falling in 2014 to a rate well below even 1960’s low number. In the meantime, the number of privately held firearms has surged, as has the number of Americans with a concealed-carry permit. It turns out that millions of law-abiding Americans can exercise their Second Amendment rights without turning the United States into a free-fire zone. More guns can indeed correlate with less crime.

#related#The gun-control debate will continue — likely for the rest of this nation’s existence. And let’s be honest, both sides will make arguments based on fear. The Left tells Americans to fear criminals and themselves. It claims that gun control can take guns out of the hands of evil men and protect you and your family from the tragic accidents that occasionally happen in gun-owning homes. The Right tells Americans that criminals are indeed worth fearing, but you can have confidence in yourself if you own a gun and know how to use it — that free citizens can and should take responsibility for defending themselves and their families.

It’s a debate worth having, and it’s a debate we’ve long had. It’s not an artifact of an NRA coup, or of fears of “diversity,” but rather of deep philosophical differences. The history of the “gun lobby” is the history of an American idea — indeed, of American culture — and selective retellings of that history cannot and will not erase the desire for independence and autonomy from the American heart.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.


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