When Congress Used to Vote on Outlawing Handguns

Antigun sentiment was once even stronger in Congress, and it  In 1934, a handgun ban was part of the original draft of the National Firearms Act in Congress, but was dropped by proponents to secure passage of a narrower law restricting only machine guns and short-barreled long guns.

By the early 1970s, the ban was back, and was probably at its all time apogee, historically speaking. Anti-gun extremists in both parties supported handgun-ban and ban-enabling registration amendments to a gun-control bill introduced by the extremely anti-gun Senator from Indiana, Birch Bayh (father of the recently defeated candidate for an Indiana seat in the Senate, Evan Bayh, who shares his father’s distaste for guns and gun owners). Edited excerpt of a letter to the editor of Field and Stream, which had endorsed mostly Democrat Senators for re-election on environmentalist grounds. This letter (edited for brevity only) and a defensive-crouch response were published on p. 6 of the November, 1972 issue of the magazine:

Here is the way your outstanding senators voted on three of the amendments… [to] the Bayh gun-control bill:

  1. Hart amendment to outlaw private possession of handguns: Brooke, Harris, Hart, Kennedy, Ribicoff, Tunney, Williams. … Absent but recorded for: Javits.
  2. Kennedy amendment to require licensing-registration of all firearms: Anderson, Brooke, Case, Hart, Kennedy, Muskie, Ribicoff, Tunney, Williams… Absent but recorded for: Pell, Javits.
  3. Stevenson amendment for licensing-registration of handguns: Brooke, Case, Cooper, Hart, Hughes, Javits, Kennedy, Mondale, Muskie, Percy, Ribicoff, Stevenson, Tunney… Absent but recorded for: Pell.

Also: the following voted against the Dominick amendment providing mandatory penalties for gun possession or use during the commission of the felony: Anderson, Cooper, Hart, Hughes, Kennedy, Mathias, Mondale, Muskie, Nelson. These men don’t want to interfere with the criminal, just the law-abiding sportsman.

An editor (presumably Editor Jack Samson) responded defensively that it was “unfortunate” that the Senators who were good on the environment, as he and author Michael Frome defined “good,” were not good on the gun issue, but the gun issue wasn’t important, and maybe you could persuade a Kennedy, Hart or Mondale to change his mind.

Kennedy and Tunney, who later would combine in a secret effort to get Soviet Premier Yuri A. Andropov to sponsor an overthrow of Reagan for Kennedy in the 1984 election (Andropov didn’t snap at the bait), were strangely less comfortable with armed Americans than with Soviet power.

A direct look at Congressional reports available (for instance, here on Google Books) shows that gun bans frequently came up in that period, although they usually died in committee. Here’s that example:

16.S. 2815 introduced November 5, 1971 by Senators Hart and Harris.

To prohibit the importation, manufacture, sale, purchase, receipt, possession, or transportation of handguns, except for or by members of the armed forces, law enforcement officials, and, as authorized by the secretary of the treasury, licensed importers, manufacturers, dealers, antique collectors, and pistol clubs. Legislation pending.

But “Nobody wants to ban guns.” Horsefeathers.

In any event, S. 2815 went the way of all flesh in 1971, in this case, dying in committee. That’s why the above-mentioned Senators frequently brought up the bans as riders to other bills, in other committees. All they needed was, one time, to get enough of a gun control majority to squeeze a ban through, and they could get it on to the floor. At the time, both Houses of Congress were solidly Democratic, but the Democrats were divided between anti-gun Coastals and pro-gunners from rural states, especially in the South.

They thought that if they attached a ban to an important enough bill, there may have been enough liberal coastal Democrats, liberal New England Republicans, and other Democrats vulnerable to party arm-twisting, to pass the ban. But this high-water mark of anti-gun power produced a backlash, uniting pro-gun activists and sportsmen, and earmarking nails for the political coffins of southern Democrats and those rural-state Senators and Congressmen whose real home had become Washington and whose real values were those of aspiring prospective members of the Georgetown set. In the 1970s, Idaho could produce a Frank Church, who was on a mission to destroy the military, the intelligence agencies, and gun rights; in the 21st Century, it’s unlikely.

Nowadays, to sell a ban they have to narrowcast it; to sell registration they have to cloak it as something else, as anti-gun Sens. Schumer, Manchin and Toomey did in their “background checks” backdoor registration bill. (Only Manchin’s and Toomey’s names were on it, but Schumer’s staff wrote it and he was directing Manchin and Toomey in the effort).

Field and Stream, which surely must have counted Elmer Fudd among its subscribers, came to have second thoughts about its 1972 handgun-ban advocacy (in service of a “greater cause,” of course). By 1976 (May, November) the magazine’s E.B. Mann was writing critically of Kennedy, Hart, Bayh and Tunney and their gun-ban projects. The 1970s were, in retrospect, the high point of the coastal liberal quest to actually ban firearms, and thereafter ban attempts were narrowly focused, using a divide-and-conquer approach (much like the divide-and-conquer approach between handgun users and hunters accepted by Field & Stream in 1972) but targeted narrowly on focus-grouped and rhetoric-tested neologisms: the handgun ban was reborn as “Saturday Night Special” restrictions, long gun bans as “Assault Weapon” or “Sniper Rifle” bans, universal pre-confiscation registration reborn as “Universal Background Checks.” The new approach was predicated on the idea that you can’t recognize a Nazi if you peel off his brown shirt and issue him a personable publicist, and its high-water mark was arguably the now-sunsetted 1994 gun ban.

20 thoughts on “When Congress Used to Vote on Outlawing Handguns

  1. Clarence Chen

    “They thought that if they attached a ban to an important enough bill, there may have been enough liberal coastal Democrats, liberal New England Republicans, and other Democrats vulnerable to party arm-twisting, to pass the ban. ” Yep. The Hughes Amendment comes mind.

  2. Scott

    With all due respect and trepidation, are there some dangling or missing bits here?

    a handgun ban was part of the original in Congress

    Edited excerpt of a letter to the editor of Field and Stream, which had endorsed mostly Democrat Senators for re-election on environmentalist grounds.

    Not the normal typo sort of thing–more like multiple edits never got themselves quite sorted out?

    1. 10x25mm

      First sentence dropped ‘National Firearms Act’ after the word ‘original’.

      A second attempt to prohibit handguns was made at the Federal level in 1938 when the Federal Firearms Act passed.

  3. James F.

    This one starts out a little wonky:

    “Antigun sentiment was once even stronger in Congress, and it In 1934, a handgun ban was part of the original in Congress,”

    And then it tails off. I expect the missing words are National Firearms Act.

    One reason it never made the cut was that in 1934, no one thought the Federal Government had the authority to do anything LIKE banning guns. They just had the authority to tax them.

    I have a PDF somewhere of Pete Shields’s gun ban boo, I’ll pass it along.

  4. ToastieTheCoastie

    Weapons laws are an old thing, even in America as far back as the early 19th century. Reading a bit about Bowie knives the other day. In Alabama a man who carried a Bowie knife could be charged with premeditated murder if he killed someone, even in self defense, as carrying the weapon implied that he had formed a plan to murder ahead of time. In other jurisdictions, the knives were outright banned or had transfer taxes associated with them.

    1. DaveP.

      Before the 1930’s weapons laws in America were mostly designed to do one of two things: keep weapons out of the hands of ‘those people’ (depending on your part of the country either blacks, Italian and Irish immigrants, or the opposing political party); or discouraging dueling. Bowies had a big vogue as dueling weapons- there’s even specific language barring them from the floor of Congress- and the idea behind a lot of the knife-length and single-vs-double-edge laws was to discourage dueling by de facto banning Bowies.

      1. Aesop

        Bringing back legal dueling would do more to correct civilization than nearly any other political act a government could undertake.

        Even if we allowed a thirty-day grace period, so people could have a learner’s permit to adjust to reality before getting “called out” had permanent consequences, the long-term benefit to society would be beyond measure.

  5. Keith

    The government of any day has been against civilian firearm ownership since Shay’s Whiskey Rebellion.

  6. raven

    Since legislatures have been reluctant to for the most part to vote in new gun control measures (excepting CA and a couple others) , the new push is to use the Initiative process, with a whacking big dose of billionaire funding, and wonderfully poorly educated electorates to vote new laws in directly.
    The appeal of this is one, the funding is easy, two, the press is already compliant, and three, the metro regions rule by numbers. Nevada’s new ‘Background check” was voted in by one county out of 16.
    Washington’s I591 “background check ” was voted in by Seattle and Olympia, and the same with the new “fuck due process you swine” I-1491.
    Tyranny of the majority, and as long as the leftist big cities keep supporting it, I can’t see it changing. I am expecting new restrictions every election just like in CA but pushed through by the initiative bully process.
    If you have any ideas what to do to counter it ,I would love to hear them. I-591 supporters had a budget somewhere around 8 million, of which 4 (four) individuals contributed 90% or thereabouts. And did not even miss it- like you or I buying a candy bar. Same with i-1491.

    1. whomever

      It’s I-594, not 591 (591 was a competing pro-gun initiative that failed)

      Here’s a writeup on I-594 spending:

      p.s. – people tend to forget why short barreled rifles and shotguns were (essentially) banned: the original emphasis was only on handguns, then someone thought that people would just switch to SBR’s and SBS’s, so they were added to the ban, but then handguns were dropped to get enough votes to pass. So that gives us the nonsensical world where a 10 inch AR rifle is legally very different than a 10 inch AR pistol – even the potential for misuse is exactly the same. Not to mention the two AR pistols that are mechanically identical, but one is built on a receiver originally assembled as a rifle. One’s perfectly legal, and the other is a felony.

      We’ve edited this comment to make the link live. By deleting the “http://” and inserting spaces the original commenter, “whomever,” was able to push the link through without sending his comment to moderation purgatory. Hope you don’t mind! -Ed.

  7. rc

    This simply illustrates that it is a long (and never-ending) fight. They are simply not going to give up their assault on the 2nd amendment. It’s a long term project for them…there simply is no final victory in this struggle. Always vigilant.

  8. Haxo Angmark

    interesting essay. Key sentence: “Schumer’s staff wrote it – he was directing Manchin and Toomey…”.

    Trump and Schumer are thick as thieves. The Don’s reaction to the first (non-Muslim inflicted) post-inauguration “gun massacre” should be most instructive.

    1. Raoul Duke

      You might be waiting a while. “Non-Muslim inflicted mass shooting events” seem to be a bit rare these days.

      1. Haxo Angmark

        something tells me they won’t be once Trump gets in. Call it a hunch. We just had that rickety false flag involving an IMDb crisis-actor @ Ping-Pong Pizza. The next one will be larger, and less obvious.

  9. John Smith

    Well that conversation went odd quick.

    As someone mentioned above- the key take away is that this is a perpetual fight, born of a tension between those hired to govern and The People.

    It is doubtful that even the most ardent gun banners recognize that the struggle is based inherently on power. If I’m wrong in this and there are those in positions of loaned power (government) that see gun control as a means of removing or reducing the ability of the people to ultimately resist tyranny- those people present a sincere, non rhetorical danger to our republic.

  10. Aesop

    Remove the prohibition on killing those who publicly argue for infringing on the Second Amendment.

    Actions should have consequences, including attempted sedition under color of law.
    And shaming via pillory and stocks, or simple tar-and-feathering, aren’t harsh enough.

    I’d be willing to compromise, and allow those latter as primary punishments for initial offenses though, and save hue-and-cry torch pitchfork and hemp soirees for the repeat offenders.

    If they’d televise it, it’d beat all hell out of cable sports channels.

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