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Bang! Bang! You're Dead

Bonnie and Clyde have given the burgeoning cult of violence a campy stylishness, and a lot of Americans are going out and buying guns—not necessarily for sport. With the long hot summer just ahead, has the right to bear arms become outmoded? This question has brought much rhetoric, but here is a careful study—and specific recommendations

In the wake of a few spectacularly horrifying crimes involving the use of firearms there has arisen in the U.S. a clamor for legislation to "control" the ownership of guns. A little more than four years ago a President was slain. Three years later a demented University of Texas student, Charles J. Whitman, slew 14 persons before he himself was shot dead. Rifles were used last summer by snipers in racial riots, and there is grave fear that they may be used again.

A year and a half ago the Gallup poll found that 73% of the public favored a law that would require a person to obtain a police permit before buying a gun, and 83% of those polled said that the use of guns by persons under 18 should either be forbidden or restricted. An ominous Louis Harris poll reported last September that 55% of the 27 million whites who own guns would "shoot other people in case of a riot." And there is what appears to be a rising crime rate, though it may be just a rise in the rate of reported crime.

A political solution to this sort of thing would be to utter a campaign-year outcry and pass a law. It appears that the 90th Congress may well do just that. President Johnson has asked several times for firearms control legislation and more than 40 bills to that effect are now before the House and Senate.

Few nations are as permissive as the U.S. about civilian ownership of firearms. In most of the rest of the world it is assumed that weapons are dangerous to have freely about and that, therefore, the people should be severely constrained in their access to them, no matter how much fun hunting and target shooting might be. Now there has emerged legislative and editorial demand for "regulation" of long-arms ownership in America, often in terms that are quite vague as to just what the regulation might be (ownership of pistols is already regulated, to a greater or less degree, by the individual states). As a consequence of the outcry, what was once assumed to be a right in this country seems to some enthusiasts of the sport of weaponry to be in danger of becoming subject to the whims and prejudices of law-enforcement officers and, in one bill, to those of the Secretary of the Treasury.

All this is repugnant to many owners of sporting arms. They believe that in a free America the keeping and bearing of arms is a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. In countries less influenced by libertarian principles, dictatorships of the right and left are understandably wary of an armed citizenry, since it would represent a threat to management. And even in many democratic countries, especially in Europe, there is little motivation for the average man to own a rifle or shotgun. Hunting there is pretty much restricted to those who possess extensive property on which game can be found or to those who can afford to lease shooting privileges. There is almost no tradition of arms-bearing in these places, and so there is no great opposition to restrictions on it.

Switzerland is an outstanding exception, for reasons remote from sport. Because of their historical insistence on defending their neutrality in a continent so often embroiled in war, the Swiss people have put into actual practice what is declared in Article II of the American Bill of Rights: "a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The Swiss have made arms-bearing not just a right but a duty. Every Swiss male between the ages of 20 and 50 is required to keep in his home a military weapon—anything from a pistol to a submachine gun, and there are at least 650,000 of these weapons—and ammunition for its use.

Those who believe that guns cause crime would conclude that the streets of Switzerland run lederhosen deep in blood. In fact, the use of firearms in Swiss crime has been minimal.

And it is minimal here in the U.S., where between 30 and 50 million homes—depending on whose figures you accept—contain firearms. Such weapons are used in only 3% of what the Federal Bureau of Investigation calls serious crime. There are other figures which indicate that the rate of death from firearms has declined 50% or so in the past two-score years, while our population has doubled.

Last July, Representative John D. Dingell of Michigan published in the Congressional Record a report by Alan S. Krug, a Pennsylvania State University economist, who concluded that there "is no statistically significant difference in crime rates between states that have firearms licensing laws and those that do not." Krug, who subsequently became assistant to the director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, noted that a report prepared for the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1960 put greater importance on such factors as "geography, homogeneity of population, density of population, median school years completed, and per capita personal income."

"It is immediately apparent," Krug wrote, after statistical examination of FBI crime reports, "that in the cases of murder, aggravated assault and serious crime, the states with firearms licensing laws do not have lower crime rates than the non-licensing states."

Dingell also quoted Romey P. Narloch, a former crime-studies analyst for the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Criminal Statistics. Narloch reported:

"One of the clear conclusions of this research is that the mere availability of weapons lethal enough to produce a human mortality bear no major relationship to the frequency with which this act is completed. In the home, at work, at play, in almost any environmental setting a multitude of objects exist providing means for inflicting illegal death." In other words, in cases of what might be considered casual homicide and not the work of professional or habitual criminals, whatever comes to hand—a baseball bat or a butcher knife—will do the job if the neighbors are insufferably noisy or the wife goes beyond the barriers of normal nagging privileges.

Dingell cited the work of R. C. Bensing and O. Schroeder, whose 1960 study of homicide in Cleveland found that "the almost invariable association of a high homicide rate with so many other symptoms of social ill-health and economic need shows almost conclusively the socio-economic basis of homicide." There is a general opinion among criminologists that the availability of firearms has little to do with their use in crimes of passion. Thus, Dr. Marvin E. Wolfgang, professor and graduate chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, asserts in his book, Patterns in Criminal Homicide, that "the hypothesis of a causal relationship between the homicide rate and the proportionate use of firearms should be rejected."

Congressman Dingell even quoted J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as asserting that "hoodlums and criminal gangs will obtain guns regardless of controls" and that "laws pertaining to owning and carrying firearms...bother few, if any, Klansmen, and weapons are illegally carried by them." Nevertheless, Hoover favors more stringent laws, as do many law-enforcement authorities.

Not all, however. In 1963 Robert V. Murray, Washington, D.C. chief of police, told a House of Representatives committee: "If I felt that we could take the guns out of the hands of the criminal with this bill or any other bill, I would be 100% for it. But a criminal who is going to set out to hold up a place or assault somebody with a gun, [a law against] the carrying of a gun is not going to deter him. He is a criminal anyhow, and he cannot lawfully possess a gun. So a law on the books that he cannot have a gun in his possession is not going to deter him.

"It may be argued that any legislation that would reduce the number of pistols in circulation would substantially reduce the number of aggravated assaults. The argument rests upon two mistaken premises. First, it assumes that restrictive legislation will prevent criminals from obtaining guns. The fact is that experience has shown that legislation such as the Sullivan Law [New York's unique requirement that a pistol, to be merely possessed, be licensed by the police] does not reduce the number of pistols in the hands of criminals. Second, the argument assumes that handguns are used in most aggravated assaults, whereas the fact is that pistols are used in only a small percentage of assaults."

In this connection, Dingell pointed out that in New York City, Sullivan Law and all, "police reported that in 1966 not a single New York City homicide involved a licensed firearm" and that "since 1944 New York City police have taken possession of 28,409 illegally possessed pistols."

In a speech to the House, the Congressman said: "For example, the antigun faction is fond of pointing to the homicide rate in metropolitan Dallas, which has realistic firearms laws, and disclosing that it is higher than the rate in metropolitan New York, which has the severe Sullivan Law. They contend that this is to the credit of the Sullivan Law and that similar gun laws—per se—will stop crime.

"However, if they were to examine the three principal categories of crime in which firearms play a part—murder, aggravated assault and robbery—they would find that New York has a total rate of 244.2 offenses per 100,000 people, compared to 203.1 in Dallas.

"The antigun forces have never informed the public that out of 183 standard metropolitan statistical areas surveyed by the FBI, there are 131 with overall homicide rates lower than New York's. None of these areas has firearms laws as severe as the Sullivan Law....

"If those who wish to link firearms laws with crime compared metropolitan areas of nearly equal size, they would find Dallas with an overall homicide rate of 10.3 per 100,000 people, Milwaukee with a rate of 2.3 and Minneapolis-St. Paul with a rate of 2.1, and all with liberal gun laws.

"Both Alabama, the state with the highest homicide rate, and Vermont, which has the lowest, also have liberal firearms laws. And with 304 cities of varying size from all parts of the country reporting no willful killings of any kind, it would indicate that crime is affected by something other than firearms laws."

Despite such statistical evidence that mere possession of a gun does not inspire the vast majority of sportsmen to homicide, clamor for legislation of some sort is at its loudest since the days when Prohibition mobs were shooting it out for control of territory. And there is good reason for some of the proposed legislation. There is, for instance, the matter of selling guns by mail, a ready source of unrestrained supply for criminals, unsupervised juveniles and kooks.

Some mail-order advertising would seem to be addressed deliberately to the deranged. An advertisement for a tiny derringer pistol points out that the weapon was potent enough to polish off "two of our country's presidents, Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley. Remember," the ad continues, "that no matter how tough or big your opponent is, if you learn how to use a...derringer properly you will always be the victor."

Another house, announcing a sale of low-priced firearms, calls the sale a "long hot summer special."

An offer to sell, quite legally, a 20-mm. semi-automatic antitank gun ($99.50) describes the weapon as "hard hitting! Ideal for long-range shots at deer and bear or at cars and trucks and even a tank if you happen to see one."

As matters stand, anyone, whether legally entitled to possess a weapon or not, can get one by mail. All he has to do is lie a little. The coupons used in advertising of mail-order guns require only that the buyer sign some such statement as:

"I certify that I am 18 years or more of age; that I have never been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year—that I am not a fugitive from justice; that I am not a mental incompetent, a drug addict or an adjudged drunkard—and that I am not prohibited from legally acquiring a firearm by state or local laws." No sworn affidavit is necessary.

The most persistent advocate of firearms control in the U.S. has been Senator Thomas J. Dodd, who began introducing gun-control legislation as far back as 1963. He and a number of colleagues had been disturbed at the time by the almost total absence of control over the sale of handguns through the mails. In Chicago, members of his staff found 25% of guns from two mail-order houses were going to persons with police records ranging from misdemeanor to felony. Another report shows that 13 mailorder customers had previously been arrested for murder. Quite similar conditions prevailed in Washington, D.C.

So Dodd introduced legislation to control the mailorder sale of handguns—but not rifles or shotguns, which are seldom used in crime. He had the support of the National Rifle Association, long a vigorous and highly successful opponent of what it regards as needless restrictions on the rights of the shooting fraternity. The NRA even helped Dodd draft the law.

Then President Kennedy was assassinated, with a mailorder rifle. The Senator thereupon added control of rifles and shotguns to his bill. Even this was reluctantly approved by the NRA, but only after Dodd had agreed to withdraw a provision requiring authentication of such sales by police, which to the NRA smacked of a step toward registration that could in turn lead to confiscation.

Dodd's latest version would prohibit the mail-order sale of firearms, including shotguns and rifles, to individuals; forbid an individual to travel outside his state of residence to buy a handgun; restrict imports of military weapons and nonsporting firearms, including handguns; require that a purchaser of a handgun be 21 but need be only 18 to buy a rifle or shotgun; and put stringent control on "destructive devices" like mortars and bazookas.

While some of the provisions, such as the last one, were quite all right with the NRA, the association objected strenuously to argumentative assertions in the presentation of the bill to the effect that ease in obtaining firearms "is a significant factor in the prevalence of lawlessness and violent crime in the United States." Dodd and the NRA then parted company.

The bill is now before the full Judiciary Committee of the Senate, which can send it to the floor or kill it. Dodd's subcommittee approved the bill by a squeaky 5-4 vote, and so far there has been no strong indication that the full committee will report it out, even though it has been said President Johnson, in an effort to get action and to meet objections from states with large rural populations, arranged to weaken the bill. Dodd and his committee then added a provision that states could exempt themselves from the ban against mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns to individuals. Representatives of the more rural states had protested that sportsmen, ranchers and farmers who mostly bought their guns by mail would be vastly inconvenienced.

NRA members have had great success in impressing state legislatures with their letter-writing campaigns against antigun laws. Often accused of being a powerful lobby, though it is not so registered, the NRA coolly if unconvincingly denies the charge and, technically, it does not fit the legal definition of a lobby. "We don't lobby," one official explains, "but, thank God, our members do." The organization, which says it is supported by the $5 annual dues of its members, describes itself as the "foremost guardian of the American tradition and constitutional right of citizens to 'keep and bear arms.' " There are 925,000 NRA members, 100,000 of whom are life members who elect the board of directors. The board, in turn, elects a president. Harold W. Glassen, the current president, is a Michigan lawyer, sportsman and conservationist. The NRA and its magazine, The American Rifleman, declare its purposes are "to educate public-spirited citizens in the safe and efficient use of small arms for pleasure and protection; to foster firearms accuracy and safety in law-enforcement agencies, in the armed services and among citizens subject to military duty; and to further the public welfare and national defense." The NRA sponsors shooting clubs and is the governing body of U.S. competitive rifle and pistol shooting. It is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. With notable success it has initiated and provided instructors in hunter-safety training courses.

The NRA was founded in 1871, under a charter granted by the State of New York, "to promote rifle practice and for this purpose to provide a suitable range or ranges in the vicinity of New York...and to promote the introduction of a system of aiming drill and target firing among the National Guard of New York and the militia of other states." This was at a time when the National Guard was well trained in the manual of arms and could march brilliantly, but, as Colonel William Conant Church observed, could hardly hope to compete with those sloppy marchers, the British Volunteers, in the use of rifles as shooting weapons. At 1,000 yards, any Volunteer could put bullet after bullet into a man-size target. The best American marksmen of the day regarded 600 yards as the ultimate practical range. It was also a time when no ammunition was allocated for rifle practice in the U.S. Army, just as today policemen in many cities are required to buy the ammunition they use in revolver practice. The NRA was formed to cure the then military condition of indifference to the use of available weapons, and it has been remarkably successful, despite opposition to its aims—and sometimes to its methods. In time, its interests became more sporting than military, but even when it was concerned almost solely with national defense it came under attack. Governor Alonzo B. Cornell of New York fired the first shot in 1880.

"There will be no war in my time or in the time of my children," he advised General George W. Wingate, NRA vice-president, 18 years before the Spanish-American War. "The only need for a National Guard is to show itself in parades and ceremonies. I see no reason for them to learn to shoot if their only function will be to march a little through the streets. Rifle practice for these men is a waste of money, and I shall not countenance in my presence anything as foolish as a discussion of the rifle shooting at Creedmoor." (The NRA had established its first rifle range at that convenient Long Island location.)

Eighty-seven years later, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, urging the abandonment of the National Rifle Matches at Camp Perry—which are supervised by the NRA and regarded by its members as the World Series of their sport—observed that proficiency in the use of the rifle seemed to be of little value in "this nuclear age," an estimate of the situation that must have raised many a quizzical eyebrow among veterans of Korea and among soldiers now fighting in Vietnam without nuclear weapons. Even so, Senator Kennedy and others were successful in persuading the Department of Defense to withdraw its support of the 1968 matches. The NRA, going it alone, will hold them anyhow in August. The matches used to draw 7,000 competitors, one of whom, a marine, had at last report scored 75 kills in Vietnam with the same type Winchester Model 70 he had used in the matches, all at such extreme range that no enemy soldier could hope to retaliate.

The point, of course, is that moves to "regulate" ownership of rifles or shotguns are in no way related to their worth in modern war, which can scarcely be questioned. Even shotguns have been used in commando operations. Such moves are related to the fact that, from time to time, innocent people are killed by rifles and shotguns.

Laws that have been proposed so far, including Senator Dodd's restrictive bill, would not have prevented either Whitman or Lee Harvey Oswald from getting weapons. Had it been necessary for Whitman to apply to police for permission to acquire his collection of guns, it is all but certain that he, an honorably discharged marine and a good student, would have received it. The police are scarcely qualified to detect latent psychosis.

The NRA, though it accepts mail-order advertising in The American Rifleman, does in fact favor legislation that would make it less likely for weapons to fall into the hands of other than the law-abiding. William F. Camp, a director of the association, would make it a requirement that mail orders for handguns be accompanied by a certificate from the buyer's local police, a concession that does not sit well with members who are aware of how difficult New York City police, for example, have made it for the law-abiding to obtain handguns, for sport or protection, under the state's Sullivan Law. (The original intent of the Sullivan Law was to get guns into the pockets of supporters of the Tammany Hall politician for whom it was named, while denying the privilege to henchmen of his opponents. Some of the latter even considered sewing up their pockets, because Sullivan men were not above slipping a pistol into the pocket of a rival and calling the police.) The law, as interpreted and enforced by police nowadays, amounts to all but total prohibition of the possession of handguns.

The NRA is vigorously opposed to the registration of firearms, however, partly on the ground that it would be a needless nuisance, observed only by the law-abiding in any case, and on the less persuasive ground that it has sometimes worked against the people in countries where registration is required by law. The Nazis, for instance, took advantage of gun registration when they seized Czechoslovakia. Registration told the invaders who owned guns, which were promptly confiscated. The same happened more recently when the military junta took over the Greek government. Could it happen here? Sinclair Lewis used to think so, though in these times the possibility seems too remote to be taken seriously.

Opponents of registration make the point that a registered weapon is quite as deadly as an unregistered one and that registration requirements would be observed only by the law-abiding.

The "right" to bear arms, if that is what it is, is cited constantly by opponents of restrictive gun legislation. Not only the U.S. Constitution but the constitutions of 35 states declare the right of citizens to bear arms. It was supported as a right by John F. Kennedy when he was a Senator and by Hubert H. Humphrey, now Vice-President, in an article written for the magazine Guns. In neither case was the issue so bitterly debated as it is now, and it is quite probable that both gentlemen were appealing politically to the mystique of American weaponry that has come down to us from pioneer days—a persistent factor even now when shooting is concerned mainly with hunting for sport, peppering paper targets or such shotgun sports as trap and skeet. Actually, the courts have been rather vague as to whether the right still exists in a day when we do have a militia, the National Guard and police forces as well, and it is no longer necessary to take down the old muzzle-loader to put meat on the table.

So it might be possible for Congress to pass, and later have accepted by the Supreme Court, extremely restrictive, even potentially confiscatory, legislation. That is scarcely likely, however. For one thing, some 25 members of Congress are members of the NRA. For another, though the mood around Washington now seems to favor some kind of weapons legislation, prevalent opinion is that something more moderate than the Johnson-Dodd proposal probably will get through.

The NRA, despite widespread belief that it is opposed to any and all anti-gun laws, has its own suggested program of legislation. Testifying before Senator Dodd's subcommittee last spring, Executive Vice-President Franklin L. Orth recommended that Congress:

1) provide a mandatory penalty for the possession or use of a firearm transported in interstate commerce or foreign commerce and used in the commission of a crime;

2) prohibit licensed manufacturers or dealers from shipping any firearm to any person in any state in violation of the laws of that state;

3) place "destructive devices" (bombs, grenades, mines, crew-served military ordnance, etc.) under the tax and registration provisions of the National Firearms Act [of 1934].

4) require that a person who orders a handgun by mail or over the counter in a state other than his own submit to the seller a sworn statement that he is over 21 years of age, is not prohibited by federal law from receiving a handgun shipped in interstate commerce and his receipt of the firearm is not in violation of any state statute. The affidavit would contain the name and address of the principal local law-enforcement officer of the locality to which the handgun would be shipped, and the seller would have to forward the affidavit by registered or certified mail to that law-enforcement officer and receive from him a reply indicating receipt of this notification. The seller would be required to wait at least seven days after receipt of the notification by the law-enforcement officer before shipment could be made.

Two bills with quite similar provisions have been introduced by Senator Roman L. Hruska of Nebraska, who regards the problem as "a matter of trying to reconcile the lawful and wholesome use of firearms by 20 to 30 million Americans with the necessity of trying to keep the guns sold in this country out of the hands of the wrong people." His bill has been supported by the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Sporting Arms Manufacturing Institute, and there has been "general support," Hruska points out, from such major conservation groups as the National Wildlife Federation, the Wildlife Management Institute and the Izaak Walton League.

A principal virtue claimed for one of Hruska's proposals is that it would give the states, which vary greatly in their cultural attitude toward firearms, an opportunity to decide whether the buyer was eligible to possess a handgun—whether he was a minor, had a record of insanity or was a criminal.

It has been proposed also that importation of foreign military rifles be banned, or strictly regulated, largely on the ground that one of them, a $12.78 Italian weapon of obsolete, inefficient and even dangerous design—dangerous to the user, that is—was employed to kill President Kennedy. There has been no great opposition to this idea, in large part because most such weapons are considered nonsporting, but the fact is that there is nothing in present or proposed laws that would have prevented Lee Harvey Oswald from spending $100 or so for a new American Winchester, Remington or Savage, or quite a bit less for a used rifle of American make. Nor could any conceivably acceptable law have done so.

Last week the Senate tacked on to its civil rights bill a limited gun-control provision which makes it a federal crime to teach or demonstrate the use or making of firearms, fire bombs or other explosive devices meant for use in civil disorders. This is a start; indeed, the need for legislation is clear—but not for the kind, like Prohibition, that arises out of hysteria. The legislation should be effective and at the same time avoid conflict with America's sporting heritage. The proposals of Senator Hruska and Franklin Orth seem to fit the requirements.