I think we can pull back and go for a deep historical perspective here. At that point, we observe that the regulation and distribution — the control, in those terms, of firearms — has been a constitutive if not quite constitutional feature of the North American civilizational settler enterprise. Since the get-go, there has been a perennial concern with who can have guns and what those guns can be used for, and a profusion of situations where people can choose to arm themselves but may be legally killed. So that’s the deep structure here, from my perspective.
Throughout the British colonial era and the antebellum era, what is anathema to elites and to the majority power structure is the idea of bad guys getting guns. And because the bad guys are always going to get the guns, they say that the good guys need yet more guns. But of course, then the bad guys are able to get those guns, and so on and so forth. Now, what’s interesting for our purposes in the twentieth century — and the reason I’m using this sort of abstract language about the “distribution and regulation” of guns — is that the term “gun control,” much like legal fixation on the Second Amendment, only really starts to be used in the mid-1950s. “Gun control” is not a given, naturalized term of American politics, and it never has been. It’s obviously not used in the Constitution, but more importantly, if you look through newspaper headlines prior to around 1955, gun control will come up in the context of, “Well, we’re putting machine guns on planes that are made of balsa wood and paper, so how do they control those guns?”
The term “gun control” enters US discourse when then senator John F. Kennedy proposes a gun control act, a piece of legislation that fails in the Senate. But his act is a protectionist measure designed to safeguard the interests of New England firearms manufacturers, like Remington and Smith & Wesson. Another poetic irony of this is that prior uses of the word “control” in the congressional record are all about import-export regulations. And indeed, the guns Kennedy wants to control are cheap, imported World War II surplus. Right after every American war, there is the problem of a tremendous amount of surplus guns that spread out to the population, whether they be the guns that black Union soldiers go back home with or the case of World War II. In the case of World War I, it’s all these tommy guns that never got into the trenches, because the idea came too late, that produced gun control acts in the ’30s.
In the 1950s and onward, the problem is these large stockpiles of Italian-, German-, and French-made firearms that can be bought very cheaply. The Kennedy plan is to prevent import of those weapons so as to drive up sales of classic American guns — and that’s what gun control initially means. Now, again, talk about the brutal ironies of history: it is precisely by an Italian-made World War II rifle that Kennedy is killed. A bunch of Democratic senators, including Senator Thomas Dodd Sr, attempt to seize upon the assassination of JFK by one of these scary foreign weapons. This is another theme that goes all the way back to the founding. The Dutch are giving Mohawks scary flintlocks; the Sioux are getting their hands on scary Winchester rifles. And “Marxists” like Lee Harvey Oswald, if you want to believe that story, are killing presidents with these scary European guns.
The push for a gun control act in Congress fails repeatedly, but it has both an immediate and a longer-term series of profound repercussions. The first is that when a federal gun control law happens under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in ’68, it is paired with an enormous omnibus crime bill that arms police with military weapons, puts them in schools, and helps proliferate militarized responses through 911 systems. So keep in mind that from the get-go gun control is always about the restriction of bad evil weapons and is always wedded with giving additional funds to the police. Johnson, for instance, has several press conferences where he talks about how our streets are being flooded with “Soviet guns.” Nevertheless, Johnson’s Gun Control Act is an uphill battle because the NRA fights it, and it only really kicks in when Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated and cities around the country erupt in protest. The Gun Control Act then is brought in because the uprisings are too frightening.
The NRA is an organization that came up in the nineteenth century. It was a private charity organization like the YMCA, but it was also about training people in the use of weapons and literally distributing guns from the War Department. It was heavily involved in the arms trade more generally and has always had, even in the 1920s, a strongly xenophobic, anti-Bolshevik tinge. In the 1950s and ’60s, the NRA was in an interesting position, where a lot of its traditional membership were former high-level military brass, but the organization was contemplating a move from DC to the West, to turn toward hunting and outdoorsmanship.
It was during the 1960s and ’70s that the NRA, always a right-wing organization, became deeply involved in the culture war. However, if you look back at NRA magazines from the 1920s, they were already concerned about filthy southeastern European immigrants and their Bolshevik leanings and the fact that people need to stockpile guns to fight off a Bolshevik takeover of the country. There were also a lot of blue-blooded NRA members and naturalists, like James Audubon in the nineteenth century, who wanted to exclude Italian immigrants from having Second Amendment rights.