We often hear that it is a bad idea to create laws in the feverish atmosphere surrounding a traumatic incident.
There is some truth in this notion.
Consider the Patriot Act of 2001, rushed through Congress immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks, at a time of great fear and anxiety in this country. The act expanded the power of the federal government to commit acts of domestic surveillance and infringe on our civil liberties.
Thomas Dodd’s mail-order gun bill was not one of these knee-jerk pieces of legislation, although it was commonly referred to as that.
The story of Dodd’s long struggle in the 1960s to pass sensible gun regulations tells us a lot about the depth of this country’s resistance when it comes to imposing limits on guns. access to firearms. Dodd’s crusade also contradicts the modern popular narrative that the National Rifle Association was far more receptive to gun reform.
It’s a story that offers perspective to the current battle – in the wake of the shocking May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary in Uvalde – to combat the epidemic of mass shootings in this country.
Dodd, the late U.S. Senator from Connecticut (and father of former U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd), spent much of the 1960s tirelessly pushing a bill that would enforce restrictions on mail-order gun sales.
The bill came to public attention in late 1963, after Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy with a $12.78 Italian rifle he ordered through the mail under the alias of ‘HAS. Hidel.
Long before Kennedy’s assassination, law enforcement officials were concerned about the ease with which children and people with criminal records could purchase firearms by mail order.
At a U.S. Senate committee hearing in January 1963, Kenneth Carpenter, an investigator with the Los Angeles Police Commission, said the mail-order gun trade was a “matter of grave concern” to the country. .
“To date, there is no law adequately regulating the mail-order sale of firearms,” Carpenter said. “That means anyone, virtually anyone, can get a gun.”
Dodd had already studied the matter for about a year prior to this Senate hearing. He found that one million guns a year were purchased through the mail in Canada and that a quarter of those guns were for people with criminal records.
In Fairfax, Virginia, a young boy shot and killed a nearby child with a snub-nosed gun purchased from a sleazy mail-order store.
Dodd told committee members that the country was “awash in deadly weapons, weapons that have been imported by the thousands and sold indiscriminately by a few unscrupulous dealers who use the anonymity of couriers and common carriers to sow their seeds. of destruction”.
Later that year, one of these weapons landed in Oswald’s hands.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Dodd intensified his efforts to pass a bill regulating mail-order sales. The bill prohibited the interstate arms trade to anyone under the age of 18 or who had ever been convicted of a crime. It also prevented buyers from hiding behind anonymity or pseudonyms.
It was a sensible solution to an undeniable problem.
However, even the intense sense of national grief over Kennedy’s death could not help Dodd overcome the objections of gun enthusiasts. His bill was stalled in the House Commerce Committee.
In early 1965, as Dodd made another attempt to pass his bill, an NRA member ran a front-page ad in Shotgun News calling the mail-order legislation part of a conspiracy. communist attempt to take control of the United States by “confiscation of all firearms.
Once again Dodd’s effort was stalled.
It wasn’t until October 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, that Congress finally succeeded in passing legislation restricting the mail-order sale of rifles and shotguns.
Even then, the NRA fought successfully to remove provisions calling for a national gun registry and licenses for all gun carriers.
In June of that year, NRA President Harold Glassen warned members of the organization that proponents of gun control were aiming for “the complete abolition of civilian gun ownership”.
The long and frustrating history of Dodd’s mail-order bill indicates that long before Sandy Hook and Uvalde, gun enthusiasts were able to stifle the nation’s desire for reform.
Six decades later, the problem is the same: A noisy, angry mob sees any gun control legislation as a calamitous step toward government oppression.
The options are difficult. You cannot change the mindsets of elected officials controlled by gun rights absolutists. And voting people out of office isn’t easy. But it’s the best shot we have.
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