OSD 168: There’s nothing new under the gun
Fun with hundred-year-old newspaper clippings.
There’s a fun Twitter account called Pessimists Archive which posts old news clippings of “technophobia and moral panics”.
Menaces like dime novels:
Or the bicycle:
Or coffee houses:
The template of a moral panic is:
<Thing> comes out.
Some people panic.
<Thing> turns out fine.
The panickers look silly.
This seems like it hinges on #3: figure out if <thing> is in fact going to turn out fine. If it is, the panickers will look silly. If it’s not, they’ll look prescient.
And if your goal is to litigate who looks silly, then sure, #3 is a good place to focus. But where’s the fun in that! That’s just punditry. The real fun isn’t specific to any one moral panic. It’s how similar they all are.
The striking thing about @PessimistsArc is how familiar the arguments are. The details of <thing> turn out not to matter. You can write up the whole argument ahead of time, and just leave blanks for <thing>.
And this isn’t unique to technophobia. It’s the nature of social disagreements generally. There are maybe six argument templates about any social development:
It’s causing violence.
It’s causing moral or cultural decay.
It’s bad for national security.
It’s hurting the middle class.
It’s hurting a subsegment of society.
Think of the children.
Pick one, sharpie <thing> onto it, and boom, you’ve got all cable news programming.
You can model roughly all gun disagreement as an instance of #1, #2, and/or #6. That’s why, while obviously we write from the perspective that gun rights are valuable, we rarely ever write “should” pieces — “here’s what your opinion should be about guns”. Persuasion is tempting, but the trouble is there’s little evidence that it works. Instead, the evidence is that people have been repeating the same talking points for 100+ years like this is the time it’s going to work. (And to be clear, all sides are guilty of this.)
Could have been printed yesterday.
Go further back and little changes. Here’s an excerpt of an April 16, 1934 House committee hearing on the bill that became the National Firearms Act. The speaker is Homer Cummings, who was attorney general of the U.S. at the time:
All right, Mr. Chairman. As I was saying, I do not know exactly how this bill will work out. Nobody can tell. We must feel our way through these big problems. But, after all, it represents a lot of thought, and a lot of study.
Frankness compels me to say right at the outset that it is a drastic bill, but we have eliminated a good many suggestions that were made by people who are a little more enthusiastic about this than we are — I mean enthusiastic about the possibility of curing everything by legislation.
For instance, this bill does not touch in any way the owner, or possessor, or dealer in the ordinary shotgun or rifle. There would manifestly be a good deal of objection to any attempt to deal with weapons of that kind. The sportsman who desires to go out and shoot ducks, or the marksman who desires to go out and practice, perhaps wishing to pass from one State to another, would not like to be embarrassed, or troubled, or delayed by too much detail. While there are arguments for including weapons of that kind, we do not advance that suggestion.
This bill deals, as the very first part of it indicates, with firearms, but defines “firearms” to mean a pistol, a revolver, a shotgun having a barrel less than 16 inches in length, or any other firearm capable of being concealed on the person, a muffler or silencer therefor, or a machine gun. In the next paragraph it defines a machine gun as any weapon designed to shoot automatically, or semiautomatically, 12 or more shots without reloading. The inquiries we have made of experts on the subject of the length of the barrel of sawed-off shotguns indicates the general belief amongst such people that 18 or even 20 inches would be a better maximum length than the 16 inches suggested in our bill.
A sawed-off shotgun is one of the most dangerous and deadly weapons. A machine gun, of course, ought never to be in the hands of any private individual. There is not the slightest excuse for it, not the least in the world, and we must, if we are going to be successful in this effort to suppress crime in America, take these machine guns out of the hands of the criminal class.
That was 88 years ago, but Homer’s already playing the greatest hits. He’s got:
Paragraph 1: no law is perfect, but we have to do something
Paragraph 2: compromise
Paragraph 3: nobody wants to take your guns, and gun rights are for hunting
Paragraph 4: assault features
Paragraph 5: nobody needs <thing>
Karl Frederick was the president of the NRA at the time, and also testified at the hearings. His points are also familiar to modern listeners.
Homemade guns make gun registration obsolete:
I may say that a gun is a very easy thing to make, that a third-class automobile mechanic can make a pistol which will do deadly work, and can do it in an afternoon with the materials which he can find in any automobile shop. And I can say that it has been done time and time and time again.
People who comply with gun laws will be by definition the people the laws aren’t targeting:
…pistol licensees, those who have gone to the trouble of securing a license to carry weapons, are a most law-abiding body, and the perpetration of a crime by such a licensee is almost unknown.
Even the “you have to register your car but not your gun” motif shows up. It comes from both sides of the table. First from David Lewis, a representative from Maryland:
Mr. Frederick, the automobile is a dangerous, even a deadly instrument, but never intentionally a deadly instrument, of course. States uniformly have taken notice of the danger to the innocent pedestrian and others involved in the use of the automobile. They have set up around the privilege of its ownership and operation a complete regulatory system consistent with reasonable rights to the use of the automobile. Approaching the subject of firearms, would you not consider that society is under the same duty to protect the innocent that it is with regard to the automobile and that with a view to the attainment of that result, the person who wishes the privilege of bearing firearms should submit to the same regulations as rigid as the automobile owner and driver is required to accept?
And then in response from Frederick:
You have raised a very interesting analogy, one which, to my mind, has a very decided bearing upon the practicability and the desirability of this type of legislation. Automobiles are a much more essential instrument of crime than pistols. Any police officer will tell you that. They are much more dangerous to ordinary life, because they kill approximately 30,000 people a year. The extent, so far as I know, to which the Government, or the Congress, has attempted to legislate is with respect to the transportation in interstate commerce of stolen vehicles, which apparently has accomplished very useful results. The rest of the legislation is left to the States, and in its effect and in its mode of enforcement, it is a wholly reasonable and suitable approach, because, if I want a license for my car I can get it in 20 minutes, by complying with certain definite and well-known regulations.
(Side note that has nothing to do with guns: interesting that the annual number of motor vehicle deaths in that Frederick refers to is roughly the same number that we have today. Many fewer today per vehicle-mile, though.)
Hoo-boy. Well maybe that’s because of the subject matter, right? Registration is an ancient debate. What about something more modern, like the relationship between race and stop-and-frisk. Surely 2022 has something new to say on the subject?
Well we thought so too, until we started reading through this 288-page PDF that Danny (@cwdefllc) put together for the gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue. He built it as a reference of primary sources about a carry ban that Maryland passed in 1972.
On page 66, the PDF includes a Washington Post editorial from January 20, 1972, arguing in favor of then-Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel’s proposal to institute stop-and-frisk. An excerpt:
What Governor Mandel proposes to do is really minimal. He wants to enable officers of the law. to protect themselves against breakers of the law — usually called criminals — by letting the former frisk the latter, briefly and politely, on the basis of a “reasonable suspicion” that a concealed lethal weapon may be found. The legislation would also make it unlawful for anyone to carry a handgun, concealed or unconcealed, on the streets or in a car. Unfortunately, it would not affect the sale and possession of pistols kept in homes for junior to show off to his baby sister or to settle family altercations.
Understandably, civil libertarians have had misgivings about the proposed law. Authorizing the police to stop and frisk a person on mere suspicion entails a serious risk that the police will behave arbitrarily or capriciously. And this applies with particular force, of course to black citizens who are so often the special target of police harassment. One must respect their anxiety. But the remedy lies, we think, in maintaining a vigilantly watchful eye on police behavior rather than in denying the police a power they genuinely need for their own safety as well as for the public safety.
What year was that written?
And to put a button on it, the editorial ends with this summation of its view on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Terry v. Ohio, the case that formed the legal fig leaf for stop-and-frisk:
The rule laid down by the court seems to us to comport with the Fourth Amendment — and with the dictates of common sense.
What’s old is new again.
This isn’t good or bad. These ideas (on all sides) wouldn’t have lasted so long if they were unpopular. So the idea isn’t to ignore them. It’s just to say, be mindful. If the same old point is achieving the same old result, the answer is probably not “Do the same old thing harder.”
This week’s links
More wholesome than it sounds. From the Essential Craftsman channel on YouTube.
“A lot has changed for me over the past six months. I got married, moved cities, got a promotion, and I also bought my first gun.”
From a consistently interesting Substack called On Second Thought.
Not gun-related, but a lot of you are at the “mechanically minded x cool software x information design” intersection of interests. You’ll like this (long!) visual explainer of how a mechanical watch works.
One of you make this for an HK P7, please.
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