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OSD 245: The free and untrammeled revolver
This cartoon appeared in the December 14, 1881 edition of Puck magazine, a few months after James Garfield’s assassination:
(Side note, there’s a fun gallery of other Puck cartoons here.)
Clockwise from the top-left, the arguments are:
Unscrupulous gun dealers will sell guns to anyone, no questions asked.
Kids are way too exposed to guns, and they also have far too much access to
social mediafrivolous magazines.
Police are the only ones who should have guns, but they misuse them.
Young men think it’s cool to carry a gun.
The overall argument in the title — “A Dangerous American Institution: The Free and Untrammeled Revolver” — is that American gun ownership is unregulated and aberrant compared to the rest of the world.
And lastly there’s the implicit argument that the problem is one type of particularly scary firearm.
It turns out there aren’t any novel arguments about guns. From “OSD 168: There’s nothing new under the gun”:
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.
If people were making the same arguments about the guns of 1881 and 1934 as they make today about 3D-printed guns, then it’s a safe bet that there aren’t going to be any novel arguments on this topic in the foreseeable future.
That’s not good or bad. It’s just something to be aware of. Engaging on the same old level is going to get the same old results. Success requires changing the game.
This week’s links
Fun old Arfcom post. Thanks to Discord user @BakerEasy for the tip.
Federal judge strikes New York City’s “good moral character” and “good cause” requirements for handgun possession permits
The City has appealed to the Second Circuit.
From the article:
“Is there something new that hasn’t been done?” Mr. Bonta said. “That’s what we’re asking ourselves.”
The politician's syllogism, also known as the politician's logic or the politician's fallacy, is a logical fallacy of the form:
We must do something.
This is something.
Therefore, we must do this.
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