Columns » Ernest Dumas

Gun history



It all seems so urgent yet so pointless, this umpteenth national catharsis over gun slaughter: children and parents wailing for action by Congress and legislatures, followed by hesitant and often laughable ideas from the president and others about how to stop it. From President Trump, it's filling up more mental institutions but cutting funding for them, maybe or maybe not raising the age for kids to buy weapons, and putting Glocks in the blouses of schoolmarms.

The great emotional purge after the Florida school slaughter will end like all the others, empty of real results. Foreigners know us best. Dan Hodges, a writer for the British paper The Mail, wrote last year that it had been evident since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 when Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 children and adults and then himself, that the country would do nothing about it.

"Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over," he wrote. The country's love of guns was stronger than concern about the safety of kids.

He was right about the state of polity but a little off about the reasons. The general public for many years has overwhelmingly favored banning civil purchases of rapid-fire military weapons that are used in most of the massacres and other regulatory steps to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. But for most lawmakers, at least in the South and Midwest, political safety lies not with pacifying queasy mothers and children but the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups that spend tens of millions every election cycle to see that their stewards in Washington and statehouses don't quail at images of slain and crying children.

See how many Arkansas politicians, from Governor Hutchinson to our Washington delegation, say they will support banning mass-killing weapons. None, I will wager. Hutchinson hired out to the NRA before he was governor. Congressman French Hill of Little Rock leads Congress in gun money.

They say they are concerned about "Second Amendment issues." There are no Second Amendment issues on assault weapons. In the only Supreme Court decision in history saying that the Second Amendment entitled people to keep guns for home protection unconnected with militia service, the author, Antonin Scalia, went out of his way to make it clear that government could and perhaps should regulate gun ownership, including the kinds of guns people can own for self-protection.

Scalia spent thousands of words in a twisting linguistic argument to suggest that while the Second Amendment's clear purpose was to prevent Congress from outlawing citizen militias it also protected people's right to own some kind of firearm to protect the home, subject to government restrictions.

Gun regulation has been our history, particularly in the South, until the past 35 years, when the NRA turned from supporting to opposing regulation after the munitions industry took over the organization and persuaded millions of paranoids there was a massive conspiracy to confiscate their guns.

Before the Civil War, Southern states barred blacks, both slaves and freemen, from owning guns. After the war, the states adopted the Black Codes that commonly barred black men from having firearms. Militias and posses enforced it until Congress passed the Freedmen's Act.

As late as the 1920s, during the brief ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan, the Arkansas legislature passed and the governor signed an act requiring everyone to pay a dollar and get a permit every year from the county clerk for any firearm. The clerk was to determine who was worthy of a gun and, of course, he was not to issue permits to blacks. But the lawmakers underestimated the fury of people who had to pay a dollar every year and beseech the clerk for a permit. The legislature later repealed the law.

The NRA supported laws like Arkansas's in those days. The NRA's principal reforms were to require a police permit to carry a concealed weapon and for gun dealers to report all handgun sales to the government, which would keep a registry. When the Black Panthers began to tote rifles around the streets of big cities in the 1960s, conservative Republicans in Washington and the states passed gun-control laws to stop it. The NRA testified for banning mail-order gun sales after President Kennedy's assassination.

Your congressmen will say guns are not the problem but crazy people. A 2015 study estimated that only 4 percent of American gun deaths, which are the highest among countries not riven by war, are attributable to mental-health issues. Other advanced countries, including European countries at high risk of terrorist attacks, don't experience regular civilian massacres. The U.S. has 4.4 percent of the world's population but since 1966 it has had nearly 35 percent of the world's mass shooters. But guns are not the problem?

If Trump says arm schoolmarms, Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) will introduce the bill, the legislature will pass it and Hutchinson will sign it.

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