With passage of the Brady Bill and subsequent focus on assault weapons, the issue of gun control has returned to the public spotlight. Both opponents and advocates of gun control have used the heightened interest and increased media attention to advance their cases. For those familiar with the history of gun control in the United States, the current process invokes a certain sense of deja vu. In addition to having the most lenient, but complex, firearms laws in the industrialized world, the United States has been unique in the level and duration of controversy over gun policy (Zimring and Hawkins, 1987; Kopel, 1992). Some have viewed this as resulting from the role that guns played in American history (Hofstadter, 1970). An examination of the policy history reveals more about the American political process than about our romance with guns. It is a history that confirms our deep commitment to pluralism and incrementalism, while raising questions regarding their utility. Rather than a politics-administration dichotomy, one discovers complex entanglements of policy formulation and implementation and a conflict over symbols and language that has produced a stalemate resembling an iron triangle in effect if not design.
The history of gun control can be divided into at least five distinct eras beginning with the passage of the Sullivan Law in New York in 1909 and ending with the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993. A sixth era is added by some researchers to cover the efforts of southern states to deny firearms to blacks after the Civil War (Kates, 1979).
Gun control, as a policy applicable to the general population, began in 1909 with New York State's Sullivan Law, which mandated permits for the possession of handguns. Passed in an era when the prohibition of drugs and alcoholic beverages was being widely advocated, the law was a result of these influences, as well as fear of crime and the increased population of new immigrants (Sugarmann, 1992; 171-179). New York police have used the law to deny handgun access to all but the most influential citizens, particularly in New York City. This highly restrictive approach to implementation has provided a model for control advocates and a rallying point for opponents (Vizzard, 1993; 134).
Federal Government Enters the Field
After a 1927 effort to control interstate shipment of handguns by prohibiting their shipment by mail, but not common carrier, Congress first addressed the gun issue more seriously in 1934. Attorney General Homer Cummings proposed a bill that would control all firearms, other than sporting rifles and shotguns, through a transfer tax and registration scheme modeled after the Harrison Narcotics Act. In both House and Senate hearings on the bill, it was opposed by the NRA, numerous sportsmen's associations, and the firearms industry (Leff and Leff, 1981).
A compromise was reached that excluded handguns and semi-automatic rifles from the bill (Sugarmann, 1992; 33). The National Firearms Act (NFA) was enacted in 1934 and required registration and a transfer tax only on so-called gangster-type weapons, including machine guns, silencers, and sawed-off rifles and shotguns. Although the bill had the backing of the administration and a few powerful members of Congress, southern and western lawmakers generally opposed controls and little national attention appears to have been focused on the issue (Vizzard, 1993; 174-176).
The administration continued to pursue more restrictive legislation under the interstate commerce authority. In 1938, Congress finally passed the Federal Firearms Act (FFA), which required licensing of gun dealers and their maintenance of sales records but lacked mechanics for enforcement. Hearing records indicate that the bill was primarily drafted by the NRA as an effort to prevent more restrictive legislation (Kennett and Anderson, 1975; 192-193; Sugarmann, 1992; 30). Crime rates began a decline in 1934 that would continue for almost three decades, and the limited public and congressional interest in gun control abated. …