Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Great Gun Control War of the Twentieth Century - and Its Lessons for Gun Laws Today

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Great Gun Control War of the Twentieth Century - and Its Lessons for Gun Laws Today

Article excerpt

  I. From the Roaring Twenties to the Calm Fifties
       A. The 1920s
       B. The New Deal and World War II
       C. The 1950s
  II. Things Fall Apart
       A. 1966
       B. 1967
       C. 1968
  III. The 1970s
       A. The Rise of the Handgun Prohibition Lobbies and the
          Revolt at the NRA
       B. Handgun Prohibition Efforts in the District of
          Columbia and Massachusetts
       C. The NRA Counteroffensive, and the Growing
          Sophistication of the Gun Control Lobby
  IV. The Age of Reagan
  V. George H.W. Bush
  VI. The Clinton Era
  VII. The Re-emergence of the Second Amendment
  VIII. Columbine and the 2000 Election
  IX. The Great American Gun War Winds Down
  X. Gun Control in the Twenty-First Century
       A. No Systems Designed to Impede Responsible Gun
          Ownership and Use
       B. No Bans on Common Types of Firearms
       C. Protection of the Right of Self-Defense
       D. Judicial Protection of the Right to Licensed Carry, but
          Not to Unlicensed Concealed Carry


A movement to ban handguns began in the 1920s in the Northeast, led by the conservative business establishment. In response, the National Rifle Association (NRA) began to get involved in politics and was able to defeat handgun prohibition. Gun control and gun rights became the subjects of intense political, social, and cultural battles for much of the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Often, the battles were a clash of absolutes: One side contended that there was absolutely no right to arms, that defensive gun ownership must be prohibited, and that gun ownership for sporting purposes could be, at most, allowed as a very limited privilege. The other side asserted that the right to arms was absolute, and that any gun control laws infringed that right.

By the time that Heller and McDonald came to the Supreme Court, the battles had mostly been resolved. The Supreme Court did not break new ground, but instead reinforced what had become the American consensus: the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, especially for self-defense, is a fundamental individual right. That right, however, is not absolute. There are some gun control laws that do not violate the right, particularly laws which aim to keep guns out of the hands of people who have proven themselves to be dangerous.

In the post-Heller world, as in the post-Brown v. Board of Education world, a key role of the courts will be to enforce federal constitutional rights against some local or state jurisdictions whose extreme laws make them outliers from the national consensus.


A. The 1920s

During the nineteenth century, gun control was almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon. (1) It was concerned with keeping guns out of the hands of slaves or free blacks before the Civil War, curbing dueling, and suppressing the freedmen after the Civil War. (2) The only gun control that found favor outside the region was restricting the concealed carrying of handguns. (3) While openly carrying weapons ("open carry") was considered legitimate and constitutionally protected, concealed carrying of weapons ("concealed carry") was viewed as something that would be done only by a person who was up to no good. (4)

Towards the end of the century, fears of labor unrest led some states to enact bans on mass armed parades without a permit. (5) Early in the twentieth century, concerns about organized labor, the huge number of immigrants, and race riots in which some blacks defended themselves with firearms led non-Southern states, such as California and Michigan, to enact licensing systems or short waiting periods for handgun purchases. (6) The most famous of these early Northern controls was New York State's Sullivan Law, enacted in 1911, which required permits to own or carry handguns. (7)

During the same period, communist and anarchist groups often attempted to provoke violence. …

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