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Bang! Bang! You're Dead
Martin Kane
March 18, 1968
Bonnie and Clyde have given the burgeoning cult of violence a campy stylishness, and a lot of Americans are going out and buying guns—not necessarily for sport. With the long hot summer just ahead, has the right to bear arms become outmoded? This question has brought much rhetoric, but here is a careful study—and specific recommendations
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March 18, 1968

Bang! Bang! You're Dead

Bonnie and Clyde have given the burgeoning cult of violence a campy stylishness, and a lot of Americans are going out and buying guns—not necessarily for sport. With the long hot summer just ahead, has the right to bear arms become outmoded? This question has brought much rhetoric, but here is a careful study—and specific recommendations

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Then President Kennedy was assassinated, with a mailorder rifle. The Senator thereupon added control of rifles and shotguns to his bill. Even this was reluctantly approved by the NRA, but only after Dodd had agreed to withdraw a provision requiring authentication of such sales by police, which to the NRA smacked of a step toward registration that could in turn lead to confiscation.

Dodd's latest version would prohibit the mail-order sale of firearms, including shotguns and rifles, to individuals; forbid an individual to travel outside his state of residence to buy a handgun; restrict imports of military weapons and nonsporting firearms, including handguns; require that a purchaser of a handgun be 21 but need be only 18 to buy a rifle or shotgun; and put stringent control on "destructive devices" like mortars and bazookas.

While some of the provisions, such as the last one, were quite all right with the NRA, the association objected strenuously to argumentative assertions in the presentation of the bill to the effect that ease in obtaining firearms "is a significant factor in the prevalence of lawlessness and violent crime in the United States." Dodd and the NRA then parted company.

The bill is now before the full Judiciary Committee of the Senate, which can send it to the floor or kill it. Dodd's subcommittee approved the bill by a squeaky 5-4 vote, and so far there has been no strong indication that the full committee will report it out, even though it has been said President Johnson, in an effort to get action and to meet objections from states with large rural populations, arranged to weaken the bill. Dodd and his committee then added a provision that states could exempt themselves from the ban against mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns to individuals. Representatives of the more rural states had protested that sportsmen, ranchers and farmers who mostly bought their guns by mail would be vastly inconvenienced.

NRA members have had great success in impressing state legislatures with their letter-writing campaigns against antigun laws. Often accused of being a powerful lobby, though it is not so registered, the NRA coolly if unconvincingly denies the charge and, technically, it does not fit the legal definition of a lobby. "We don't lobby," one official explains, "but, thank God, our members do." The organization, which says it is supported by the $5 annual dues of its members, describes itself as the "foremost guardian of the American tradition and constitutional right of citizens to 'keep and bear arms.' " There are 925,000 NRA members, 100,000 of whom are life members who elect the board of directors. The board, in turn, elects a president. Harold W. Glassen, the current president, is a Michigan lawyer, sportsman and conservationist. The NRA and its magazine, The American Rifleman, declare its purposes are "to educate public-spirited citizens in the safe and efficient use of small arms for pleasure and protection; to foster firearms accuracy and safety in law-enforcement agencies, in the armed services and among citizens subject to military duty; and to further the public welfare and national defense." The NRA sponsors shooting clubs and is the governing body of U.S. competitive rifle and pistol shooting. It is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee. With notable success it has initiated and provided instructors in hunter-safety training courses.

The NRA was founded in 1871, under a charter granted by the State of New York, "to promote rifle practice and for this purpose to provide a suitable range or ranges in the vicinity of New York...and to promote the introduction of a system of aiming drill and target firing among the National Guard of New York and the militia of other states." This was at a time when the National Guard was well trained in the manual of arms and could march brilliantly, but, as Colonel William Conant Church observed, could hardly hope to compete with those sloppy marchers, the British Volunteers, in the use of rifles as shooting weapons. At 1,000 yards, any Volunteer could put bullet after bullet into a man-size target. The best American marksmen of the day regarded 600 yards as the ultimate practical range. It was also a time when no ammunition was allocated for rifle practice in the U.S. Army, just as today policemen in many cities are required to buy the ammunition they use in revolver practice. The NRA was formed to cure the then military condition of indifference to the use of available weapons, and it has been remarkably successful, despite opposition to its aims—and sometimes to its methods. In time, its interests became more sporting than military, but even when it was concerned almost solely with national defense it came under attack. Governor Alonzo B. Cornell of New York fired the first shot in 1880.

"There will be no war in my time or in the time of my children," he advised General George W. Wingate, NRA vice-president, 18 years before the Spanish-American War. "The only need for a National Guard is to show itself in parades and ceremonies. I see no reason for them to learn to shoot if their only function will be to march a little through the streets. Rifle practice for these men is a waste of money, and I shall not countenance in my presence anything as foolish as a discussion of the rifle shooting at Creedmoor." (The NRA had established its first rifle range at that convenient Long Island location.)

Eighty-seven years later, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, urging the abandonment of the National Rifle Matches at Camp Perry—which are supervised by the NRA and regarded by its members as the World Series of their sport—observed that proficiency in the use of the rifle seemed to be of little value in "this nuclear age," an estimate of the situation that must have raised many a quizzical eyebrow among veterans of Korea and among soldiers now fighting in Vietnam without nuclear weapons. Even so, Senator Kennedy and others were successful in persuading the Department of Defense to withdraw its support of the 1968 matches. The NRA, going it alone, will hold them anyhow in August. The matches used to draw 7,000 competitors, one of whom, a marine, had at last report scored 75 kills in Vietnam with the same type Winchester Model 70 he had used in the matches, all at such extreme range that no enemy soldier could hope to retaliate.

The point, of course, is that moves to "regulate" ownership of rifles or shotguns are in no way related to their worth in modern war, which can scarcely be questioned. Even shotguns have been used in commando operations. Such moves are related to the fact that, from time to time, innocent people are killed by rifles and shotguns.

Laws that have been proposed so far, including Senator Dodd's restrictive bill, would not have prevented either Whitman or Lee Harvey Oswald from getting weapons. Had it been necessary for Whitman to apply to police for permission to acquire his collection of guns, it is all but certain that he, an honorably discharged marine and a good student, would have received it. The police are scarcely qualified to detect latent psychosis.

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