Gun Control's Complicated History

By Carl Cannon, RealClearPolitics - February 1, 2013

It’s not just Piers Morgan’s obsession: Europeans simply do not understand Americans’ fixation with possessing our own firearms. But that’s really not new. Gun control was the flashpoint that launched the first shots in the Revolutionary War.

In the spring of 1775, British Gen. Thomas Gage decided to seize the Americans’ cache of rifles, artillery, and ammunition stored by the Massachusetts militia in Concord. The night of April 18, he ordered two companies of redcoats on the march. Before the sun came up, America and Great Britain were at war.

Chased back to Boston, the British were surrounded at Bunker Hill. When Gen. Gage tried to break the siege, the surrounding American militiamen broke his army. Of the 2,400 British troops originally stationed in the city, half would be killed or wounded by mid-June. The Americans would turn to George Washington, a onetime comrade-in-arms of Gage’s, to prosecute their war of liberation. The British general would be recalled to England.

Thomas Gage, in other words, was the first person in authority on these shores who would gravely underestimate Americans’ attachment to their guns. And though it’s too glib to say we’ve been arguing about gun control ever since, this issue has cut deeply in this country for a long time -- in both directions.

Some days it seems that the debate over the right to bear arms has not changed in 238 years. Yet, this week, the citizens of this republic were witness to a singular -- and singularly poignant -- spectacle: former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ appearance Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Her words labored because of a brain injury sustained when a stranger opened fire in a Tucson shopping mall two years ago this month, Giffords told the Senate panel that speaking was difficult but that she had something important to say. “Violence is a big problem,” she said. “Too many children are dying. Too many children.”

This winter, the unfathomable carnage wrought in an elementary school in Connecticut -- following recent mass murders in a suburban Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin -- has rekindled the debate over guns with a passion and a purpose not seen in many years.

It seems that this should have happened two years ago, in January 2011, when Giffords was grievously wounded and six people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl named Christina Taylor-Green.

The crime was shocking in all of its details: Young Christina was born on 9/11, and had a famous grandfather (former Phillies manager Dallas Green). Giffords was a popular figure in Washington and Arizona -- and her husband was an astronaut at the time. At least two of the adults who died that day did so shielding loved ones. Another victim was a highly regarded federal judge.

The shooter was an untethered schizophrenic with no connection to any of the families he devastated. He fired 33 shots in less than 30 seconds, hitting 19 people with his easily obtainable 9mm Glock pistol, accessorized with high-capacity magazines banned by a 1994 statute that had lapsed 10 years later. The thought that the Glock’s high-capacity features increased the body count is more than conjecture -- the killer was subdued when he paused to reload.

So why didn’t this carnage have more of an impact on the gun control debate? Two factors came into play. The first was the reflexive impulse of liberal commentators and prominent Democrats to spin the tragedy for partisan advantage, essentially pinning blame for the mass murder on Sarah Palin and other conservatives.

This tactic was counterproductive on several levels. For starters, it was factually wrong. The shooter, Jared Loughner, had no discernable political views -- and the other politician he hated in addition to Giffords was George W. Bush. And such mean-spirited attacks on Republicans only hardened partisan policy lines instead of allowing for common ground to materialize.

The other reason is that public opinion regarding gun laws simply didn’t budge after that tragedy -- just as it remained static after the horrifying 2007 mass murder at Virginia Tech. That crime was also committed by an unstable young man with a Glock, a weapon quite properly described by the Washington-based Violence Policy Center as “efficient killing machines.”

But if the Glock semiautomatic is one constant in these killings, so is mental illness.

At Pima Community College, Jared Loughner had a history of run-ins with staff and students, who came to view him as a menace. One classmate predicted presciently that he half-expected him to show up one day “with an automatic weapon.” Campus police were called on five separate occasions, one of his professors was wary of turning his back on him in class, and administrators finally barred him from Pima until he received a mental health clearance assuring them that he was not “a danger to himself or others.”

The signs that mass killer Seung-Hui Cho was a ticking time bomb dated to middle school. His Northern Virginia high school disclosed nothing to Virginia Tech, citing privacy laws, the same screen the university’s officials hid behind even after Cho had murdered 32 people and wounded 17.

Long before then, he had frightened numerous students and teachers in Blacksburg. He photographed co-eds’ legs under their desks, wrote obscene and violent poetry, was warned by campus police in at least two stalking incidents, and alarmed two professors so much they reported him to the administration. One instructor removed him from her class for writing and behavior that she described as “menacing” and “intimidating.” Male roommates instructed female students not to visit their dorm when he was around.

Yet because he’d never been adjudicated as mentally ill in a court of law, Cho passed a background check when he purchased his .22 caliber Walther semiautomatic pistol and the deadly and ubiquitous Glock 19.

The latter was designed in the 1980s by an Austrian engineer named Gaston Glock, a man who truly built a better -- and deadlier -- mousetrap.

His firearms were lighter than handguns normally used by police in the U.S. (typically a Smith & Wesson snub-nose .38 or a .357 Magnum) and had half as many parts. Because it is so much lighter, the gun has less recoil, which makes its more accurate, and it can hold 17 bullets instead of the six or seven in the average revolver.

In 1986, after Miami bank robber wielding a semiautomatic carbine killed two FBI agents even after being shot five times, street cops in this country began clamoring for better weaponry. Gaston Glock, whose talents extended beyond firearm design to mass marketing, was on the case. Offering discounts to law enforcement agencies, his semiautomatic pistols gained a foothold among police agencies before spreading to the vastly larger civilian market.

“Police departments were amazed when they took their officers out to the range and found out not only could they learn to use the Glock pretty quickly, the Glock also made them more accurate as marksmen,” noted Paul Barrett, a journalist who wrote a book about the gun.

Cops weren’t the only ones who noticed. What was going on in the streets of this country during the drug wars of the 1980s resembled an arms race. And the Glock got an unexpected public relations boost from the movie “Die Hard 2,” in which tough police detective John McClane actually talks about the gun.

“That punk pulled a Glock 7 on me,” says the detective, played by Bruce Willis. “You know what that is? It’s a porcelain gun made in Germany. Doesn’t show up on your airport X-ray machines, and it cost more than you make in a month.”

Every statement describing the Glock in that scene is wrong, including the implication that bad guys had the Glock before cops had heard of it. But this is where the Second Amendment comes into play.

The right to bear firearms, if it is a right -- and if that right is derived from the U.S. Constitution -- is not a right to hunt deer or go skeet-shooting. The right, as it’s understood by Second Amendment proponents, exists so that Americans can protect themselves from common criminals, yes, but also from an overreaching or tyrannical central government.

This line of argument gets dicey pretty fast. Seeking to undermine its logic on one of his recent gun-themed programs, CNN’s Piers Morgan -- whose gun control sympathies are no secret -- baited two pro-gun activists by asking them if they believe the Constitution allows them to have a tank.

In one sense this is farce. Yet in ways understood by gun rights advocates, ordinary Americans’ access to the same firepower as the police or military is precisely the point of the Second Amendment. Not everyone agrees, but this much is true: In the 1960s and 1970s, this very point was made by armed anti-war radicals, liberal activists, and proponents of black power.

Nor is the idea that there is some measure of safety in owning your own firearm limited to those who fear the federal government, either.

“I have a Glock 9 millimeter and I’m a pretty good shot,” one prominent woman born in that era proclaimed in 2010. The speaker’s name was Gabby Giffords.

Tomorrow: Part 2 -- Founding Fathers vs. Today’s Lawmakers 

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