When a couple armed with assault rifles slaughtered 14 people at a holiday gathering in San Bernardino, California, this month, U.S. gun control advocates saw an opportunity. President Barack Obama lamented that "in America it’s way too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun" and said making it harder was the only right response.
Within a day, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected an expansion of background checks for gun buyers and defeated a law barring individuals on the terror watch list from purchasing firearms. Before the Christmas break, an effort to lift a 17-year-old ban on nearly all government research into gun violence was also defeated.
The origins of this familiar impasse lie in a congressional battle nearly five decades ago following some of the most traumatic political assassinations in the country’s history: a president, his brother and two civil-rights leaders. The White House pushed — and failed — to require that guns be licensed and gun owners registered right after the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
"The template was established in the 1960s," said Joseph Califano, chief domestic affairs adviser to President Lyndon Johnson. "With all the clout we had, we couldn’t do it."
Trust in Government
Former officials and scholars say that the attempt in the late 1960s is instructive because even at a high point of trust in government, gun legislation failed. In years since, the National Rifle Association, which lobbied against the bills, has risen to become one of the strongest lobbies in Washington.
Johnson took office after President John Kennedy was killed in November 1963 and was famous for his legendary powers of persuasion. He had historic victories on civil rights, anti-poverty programs and health care for the poor and elderly. On guns, however, he was mostly thwarted.
Congress did approve the Gun Control Act of 1968, restricting mail-order sales that had put the rifle in the hands of Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, five years earlier. As he signed the law, Johnson railed against those who opposed his effort.
"If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we must have licensing," Johnson said at the October 1968 signing ceremony, words that few U.S. political leaders would utter in public today. "The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby."
Obama’s regulatory aims are far less ambitious — strengthening background checks for all gun sales, banning military style assault weapons and limiting magazines to a capacity of 10 rounds. He too has been consistently blocked. There are as many guns in the country today as there are people.
Before passing that 1968 law, Congress had little experience with gun control. Two laws in the 1930s, in response to gangland killings and urban violence, imposed taxes on gun manufacturers and governed the interstate commerce of firearms. President Kennedy’s assassination was followed by the murder of civil-rights advocate Malcolm X in 1965. Then came King in April 1968 and Robert Kennedy two months later.
"It was a big step to get anything," said Benjamin Zelenko, a Washington attorney who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1962 to 1973. He has a framed copy of the 1968 law hanging on a wall in his Pennsylvania Avenue office, along with a pen Johnson used to sign it.
Bills to ban mail-order guns of the type used to kill President Kennedy had languished until 1968, he said, largely due to opposition from the South and West, a sentiment that continues today. Johnson’s push to license owners and register guns angered the National Rifle Association, setting in motion an enduring storm of resistance.
National Rifle Association
"This was their wake-up call," said Zelenko. "This marked the beginning of the NRA really getting involved."
Another parallel involves how high a priority gun control was and how strong a lobby backed it. Just as the Obama administration is more focused on terrorism and the economy, gun regulation was never at center stage in Johnson’s legislative agenda.
"With gun regulation, it wasn’t like civil rights and voting rights," Zelenko said. "Churches played a very active role in civil rights, and so did labor. There wasn’t that kind of unified support behind gun bills."
Indeed, the morning after the King assassination, Califano said Johnson told him it was an opportunity — for a bill banning housing discrimination.
"He said we’re going to get something out of this tragedy," Califano recalled Johnson saying. "We did not think about gun control at that point."
Licensing and Registration
After the Kennedy assassination two months later, Johnson decided the opportunity was ripe for licensing and registration. Lawmakers refused to extend their embrace of government solutions for civil rights and poverty to regulating guns, however.
An assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981 revived gun control efforts which took a dozen years. In 1993, when Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was president, Congress approved a five-day waiting period for background review of gun purchasers. Exemptions have since been added and the wait shortened. Congress also approved an assault weapons ban in 1994 but ended the ban in 2004.
Gun sales are growing in the wake of the recent shootings. The FBI says that it ran more than 2.2 million firearm background checks on potential gun buyers last month, up 24 percent over the same period in 2014.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, said social changes in the 1960s produced fear, and that fed resistance to government regulation, including gun control.
"This is very much a fear-driven issue right now, and it convinces people that they have to carry guns themselves," Webster said. "There’s a sense that government is ill-equipped to make us safe, that you can’t count on government to do much of anything."
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