New York Banned Handguns 100 Years Ago ... Will We Ever See that Kind of Gun Control Again?

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Daniel Platt is a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. He is studying early twentieth-century history.

This month New York’s Sullivan Law enters its hundredth year, and while no birthday parties have been scheduled for the legislation that ten decades ago turned handgun ownership in the Empire State from a right to a privilege, its centennial provides a timely occasion to reflect on the past and future of gun control in America.

The Sullivan Law was born out of a set of circumstances eerily similar to our own recent history.  On August 9, 1910, William Gaynor, the popular Democratic mayor of New York City, was shot in the neck as he waited to board a steamship in Hoboken, New Jersey.  His assailant, a disgruntled New York dockworker named John J. Gallagher, was immediately wrestled to the ground by bystanders and quickly taken into police custody.  Gaynor, who insisted he was well enough to embark on his vacation, was rushed to a nearby hospital and patched up by a team of surgeons who proclaimed his condition stable.

In the weeks that followed, journalists and social critics struggled to make sense of what seemed to be such senseless violence.  Some observers attributed the whole affair to mental illness, arguing that Gallagher was crazy and that his crime was no more than the confused, tragic outburst of a madman.  Others disagreed, asserting that the attempted assassination was a symptom of a diseased society.  Gallagher, these progressives insisted, was the unadulterated embodiment of America’s selfish national culture.  Even the recovering Gaynor chimed in, blaming the attack on the vitriolic yellow press—particularly the sensationalist Hearst newspapers—that had poisoned the populace against him.

If this story sounds familiar, it should.  Up to a point, the Gaynor shooting and the attempted assassination of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords this past winter shared a fairly similar script:  a public attack, followed by a debate over the assailant’s sanity, and a parade of commentators faulting culture and the media as the source of the violence.

But in the winter of 1910 and the spring of 1911, the two tales diverged as a new explanation for the shooting emerged and gained valuable converts amongst New York’s political elite.  The problem was handguns, the public’s infuriatingly easy access to small, concealable handguns!  That was the message put into the papers by the Legislation League for the Conservation of Human Life, that was the message campaigned on by State Senator Timothy D. Sullivan, the burly and infamous Tammany Democrat, and that was the message supported by 46 (of 51) senators and 123 (of 130) assemblymen who voted for a bill that would make it illegal for any individual to purchase a handgun without a police-issued license in the state of New York.  The Sullivan Law, as it was known, took effect September 1, 1911.

For those who have been keeping score at home, the aftermath of Giffords’s shooting has followed a somewhat different trajectory.  The proposed national ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, which received support from President Obama and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has stalled in committee in both the House and the Senate.  The Arizona legislature has passed two bills relaxing restrictions on guns in public places and college campuses—measures that were eventually vetoed by Republican governor Jan Brewer.  Dozens of states have made it easier for students and the mentally ill to purchase firearms and carry them just about wherever they like, including bars and public libraries, and in March, Utah selected the M1911 pistol to be its official state gun.

The question all of this leads to, of course, is what made Timothy Sullivan’s time so different from our own?  Why has the pendulum swung so far away from meaningful gun reform?

One answer is the National Rifle Association.  In 1911, the NRA was little more than a marksmanship club, dedicated to improving its membership’s shooting prowess and, hence, the nation’s military preparedness.  It had neither the political organization nor the political consciousness to mount any kind of defense of gun rights.  Since the 1960s, however, it has ranked amongst the nation’s most powerful lobby groups, stymieing regulators at the state and federal levels with predictable success.

Another answer is the Democratic Party, which dominated Albany in 1911.  These Dems were eager to shed their earlier hands-off libertarianism and define themselves as defenders of public welfare and guardians of the common good.  They were keen on showing off what government could do to improve the lives of ordinary people and, with crime rates escalating across the city and the state, the Sullivan Law offered it a key opportunity to cement this new image—an image today’s Democrats seem to regard as a burden.

But perhaps the most important difference between then and now is that the Sullivan Law’s advocates refused to cede rights talk to the other side.  Against the protests of the nascent gun lobby, the law’s advocates argued that the public’s right to safety from muggers and stray bullets trumped the rights of gun makers, gun sellers, and gun owners.

Now, the logic that the best protected citizen is an armed citizen reduces safety to a privilege, earned by those willing to endure the costs and the risks of owning their own gun.

In 1970, amazed that the preceding decade of unremitting gun violence had not produced more significant weapons legislation, the historian Richard Hofstadter wondered why “the United States alone among industrial societies [had clung] to the idea that a substantially unregulated supply of guns among its city populations is a safe and acceptable thing?”  This September marks the hundredth birthday of a moment when that idea didn’t burn so bright.  Will anyone blow out its candles?

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