U.S. Government Tried to Tackle Gun Violence in 1960s

More than 40 years ago, Congress offered policy recommendations to address gun violence.

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An officer presents the .22 caliber Iver Johnson Cadet revolver with which Senator Robert Kennedy was shot in the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan on June 6, 1968.

Debates over gun control are not novel in this country.

At a press conference Wednesday, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spoke of a "moral obligation" to address gun violence in America following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month. The president announced new gun control measures recommended by a commission, formed by Obama and headed by Biden, that sought to address gun violence.

Among the measures were calls for better regulation of gun purchases (via universal background checks) and harsh restrictions on assault weapons.

[READ: Obama Unveils Sweeping Gun Control Plan]

In 1969, the circumstances weren't much different. A commission formed by President Lyndon Johnson issued its own policy recommendations to address gun violence, which was rising amidst the social turmoil of the time. It too recommended regulating gun purchases (by issuing identification cards for gun buyers) and restrictions on handguns.

President Lyndon Johnson delivers his State of the Union address in front of a joint session of Congress on Jan. 17, 1968. (AP Photo)

Statistics on firearms from 1969 aren't much different than today's figures. In 1969, the commission estimated that Americans owned 90 million firearms, with half of all households owning at least one weapon. In 2011, Americans owned more guns—an estimated 270 million—but around 45 percent of households had one weapon.

In 1969, the commission estimated "two out of every three homicides are committed with guns." The FBI currently estimates about 68 percent of homicides occur with a gun involved. One of the only significant differences between the two sets of recommendations is the type of firearm emphasized by each commission. Johnson's took aim at handguns, which at the time constituted a fourth of the nation's guns and 75 percent of its gun homicides. Though the current numbers are mostly the same—handguns make up about slightly more than a third of the nation's guns and 72 percent of gun homicides—Obama's commission focused on assault rifles, the type of weapon used in many of the more recent mass shootings.

In 1969, U.S. News & World Report summed up the commission's findings.


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These two stories originally appeared together in the Aug. 11, 1969, issue of U.S. News & World Report.


A Law for Gun Seizure—Chances Now

Millions of Americans will be compelled to give up their pistols if Congress passes a law proposed by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.

But Congress, it appears, is not at all likely to pass such a law—in this session, at least.

"Not a chance, none at all," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (Dem.), of Montana, when asked about the prospects of Congress accepting the Commission's plan this year.

Representatives of the Nixon Administration recently told a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee they saw no need for tighter gun laws now.

Urged: proof of need. What the Violence Commission suggested, on July 28, was this:

  • A licensing system for all handguns, with possession restricted to those who can prove they have a special need for such guns.
  • Government confiscation of all guns not licensed, with the Government paying for guns seized.
  • The text on these pages gives details of the proposed act, and the Commission's arguments for it.

    The Commission estimated that as many as 90 per cent of the 24 million handguns now owned by Americans could be seized under the rigid rules that it recommends.

    Even Senator Thomas J. Dodd (Dem.), of Connecticut, a leading gun-control advocate, said:

    "I don't think the American people are ready to go that far."

    Congress last year rejected much milder proposals for registration of guns. It passed instead a bill tightening regulations over sales of guns, barring most mail-order sales and ending imports of surplus guns.

    Now there is a move afoot, led by Senator Wallace F. Bennett (Rep.), of Utah, to soften that law by exempting most ammunition from its provisions and reducing the information required from gun buyers. Mr. Bennett said he had Administration backing for his proposal.


    "90 Million Firearms... and Rising Rapidly"

    From a statement issued July 28 by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence—

    Our Task Force on Firearms estimates that there are now about 90 million firearms in the United States. Half of the nation's 60 million households possess at least one gun, and the number of guns owned by private citizens is rising rapidly.

    During the first half of this century, about 10 million firearms on the average were added to the civilian firearms supply in each decade. In the decade since 1958, however, nearly 30 million guns have been added to the civilian stockpile.

    Moreover, the sharpest increases have occurred in the last five years—a period of urban riots and sharply rising crime rates. Annual rifle and shotgun sales have doubled since 1963. Annual handgun sales have quadrupled.

    Jeers greet Chicago police officers as they attempt to disperse demonstrators outside the Democratic Convention headquarters hotel on August 29, 1968. (AP Photo)

    Some of the increased gun sales in recent years have resulted from an increase in hunting and sport shooting, a fact consistent with the rising amount of money being spent on leisure-time activities. But these predictable increases in sales of sporting arms cannot explain the much larger increases in the sales of handguns. With a few scattered exceptions, handguns are not sporting guns.

    A substantial part of the rapidly increasing gun sales, particularly handgun sales, must be attributed to the rising fear of violence that the United States has recently experienced. Studies by our Task Force on Firearms, as well as by the Stanford Research Institute and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, show that gun sales in a particular area tend to increase sharply during and after a period of disorder.

    After the 1967 Detroit riot, for example, gun sales skyrocketed: Detroit issued four times as many handgun permits in 1968 as it did in 1965, and a nearby, predominantly white suburb issued five times as many permits.

    National Guard in the streets after the racial riots in Detroit, Michigan in July 1967. (AP Photo)

    Lending impetus to the arm's buildup are the exhortations of extremist groups, both black and white. In their speeches and publications, leaders of these groups urge their members to buy firearms and be prepared to use them against "the enemy." Neighborhood protective associations have proliferated and have sometimes come to share the fears of the right-wing paramilitary groups, with the result that firearms are now being stockpiled in homes as well as "in the hills." A new wave of American vigilantism could result from these activities.

    Further, black extremist organizations urge their members to obtain firearms for neighborhood and home defense, and sometimes for guerilla warfare and terrorist activities as well. Ironically, extremist groups, regardless of race, are remarkably alike in their attitudes toward firearms and their opposition to firearms control. [Commission's footnote: "This is not to imply that all persons who oppose additional controls are extremists."]

    Firearms and Violent Crime

    Many Americans are alarmed by the rise of violent crime in the United States, and not without reason. Personal injury and death from crime occur more often in the United States than in any other industrial nation of the world.

    Firearms are a primary instrument of injury and death in American crime. Two out of every three homicides are committed with guns. Since 1963 the number of homicides involving firearms has increased 48 per cent in the United States while the number of homicides committed with other weapons has risen only 10 per cent...

    Guns also play an increasingly deadly role in aggravated assault and robbery. In 1968, 23 per cent of all aggravated assaults were committed with guns, as opposed to only 13 per cent in 1963. One out of every three robberies (two out of every three armed robberies) is committed with a gun, and the fatality rate for victims of firearms robberies is almost four times as great as for victims of other armed robberies.

    In all these violent crimes, handguns are the weapon predominantly used. Although only slightly more than one fourth (or 24 million) of the firearms in the nation are handguns, they account for about half of all homicides and three fourths of all firearms homicides. When firearms are involved in aggravated assaults and robberies in large cities, the handgun is almost invariably the weapon used.

    Firearms and Self-Defense

    ...What are the householder's chances of successfully defending himself with a gun? In only a relatively small number of instances do home robberies or burglaries result in the death of the victim.

    Examination shows that in the great majority of cases, the householder had no warning and thus no chance to arm himself with a gun. Studies in Los Angeles and Detroit indicate that only about 2 per cent of home robberies, and two tenths of 1 per cent of home burglaries, result in the firearms death or injury of the intruder at the hands of the householder....

    Moreover, in considering the value of handguns, or firearms generally, for self-defense in the home, one must also take into account the risks associated with home possession of a gun. A substantial number of the 23,000 annual firearms accidents occur in the home. Of the 8,000 annual firearms homicides, a large percentage occur among family members or acquaintances, and many of these also occur in the home.

    From the standpoint of the individual householder, then, the self-defense firearm appears to be a dangerous investment...

    Research to date does not permit us to draw firm conclusion as to the net usefulness of self-defense firearms possessed by store owners and other businessmen. We do know, however, that business self-defense firearms do not cause the great number of accidents caused by home firearms or involve the same risk of homicide to family members and friends. Thus, the home and the business establishment must be clearly distinguished from each other when considering the usefulness of firearms for self-defense.

    Firearms Control in the U.S.

    ...Our lack of an effective national firearms policy is primarily the result of our culture's casual attitude toward firearms and its heritage of the armed, self-reliant citizen. These are the factors that have prevented passage of effective gun-regulation legislation in the United States. Guns are routinely carried in pockets and left in closets, corners, and bureau drawers.

    In many parts of the country, they are standard equipment in pickup trucks and small businesses. Nearly 15 million licensed hunters make extensive use of firearms for sporting purposes. The hero of American movies and television is the man with a gun—the soldier, cowboy, spy, sheriff, or criminal—and our children accumulate an arsenal of toy guns. Accustomed to firearms, convinced that they are household necessities ... many Americans underestimate the consequences of widespread firearms availability.

    Some argue that with 90 million firearms in our country, no system of control will prevent persons from obtaining guns and using them illegally. The criminal, they declare, can always get a gun. The argument is not without merit, for it points the way to the steps which must be taken.

    Our studies have convinced us that the heart of any effective national firearms policy for the United States must be to reduce the availability of the firearm that contributes the most to violence.

    This means restrictive licensing of the handgun. We believe, on the basis of all the evidence before us, that reducing the availability of the handgun will reduce firearms violence.

    Recommendations

    ... We recommend federal legislation to encourage the establishment of State licensing systems for handguns. The federal legislation would introduce a federal system of handgun licensing, applicable only to those States which within a four-year period fail to enact a State law that (1) establishes a standard for determining an individual's need for a handgun and for the licensing of an individual who shows such a need and (2) prohibits all others from possessing handguns or buying handgun ammunition.

    We propose that the States be permitted to determine for themselves what constitutes "need" to own a handgun. For the federal system applicable to States which fail to enact their own licensing systems, we recommend that determinations of need be limited to police officers and security guards, small business in high crime areas, and others with a special need for self-protection. At least in major metropolitan areas, the federal system should not consider normal household self-protection a sufficient showing of need to have a handgun.

    We also recommend that a system of federal administrative or judicial review be established to assure that each State system is administered fairly and does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or other unconstitutional grounds.

    We note that it will be necessary to compensate those handgun owners who are required to give up previously lawful firearms; this cost, which should be borne by the Federal Government, could amount to 500 million dollars.

    Finally, we emphasize that laws controlling handguns should provide serious penalties for the possession of such guns by unlicensed persons. The: apprehension of such persons should in time greatly reduce the rate of violent crime in the United States...

    • We recommend federal legislation to establish minimum standards for State regulation of long guns under which (1) an identification card would be required for long-gun owners and purchasers of long-gun ammunition—a system similar to that recommended by gun manufacturers—and (2) any person 18 and over would be entitled to such a card, except certain classes of criminals and adjudicated incompetents. For States which do not adopt such regulations within four years, a federal regulatory system would be established.
    • We do not recommend federal legislation to require nationwide registration of existing long guns. Substantially the same benefits could be obtained from less costly and burdensome control strategies.
    • We do recommend that persons who transfer long guns be required to fill out a single card giving the serial number, type, make, and model of the weapon, the transferee's Social Security and firearms identification card numbers, the transferor's name and Social Security number and the date of the transaction...
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