No matter how bad mass shootings get, no matter how much the stomach-churning scenes from Las Vegas play across our televisions this week, Congress simply will not act.
The massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook gave rise to the Moms Demand Action grass-roots movement for gun control, but even they could not force Congress into action. The Republican majority’s inaction in the face of this tragedy is striking evidence of the National Rifle Association’s enormous influence on Capitol Hill.
But if we are to take lawmakers at their word, one more principled reason they have not passed new gun control legislation is because gun control laws don’t work. Only a day after the horrific murder of scores of people in Las Vegas, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders invoked this reasoning when she explained, “One of the things we don’t want to do, is to try to create laws that won’t stop these types of things from happening.” Look at Chicago, she continued. It has “the strictest gun laws in the country and that certainly hasn’t helped there.”
Put another way, Sanders believes that there is just something about Americans that means that some will get guns and will murder their fellow citizens. That’s just who we are, apparently.
Much of the story of gun control in America has played out from the New Deal to the present, with Congress enacting major legislation after the advent of the “Tommy gun” in the 1930s, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
But a long-lost episode from America’s earliest days illustrates that even in the nation’s infancy, politicians wrestled with the problem of firearms, both in terms of the scope of federal authority and of a mythic American exceptionalism that purportedly marked the outer limits of the power of law when it comes to guns.
Like so much of American politics in these years, the story began with the Haitian Revolution. In 1791, black revolutionaries rose up against French colonizers in a conflict that lasted for more than a decade.
Many white Americans watching from afar feared that the Haitian Revolution would spread north and lead to a massive slave rebellion. But while the fear of racial apocalypse infected some, an equally well-established desire for profit captured others. American merchants understood that war-torn markets, starved for basic supplies and luxury goods alike, could mean big bucks for them.
Alas, France did not want American merchants to trade with the Haitian rebels. So in 1804, the French navy blockaded Haitian ports. American merchants responded by arming their vessels and shooting their way through the blockade. As the New York Chamber of Commerce put it, “whether at home” or “upon the ocean,” the American man “has believed that he may lawfully carry arms, in self-defense.”
Though it took a bit of money and some serious carpentry to mount cannons on a merchant vessel, colonial Americans had done so for much of the 18th century. But in the new United States, private armed vessels seemed both unnecessary and unwarranted. After all, private citizens attacking foreign nationals could spell big trouble for the young, somewhat fragile nation.
In 1794, Congress passed a law that prohibited Americans from arming vessels if they had an “intent” to attack citizens of countries at peace with the United States, especially France and Great Britain. In 1795 and 1797, Presidents George Washington and John Adams used administrative measures to order federal customs officers to detain private armed vessels because the ships failed Congress’s intent test: The very fact of being armed during a time of peace suggested hostile “intentions.”
Fast forward to 1804, when American merchants were arming their vessels to trade with Haitian revolutionaries. Thomas Jefferson, a committed francophile, was now president. After the French diplomatic corps protested loudly about armed Americans roaming the seas, Jefferson used his 1804 State of the Union address to call for congressional action.
“Complaints have been received that persons residing within the United States have taken on themselves to arm merchant vessels and to force a commerce,” Jefferson wrote. “That individuals should undertake to wage private war, independently of the authority of their own country, can not be permitted in a well-ordered society.” Ultimately, these loose cannons would “endanger the peace.” It was time for Congress to “adopt measures for restraining it effectually in future.”
As he awaited congressional action, Jefferson tried to use executive authority to solve the problem — even though he had entered the presidency believing that the executive branch did not have the authority “to permit or forbid, at his pleasure the arming of vessels.” But the Haiti crisis forced a reevaluation, lest profit driven American merchants spawn a diplomatic crisis or, worse, a war with the French.
In the summer of 1804, Jefferson concocted a plan with a Philadelphia customs officer to require merchants wishing to arm to sign a promise not to attack any foreign vessel under penalty of hefty fine. But District Judge Richard Peters quickly quashed this plan, leaving the matter to Congress.
Instead of passing a strict prohibition, Congress, at the behest of powerful lobbyists for commercial interests, passed a toothless law that simply authorized armaments “merely for resistance and defence.”
Conveniently for the traders, the law’s primary author, Sen. Samuel Smith of Maryland, had made his fortune as a West Indies merchant, and had the ear of many of his colleagues who were themselves merchants or bosom buddies with commercial interests and uninterested in damaging their profit margins.
After a year, Sen. George Logan of Pennsylvania conceded that the law had, if anything, allowed the armed Haiti trade to grow to a “greater extent than formerly.” In response, Congress tried again with a measure that enacted a blanket prohibition on commerce with Haiti. It turned out to be just as ineffective as the 1804 law.
Instead of finally passing an effective prohibition against armed vessels and enforcing it, Congress threw up its hands, concluding that such laws simply could not work. Rep. Jacob Crowninshield of Massachusetts put it most bluntly: “Pass what law you please,” he thundered, “You cannot stop the intercourse between the citizens of the United States and the inhabitants of St. Domingo.”
In short, Congress concluded that when it came to armed vessels, gun control laws didn’t work. In doing so, the legislators ignored the fact that they had intentionally written feckless laws, and instead embraced the belief that Americans were wired in such a way that law could not stop them from arming themselves and pursuing profit.
Back in 1804, armed merchant vessels could have dragged the United States into a world war. Today’s gun violence, by contrast, will not plunge us into a war. It is not war if only one side is armed, and if the targets are primarily fellow Americans. Only Congress can change that now and level the playing field by discarding essentialist myths about American character and enacting common sense gun control.
Will it do so? Most likely not. In Jefferson’s time, Congress capitulated to Americans’ supposed innate tendency toward greed and firearm violence. It is striking to see the same primitive logic at work in our politics today — spurred as it was in 1804 by powerful commercial interests, in today’s case, gun manufacturers and their allies at the NRA, who stand to lose big from adopting measures that could save thousands of lives.