In the immediate aftermath of the terrible massacre in Las Vegas, reporters asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the tragedy had changed President Trump’s views on gun control. She responded that it was “premature to discuss policy when we don’t know all the facts.”
The answer was unsurprising. Since November, Trump and Republicans in Congress have moved to further promote the agenda of the National Rifle Association on issues such as gun silencers and background checks. Even the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others did not stymie the rush to weaken existing laws.
But for those seeking significant gun control, Sanders’s admonition fell on deaf ears. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut blasted his fellow lawmakers who offered words without policy, tweeting, “To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”
Murphy’s admonishment echoes those of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, who sought to strengthen gun control laws in the wake of the violence and assassinations that rocked the 1960s. But, like today, Johnson faced a firm and committed foe in the form of the National Rifle Association and its allies. While the NRA was less focused on politics in 1968 than it is today and less stridently opposed to any gun regulation whatsoever, it already had ample political power to crush Johnson’s efforts.
Johnson’s last crusade against guns before leaving office began in June 1968, just weeks after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Earlier that month, the assassination of Robert Kennedy shook the nation, adding to the urgency of Johnson’s effort. For the second time in only two months, he was forced to confront a national tragedy related to gun violence.
Unlike the current president, however, Johnson sought to honor Kennedy’s legacy by securing stronger gun control measures. It was a policy goal Kennedy had supported. Only a few months before his death, in Roseburg, Ore., he declared: “If someone sent a gun to a man on Death Row in Kansas, he could receive it. It happened. Does that make sense?” He backed a wide range of laws to restrict gun ownership and promised more changes as president.
Despite their otherwise frosty relationship, Kennedy had an ally in Johnson. Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Johnson had sought tougher restrictions on the sale of guns across state lines and through the mail, as well as against various types of weapons of mass destruction. He also sought national registration of weapons, gun owner licensing and other limits. Johnson scored a few successes, but generally failed to win major victories because of the organized and powerful opposition.
Johnson redoubled his efforts after Robert Kennedy’s assassination. He penned a letter to Congress only a few days after Kennedy died, arguing: “Criminal violence from the muzzle of a gun has once again brought heartbreak to America.” After highlighting the average of 6,500 gun deaths per year, he wrote: “Far too many [guns] were bought by the demented, the deranged, the hardened criminal, and the convict, the addict and the alcoholic.” Then he cut to the heart of the matter. “So, today, I call upon the Congress in the name of sanity … and in the name of an aroused nation — to give us the Gun Control Law it needs.”
For Johnson, the “Gun Control Law” the nation needed included bans on the mail order gun trade and the interstate sales of weapons. He took a shot at the NRA — a powerful political group even in the 1960s — calling for Congress to respect the wishes of the people over special interests. Still, he understood the challenges of taking on the organization.
Immediately after the shooting, he told his aide, Joseph Califano: “We have only two weeks, maybe only 10 days before the gun lobby gets organized.” Just like today, the NRA had great political clout, tapping into the brewing racial unrest in the country and America’s long-term frontier fascination with guns.
Just as Johnson predicted, the NRA and its allies quickly mobilized, flooding congressmen with calls and letters opposing any new legislation. Efforts to add licensing of gun owners and registration of guns failed. Ultimately, only some watered-down proposals pertaining to interstate sales of handguns and a prohibition on selling guns to felons survived to become the 1968 Gun Control Act.
As he signed the law, Johnson hurled a blistering critique at his opponents. “The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful gun lobby … we have been through a great deal of anguish these last few months and these few years — too much anguish to forget so quickly. So now we must complete the task which this long needed legislation begins.”
But it was not to be. While there were a few victories to be had in the decade that followed, the NRA and its allies stifled most challenges. Few organizations hold such a monopoly over a public policy debate as the NRA. Since 1968, it has become more powerful and increasingly strident in its refusal to countenance gun control policies, despite the rise in mass murders and gun-related deaths. A revolt among its members in 1977 pushed the group to prioritize politics over shooting and hunting activities.
Not until the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan would Congress pass significant gun control legislation with the Brady Act, and even that took seven years and Reagan’s support to pass. But neither the Brady Act nor the 1994 assault weapons ban (which lapsed in 2004) was enough to stop the carnage visited on places like Columbine, Newtown, Orlando and now Las Vegas.
Today, the NRA is well organized and well funded, wielding power far disproportionate to its membership — with Republicans especially fearful that NRA members vote on gun issues and broach zero disloyalty, posing grave political danger to those voting for gun control.
With the NRA and its allies in Congress controlling the process, the odds in 2017 are stacked against any efforts to make significant changes, even with popular proposals such as mandatory background checks. Many argue, correctly so, that if the Sandy Hook massacre could not change anything, then neither will Las Vegas. With no will to seek change, Trump and his allies will memorialize the dead with words, but few deeds.
Lyndon Johnson tried changing the landscape of guns, but he failed because of a powerful lobby. Little has changed in 50 years, and the NRA and its allies continue to stymie any sensible gun regulations, even those supported by the vast majority of Americans. There appears to be no change on the horizon even as guns continue to kill and maim tens of thousands each year, including the nearly 600 in Las Vegas. LBJ would be both angry and sad, but not surprised at the outcome.