Howell Raines is a former executive editor of the New York Times and is writing a nonfiction book about Civil War times in Alabama.
My proposal is simply that we revert to the gun laws that prevailed in the United States around 1960. From a public-safety standpoint, that was far from a perfect world. The cheap revolvers called “Saturday night specials” ruled the night in many cities. Loopholes as to the sale and registration of long arms allowed the importation of the mail-order rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald used to kill President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Yet law-abiding hunters and target shooters had all the weapons and firepower they needed and were not in a state of constant turmoil over state and federal laws that restricted most shotguns to three rounds and most semiautomatic rifles and handguns to fewer than 20 rounds. American gun and ammunition manufacturers such as Remington, Winchester and Colt were thriving. Nobody argued that a six-shot revolver was inadequate for home-protection emergencies. Deer and elk hunters who used larger caliber rifles felt amply equipped with standard magazines of a half-dozen or so shells.
A return to these basic restrictions on loadings would appeal to most hunters, firing-range shooters and gun collectors who battle the nonstop whirlpool of NRA paranoia. It would give members of Congress, including those from rural, pro-gun states, a sellable policy with a history of limiting mass shootings in public places while protecting the sporting and self-protection practices of law-abiding citizens. And it would reduce the body count from shootings in public places.
Even the alarm among gun owners stirred by books such as Robert Sherrill’s 1973 bestseller, “The Saturday Night Special,” arguing for banning cheap, compact pistols such as the one that killed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, was nothing like the kind of hysteria expressed today by many otherwise reasonable gun owners. That’s because most gun-owning voters knew from experience that reasonable restrictions on the marketplace for sporting arms are not a prelude to a repeal of the Second Amendment.
Back then, the NRA’s great bugaboo was that gun registration would enable the police to trace and confiscate hunting guns and pistols from every closet and nightstand in America. The pro-gun bumper sticker of the time — “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” — seemed a benign tautology compared with the NRA’s current argument that the Second Amendment, unlike any other provision of the Constitution, prohibits Congress from making rules restricting ownership in any way.
How, one wonders, could the NRA condemn an era when made-in-America shotguns ruled a domestic market now crowded by guns made in Italy, England, France, Spain, Japan and, increasingly in recent years, Turkey? How, indeed, can the Washington gun lobby argue that strict regulation of firearms hurts America’s hunting tradition when all European countries have both strict gun-ownership laws and lively hunting cultures that serve their own citizens and high-spending tourists?
To be sure, a simple prohibition on the sale of military-style weapons such as the AR-15 assault rifle with “drum magazines” holding up to 300 rounds would not restore sanity to our political discourse. Former vice president Joe Biden and others are right in arguing that the assault weapons ban in effect from 1994 to 2004 reduced casualties in a way that can’t be accurately tabulated, because ended lives are more easily counted than saved ones. But the mass-shooting scenarios, repeated most recently in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, are proof enough for any reasonable person that a shooter who had to reload after 20 rounds could kill fewer people before police or bystanders could intervene. Smaller magazines buy time for people under attack to escape and for arriving police to close in because of the gunman’s reduced firepower.
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Like many of the 320-plus million Americans who do not belong to Wayne LaPierre’s enablers club, I come at this issue from a highly individualistic — perhaps even closeted — point of view. I’ve been a gun owner for more than 60 years, yet I seldom mention that fact to fellow liberals I know to be offended by hunting as a blood sport or regard all guns as evil instruments. Yet most of us on the left would accept reasonable accommodations on guns just as we would compromise on, say, the single-payer or private market roles in a universal health-care strategy.
I believe my proposal to go back to the flawed status quo of a half-century ago would give us an imperfect firearms future that would nonetheless spare the lives of thousands of citizens in our schools, churches, bars, concerts, cinemas or wherever comes next.