The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The gun-control effort that almost stopped our addiction to ‘weapons of war’

The 1968 Gun Control Act had the right idea — but it came too late

Brandon Wexler helps a customer at WEX Gunworks last month in Delray Beach, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the wake of mass shootings in Boulder, Colo., and Indianapolis, military-style rifles like the AR-15 — the frequent tools of mass murder — are once again in the spotlight. Activists have created the hashtag #BanWeaponsOfWar. And they have an ally in President Biden, who has voiced support for a new Assault Weapons Ban to replace the one he helped pass in 1994, which Republicans allowed to expire in 2004. The Biden campaign pledged to “get weapons of war off our streets.”

But this is not the first time Americans have had this conversation about “weapons of war” and what to do with them. In fact, a similar debate after World War II led to the first significant federal gun-control legislation in three decades — the Gun Control Act of 1968. Then, Congress took action to get weapons of war off the streets and out of civilians’ hands. This history offers policymakers a precedent for civil disarmament and demilitarization — with a warning about the obstacles they may have to overcome.

The years after World War II were a golden age for American gun buyers, thanks in large part to the availability of cheap, reliable imported firearms left over from two bloody global conflicts. European governments recovering from war and wary of more violence wanted to get rid of millions of surplus guns. Indeed, to avoid storage expenses, some nations simply opted to sail them out to the middle of the ocean and dump them.

Wily American entrepreneurs sensed an opportunity, however. Chief among these speculators was Samuel Cummings, “Arms dealer Sam,” a man so brash and confidently American that he boasted of strolling into European defense ministries with suitcases of cash and offering to buy hundreds of thousands of surplus firearms for pennies on the dollar. Cummings was a crucial innovator for American gun capitalism, but hardly the only one doing so: By 1967, importers brought in more than 1 million guns a year, equal to about half of domestic gun production. These cheap imports helped create and sustain a thriving mass market for firearms in postwar America, satisfying growing demand from a White middle class with rising incomes, more leisure time, new hobbies like hunting and crime-driven concerns about self-defense.

Following Cummings’s lead, Crescent Firearms of New York City bought and imported a half-million Mannlicher-Carcano rifles from Italy in 1960. Struggling to compete in a market saturated with similar war-surplus rifles, Crescent eventually unloaded a number of Carcanos to Chicago’s Klein Sporting Goods, which ran monthly magazine ads offering a cornucopia of war-surplus firearms from around the world.

On March 13, 1963, Klein’s received an order from one of those ads. A week later, the company shipped a Carcano, serial number C2766, outfitted with a 4x telescopic sight, to the Dallas postal box of “A. Hidell” — the pseudonym of Lee Harvey Oswald.

When Oswald used the rifle to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, he sparked a national debate about guns in American society — and in particular the flow of weapons of war like Oswald’s Carcano, which had been manufactured in wartime Italy.

Sen. Tom Dodd (D-Conn.) led the legislative charge for federal gun control. As chair of the influential Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Dodd started investigating the proliferation of firearms among young people in 1961. Kennedy’s assassination pushed Dodd to hold high-profile hearings on the booming U.S. consumer gun market. Dodd dragged “junk gun dealers” in front of his committee and forced them to admit to irresponsible practices like indiscriminately selling guns through the mail.

At first, the committee largely focused on handguns. But investigators were stunned to discover just how many weapons of war had entered the United States since 1945 — not just Italian Carcanos but British Enfields, Russian Tokarevs, Japanese Arisakas and Mauser rifles made in Germany and a dozen other countries. Many were sold cheaply to veterans or gun-curious men in postwar America.

But these firearms, along with heavy weapons such as antitank guns and mortars, also found their way into the hands of extremist groups — like the white supremacists who violently opposed the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, Dodd observed.

In 1965, a committee investigator infiltrated the Minutemen, a right-wing anti-communist paramilitary group, and found its members stocking up on Europe’s wartime bounty. Group newsletters recommended the best kinds of military weapons to buy. Members of Congress expressed concern that such groups, often anti-communist and anti-government extremists, used membership in the National Rifle Association to acquire war-surplus rifles through the Army’s Civilian Marksmanship Program, which required NRA membership to purchase surplus rifles from the Army.

But soon concerns about weapons of war in the hands of extremists such as the Minutemen or the Ku Klux Klan gave way to the realities of racism in postwar America. The prospect of weapons of war in the hands of White extremists drove some early gun-control efforts. But by 1968, White fears of Black urban uprisings against police brutality and economic inequality actually advanced Dodd’s gun-control agenda.

This context is critical and has often been erased from the history of gun-control legislation. Beginning in 1965, for instance, the California legislature considered a number of gun-control measures, including restrictions on “heavy military weapons” and “hand rocket launchers.” Politicians decried efforts by groups like the Minutemen to stockpile arms.

Yet by 1967, racist fears of Black radicalism motivated California Gov. Ronald Reagan to sign the Mulford Act, which prohibited carrying loaded firearms in public, into law. The legislation was designed in response to the open carrying of weapons by the nascent Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which had famously stormed the State Assembly in protest in May 1967.

Cold War liberals crafting new gun laws now worried that weapons of war encouraged urban uprisings, exacerbated racial unrest and threatened civil rights progress. Touring Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of the uprisings that followed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Dodd said that such events could be “directly traced to the uncivilized approach this country takes to the sale and possession of lethal weapons.”

The King and Robert Kennedy assassinations pushed members of Congress once hesitant to support gun control into Dodd’s camp. In the waning days of his administration, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1968 Gun Control Act, which prohibited the importation of war-surplus firearms while also strengthening regulations about who could purchase guns and how they could be sold through the mail.

But by the time the law passed, heightened attention to Black urban unrest, as well as racialized fears of Black criminality, helped create a gun-buying boom that the Gun Control Act couldn’t stop. Gunmakers and importers flooded the U.S. market with more than 6 million firearms in 1968, a 300 percent increase over a decade earlier. Despite the Gun Control Act, that figure continued to climb in the 1970s.

Why? Because the ban on cheap gun imports only encouraged the growth of new domestic manufacturing, both for handguns and, later, military-style weapons modeled on rifles such as the AR-15 (and its military-issue counterpart, the M16) and the Eastern Bloc’s AK-47. The combination of a growing supply of cheap guns and fears of social unrest made Americans uniquely gun-hungry in the 1960s, an appetite they have yet to satisfy in the decades since.

Later, the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban temporarily stanched the flow of such weapons of war into the hands of civilians in the United States, but it failed to address the existing civilian stockpile and its sunset clause guaranteed its obsolescence. Meanwhile, Americans have bought tens of millions of military-style firearms since 2004, rushing to stockpile them before Congress debates another ban.

Biden promised on the campaign trail to rein in today’s weapons of war. Success will require bold initiatives such as closing loopholes, pursuing permanent bans on manufacturing, buying and selling assault weapons and implementing buyback programs and expanded registration regimes — not to mention efforts to address other aspects of the “gun violence epidemic,” like handgun violence. But it will also demand a broader commitment to demilitarizing civil society while respecting basic rights of gun ownership and self-defense. A society stockpiling weapons of war is a society arming for conflict rather than one building toward democracy.