As I learned while researching my book, LaPierre’s line of argument that there are two kinds of gun users, honest citizens and criminals, originated with Karl T. Frederick, a New York attorney, Olympic pistol shooting champion, and NRA spokesperson, who began making the same arguments in front of various legislative bodies and reform groups in the 1920s.
Beginning in 1934, Frederick gave a series of testimonies in front of Congress that eerily echo LaPierre almost eighty years later. Though few people today know it, Federally-mandated national gun control was part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Agenda. This former New York governor had come from a state with some of the toughest laws on the books and he and his attorney general, Homer Cummings, were also determined to stem the rising tide of gun homicides and suicides. Frederick was there to convince legislators to rewrite proposed gun control legislation. In the end, he got most of what he wanted. Most importantly, regulation of handguns was taken off the table.
More importantly, the distinction between “criminals” and “honest citizens” stuck, in part because it catered to a fantasy pervasive in our culture now and then of white men whipping out their guns to protect their homes and families. If this topic interests you, check out anthropologist Abigail Kohn’s fascinating study of different gun cultures Shooters.
Left behind was a different way of thinking about the problem. Beginning in the 1910s city coroners and public health officials began gathering data that showed the presence of guns correlated with increased homicide and suicide for the simple reason that guns made it much easier to kill another human being. They argued that gun ownership, particularly of concealable handguns, should be limited because the state had an obligation to protect its citizens from endangering the physical well-being of each other.
This kind of probabilistic thinking has always been a hard sell with the public, particularly when it comes to technologies like guns and automobiles. Most people believe statistics don’t predict their behavior because they are smarter and luckier than the average person. It did gain traction in some European countries where public health arguments became the basis for stricter gun control. It’s probably a lost cause in this country because the NRA has its own pro-gun statistics- generating sociologists who are busy compiling data on how many lives were saved by honest citizens with guns.
So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I think firearms should be much more strictly regulated. The sharp distinction between honest citizen and criminals and the mentally ill is unworkable as a criterion for deciding who should be allowed to have a gun for many reasons. It is impossible to accurately predict when an honest citizen will become a criminal until they’ve already shot their wife or neighbor or a crowd of innocent people in a post office, school, or movie theater. But I’m pessimistic that much of anything will change with the latest round of calls for better gun control. When the president and vice-president feel compelled to assert that they are gun guys too, it’s clear that this is not a rational conversation. The male fantasy—now equal opportunity—will prevail as it has for most of the 20th century.