We’re not the first generation of Americans to confront a troubling and heartbreaking epidemic of gun violence. What is new today, though, is the rise of hopelessness and inaction that disempowers 21st-century Americans in ways that previous generations would neither recognize nor tolerate.
This naysaying attitude is a far cry from what politicians in previous eras said about reducing gun violence. At no time was this clearer than during the half-century after the Civil War — a period of tremendous change in American social, cultural, economic and political life.
The new and deadly firearms of that era were six-shooter pistols. By the 1880s, dozens of gunmakers offered revolvers of varied sizes, caliber and quality. Some cut corners to produce pistols that were inexpensive and easily distributed across the country. The results spoke for themselves as Americans witnessed petty disagreements turn into the tragic loss and ruination of lives.
But policymakers’ response wasn’t cynicism and naysaying. Instead, they experimented with new ways of stopping the bloodshed and restoring peace to American streets.
Invented by Samuel Colt in the 1830s, revolvers did not become widely available until the era of the Civil War. Colt’s patent expired in 1857, opening the market to such competing companies as Smith & Wesson, which were eager to capitalize on the popularity of these new weapons. Government contracts put pistols in the hands of thousands of soldiers, encouraging arms manufacturers to create the infrastructure for the mass production of the weapons.
Companies proliferated, flooding the market, dropping prices and putting pistols in the hands of millions of Americans. The result was the country’s first experience with rampant gun violence.
Alarmed lawmakers moved to curb this violence. Their first instinct was to ban the carrying of such small, concealable weapons as pistols and daggers. These public carry laws predated the Civil War, but they multiplied exponentially between 1870 and 1900. Still, many Americans were unsatisfied with limiting their gun-control efforts to these kinds of regulations. Policymakers thought long and hard about new strategies that would do even more to protect the public.
Some states, such as Arkansas and Tennessee, prohibited the sale of certain kinds of pistols within their borders. Other states, including Georgia, imposed occupation taxes on dealers in pistols and pistol cartridges. Punitive taxes like these were less about raising revenue than they were about discouraging the sales of pistols — an indirect form of regulation akin to taxes on tobacco products today. Texas experimented with a sales tax of 50 percent on all pistol purchases to make guns more expensive and reduce sales.
When some of these laws proved less effective than their supporters hoped, legislators didn’t throw up their hands. Instead, they tried something new. For instance, when dealers found a workaround to avoid the Texas tax, lawmakers moved to turn the existing crime of publicly carrying a pistol into a felony offense that put violators in the state’s penitentiary for a year or more. The governor vetoed the bill but appeased the restriction-minded majority by supporting the creation of a new crime category called “assault with a prohibited weapon” — a felony carrying serious penalties.
One of the most successful and popular strategies outlined in the late 1800s came out of California and involved issuing pistol permits only to those who could show a pressing need to carry such a weapon in public. Municipal governments from the capital, Sacramento, to the small coastal town of Eureka gave police the power to “grant written permission to any peaceable person, whose profession or occupation may require him to be out at late hours of the night, to carry concealed deadly weapons for his own protection.” Without such a need and the resulting permit, one could not carry a pistol in public.
The strategy gained ground quickly, reaching New Jersey, Virginia and Georgia by 1910, New York in 1911 and became a statewide policy in California in 1917. Over the ensuing century, many cities and states embraced discretionary handgun licensing, making it one of the most common approaches to gun control.
Many of these new regulatory strategies faced constitutional challenges. Repeatedly, however, the courts upheld them. When Arkansas and Tennessee tried to ban the sale and possession of all pistols within their borders, judges objected. But lawmakers responded by rewriting the policies with the necessary changes to pass constitutional muster. A trade association for gun dealers filed suit against the hefty sales tax in Texas. But an appellate court upheld it as a reasonable exercise of the state’s police power because the “business so taxed can be classed as harmful to the welfare of society.”
The “good cause” laws permitting schemes pioneered in late-19th-century California have withstood numerous constitutional challenges over more than a century — though their future is in doubt now that a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court is revisiting the issue, with a ruling expected in June.
The national mood of seeking out creative solutions to the growing gun problem enabled states to swiftly ban fully automatic weapons when they began to hit consumer markets in the early 20th century. Widespread support for automatic weapons bans and other reasonable gun regulations ultimately encouraged Congress to start setting certain national standards for the manufacture, sale and distribution of firearms in the 1930s.
Critics who considered these efforts a waste of time did not get to dominate the public square because a much more vocal majority created an atmosphere in which doing nothing simply wasn’t an option — and politicians knew it.
This story about America’s first brush with unbridled gun violence reveals that attitude matters. Not every solution worked. But legislators from across the political spectrum didn’t throw up their hands when something failed. Instead, they adopted new strategies and policies — all aimed at reducing bloodshed and saving precious lives. Their open-mindedness allowed for experimentation with policies that they could amend or refine to be more effective as technology and public sentiment changed over time.
This attitude provides lessons for today. Surrendering to the circumstances or blaming something other than gun policy for mass shootings or broader violence is a guaranteed way not to solve the problem. Republican claims that gun control is new or offensive to our heritage also are false. Americans in the past were deeply committed to regulating firearms in the name of public safety. The history of such efforts shows that experimentation — adopting reasonable regulations, adjusting as we see how they work and not despairing when new obstacles emerge — is a proven strategy for combating gun violence, one that has worked before and can work again.