Gun Control and the Legacies of War

Sunday, January 5, 2020: 4:10 PM
Gramercy West (New York Hilton)
Clayton Howard, Ohio State University
In the late twentieth century, the United States witnessed shocking levels of gun violence. Since 1990, for example, approximately 30,000 people have died from gun-related injuries in this country every year. Yet the U.S. has also some of the loosest restrictions on firearms in the industrialized world. In recent years, activists have called for greater gun control after numerous well-publicized shootings, such as the mass murders in New Town, CT in 2013 and at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, FL in 2016. However, their protests have long-running antecedents in a movement that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this era, concerns about issues such as political assassinations, street crime, domestic violence, and urban rioting inspired millions of Americans to push the government to restrict firearms.

This paper looks at debates about crime in this earlier period to understand some of the limits of the modern gun control movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, conservative groups organized to block many federal and state-level laws that restricted firearms. However, the gun control movement also had important internal divisions that limited its political effectiveness. During the War on Crime, some civil rights activists linked gun violence with declining schools, housing segregation, and police brutality. Many conservative whites, meanwhile, wanted law enforcement to control what they saw as black criminality. While some feminists wanted to limit guns to promote women’s right to travel outside the home, many mothers used the moral authority of the home to try to keep guns out of children’s hands.

These groups all wanted to use the law to reduce the threat of firearms, but differences in their race, gender, class, and ideology fragmented their alliance. While conservative opposition undeniably kept gun laws weak, divisions among gun control activists also hurt their cause.

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