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It wasn't the sort of sign usually posted in the Sheraton Boston Hotel. "No firearms may be carried in or out of the hall except by exhibitors," it read. But the hotel needed that sign last week, for it was hosting the 97th annual convention of the National Rifle Association--praised by its friends as "the defender of our rights to keep and bear arms" and damned by its foes as "the head of the gun nut lobby."
Some 20,000 of the NRA's 960,000 members attended the convention. They listened to speeches opposing proposed gun legislation, saw demonstrations of the U.S. Army's small arms exhibit--"the finest in modern and antique firearms and the men most knowledgeable about them," according to NRA publicity.
Many of the people in the exhibit hall could as easily have been attending the General Mills stockholders meeting next door. Dressed in conservative business suits, they admired the flintlock rifles on exhibit, talked about the Safety for Hunters program, or carefully handled $300 shotguns and rifles shown by the major firearms companies. At one exhibit, fifteen salesmen impeccably dressed in yellow blazers politely aided prospective customers for Winchester rifles while a pretty girl passed out leaflets detailing the ammunition produced by the company.
There were also some representatives of that sub-species of gun-owners that refer to Italian Carcano rifles as "Kennedy specials." Some wore Texas boots and baggy jackets with string ties; others just dressed in T-shirts and blue jeans. They tended to wander over to the one dealer who offered surplus military rifles. They debated whether to pay $23.50 for a Mauser rifle of the type used by France's Civil Guards. Or, for $74.50, they could purchase the "hard-hitting and battle tested U.S. M-1 .30 Cal. carbine which wrote the obituary of Nazi and Nip alike from Anzio Beach all the way to Okinawa!" One man admiring the surplus weapons said, "I just want something cheap to do some target shooting with."
The company selling the surplus arms--Century Arms, Inc. of St. Albans, Vt.--promised delivery of the guns within one or two weeks.
At the rear of the hall were the Exhibits of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Most of the armed service exhibits spotlighted the M-16 rifle currently used in Vietnam. A Marine sergeant in dress blues defended the rifle, which has frequently been accused of jamming in combat. "It shoots real fine, even on full automatic," he said. An Air Force man in civilan clothes ponited out one of the finer points of the M-16--an attachment which fires grenades: "It's really two guns in one. Weighs a total of 9 pounds. You fire this 40 mm. grenade. It takes nine seconds to hit and then fragments into 350 pieces traveling at 4500 feet per second." He paused for a chuckle. "Of course you don't have to hit someone directly with it--just get close." The NRA members looking on nodded approvingly.
Between color panoramas of napalm strikes and smiling Vietnamese peasants, the Army waxed poetic:
Men my argue forever on what wins their wars,
And welter in cons and pros;
And seek for their answer at history's doors.
But the man with the rifle knows.
Military exhibits were quite in order at the NRA convention, for the organization has had cordial relations with the armed forces ever since it was founded in 1871 by a group of National Guard officers to foster civilian marksmanship as an aid to military preparedness. Usually at least one retired or active duty Army officer sits on the NRA's board of directors.
For over 40 years, the Army subsidized the NRA's National Matches held in the summer at Camp Perry, Ohio. This year, President Johnson cut the appropriation for the National Matches, which last year cost the government $1.1 million, allegedly for economy reasons. The action followed a strong push led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 to end a giveaway to an organization opposing the Administration's stand on gun laws.
During the 1950's and early 1960's the federal government disposed of much of its stock of surplus World War II small arms to NRA members--only one to a customer. They snapped up thousands of .45 pistols at $17 and M-1 carbines at $20, about a third of what the government paid for the guns. Since stocks of the weapons are now exhausted, the sales have ended.
For its part, the Army received a supply of well-trained marksmen. In 1965, the Arthur D. Little Co. found that previous marksmanship training--such as that given by NRA clubs--aided the rifle scores of Army draftees. The American Rifleman, the NRA's magazine, regularly publishes an "honor roll" of NRA members who receive medals in Vietnam. As of March, they had two Medals of Honor, eight silver stars, nine bronze stars, one Navy Cross and one Distinguished Flying Cross on the roll.
But the cozy relationship between the NRA and the government has grown strained in recent years, due to the NRA's opposition to most of President Johnson's proposals for tightening up the sale of guns.
An NRA pamphlet published in 1964--entitled "The Gun Law Problem"--sets out the organization's basic attitude toward gun laws: "The National Rifle Association does not advocate, propose, or suggest any restrictive gun legislation at any level of government."
The organization strays a bit from this principle by throwing very small bones to anti-gun sentiment when the public demands stricter gun laws. After the tumultuously violent '30's, the NRA supported the 1935 National Firearms Act, which levied a $200 tax on the possession of machine guns and other gangster weapons. It also gave less enthusiastic backing to the 1938 Federal Firearms Act, which prohibits the sale of firearms to criminals or fugitives from justice. The law also requires gun dealers to purchase a Federal license, and requires them to keep records of all gun sales, including the name of the buyer.
These are the only major Federal gun laws on the books. The NRA often points to them as examples of "responsible" gun legislation. If ineffectiveness is an index of responsibility, the NRA is right. The National Firearms Act did cut down the number of machine guns in circulation, but latter-day Al Capones have had little trouble finding substitutes.
But on January 29, 1968, the Supreme Court cut the ground from under the National Firearms Act. The Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment protected anyone who did not register a machine gun. (Only those who had not paid the $200 tax--and thus were illegally possessing the weapon--had to register it.)
The Federal Firearms Act is even more useless. It really keeps no one--even a criminal--from buying a gun, since there is no means for assuring that the name given by the buyer is correct. The license fee for dealers is a token $1 per year. Until a recent crackdown by the government, many gun fanciers used this portion of the act to declare themselves "dealers" and receive discounts from wholesale gun houses.
Shortly before the assassination of President Kennedy, the NRA helped Sen. Thomas J. Dodd (R-Conn.) draft another bit of gun legislation, which would have tightened up gun sales slightly. The bill would have required purchasers of mail order handguns to submit a notarized statement that they were over 18 and that their state allowed them to have a pistol.
Even at the time, not all gun owners were happy with the NRA's support of this bill. They argued that--no matter how minor its provisions--it would lead the way to more drastic legislation. After President Kennedy was shot, President Johnson and Senator Dodd pushed for a much tougher bill. The NRA withdrew its support.
The Administration-Dodd bill, first introduced in March 1965, would ban all interstate gun sales and forbid over-the-counter sales of pistols to out-of-state residents. The NRA moved to support a slightly tightened version of the original Dodd bill, now introduced by Sen. Roman H. Hruska (R-Neb.).
Then the NRA went to battle against the tough Administration bill with all the formidable resources at its command. The association has a $9 million yearly budget financed by membership fees and advertising in the American Rifleman. With this money the NRA Washington headquarters at 1600 Rhode Island Avenue sends a constant stream of news releases to congressmen and notices to gun owners--all designed to cow congressmen into killing gun laws.
According to most reports, the NRA runs a "clean" lobbying effort. Like many of the other "educational" organizations, it is too powerful to have to stoop to blatantly illegal means of influencing legislation. One notice in the American Rifleman opposing a proposed gun law will send a stream of thousands of protest letters to Capitol Hill from gun-owners who see their prized possessions as prey to an encroaching government.
Though they have the support of much of the media, anti-gun forces have not yet mobilized a comparable mass of public support. So Congress--especially representatives from the South and West, where guns abound--listens to the NRA. For three years, the Administration bill kicked around in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Only last week, after the assassination of The Rev. Martin Luther King, was a weakened version of the bill reported out. The weakened version--halfway between the NRA-supported bill and the Administration bill--would ban mail order sales of pistols, but would place no controls over the mail order sale of rifles.
"NRA's Image Stinks"
This bill is the first major gun law to reach the floor of the Senate in 30 years, but the NRA is now mobilizing its customary letter campaign. There won't be any 1968 Firearms Act--at least not the Administration version--if the NRA has its way.
"NRA's image stinks," Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Francis X. Sargent (who owns a sporting goods store) told the group at the end of the convention. He urged them to accept the Administration's bill, rather than risking the introduction of more stringent legislation. For his pains, he was labeled "a political gun bearer for the Kennedys and the Dodds" by the NRA President.
Several interesting arguments sum up the NRA's position on gun laws. "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," one of their pet phrases goes. Or, as one NRA member put it, "You can kill someone with a golf club--are you going to ban golf?" It is, of course, true that almost anything can be used as a murder weapon in an angry moment. But few potential weapons are as deadly quick or as accurate from a distance as the gun. Defense is possible against a golf club, but not against a bullet.
Another pet theme of the NRA--as expressed in the May 1967 American Rifleman--is that gun laws disarm the law-abiding citizen and leave him defenseless against armed criminals, who don't obey gun laws.
One premise of the argument and its implicit conclusion--i.e., guns keep down crime--are open to serious question. The NRA simply assumes that any gun law more restrictive than those its supports will lead to disarming the "law-abiding" citizen. As applied to the Administration's bill, the objection is absurd. The bill would end mail-order sales of guns, but would place no restrictions on over-the-counter sales to state residents.
Who Gets His Gun?
State laws requiring a license to buy a gun pose a more serious problem. The NRA argues that these laws allow local law enforcement officers to determine who should and who should not own a gun. The officers would, the argument goes, decide to let few if any citizens own guns.
To date, the argument seems unproven. New York, which has a strict pistol license law, issues few licenses, but Missouri, which has a similar law, lets almost anyone over 21 who is not a criminal purchase one.
But there is one interesting question here: How would a Negro in Jefferson County feel about having his county sheriff in charge of gun licenses? The case is pure theory, since Southern states filled with gun owners are the least likely to adopt any gun laws, but it points out the need for clear criteria for issuing the licenses.
If NRA's worst fears were realized and such gun laws were passed, the group predicts a drastic rise in the crime rate. And here, reams of statistics flow back and forth between proponents and opponents of gun laws. Propagandists for both sides pick and choose at will.
But one thing seems clear--an abundance of guns in the hands of private citizens does nothing to keep down crime rates that increased police forces could not do, save perhaps prodding foolhardy shopkeepers into a replay
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