Books: Alexander DeConde’s Gun Violence in America: The Struggle for Control

Culture Watch

Mr. Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, SUNY Cortland, will become the president of the Presidency Research Group of the American Political Science Association this fall.

The issue of gun control has been with America for many decades. Most would date the modern gun control controversy to the 1960s, when assassinations and civil disorder promoted enactment of the first modern gun control law, the Gun Control Act of 1968. From that point forward, pressures to enact stronger gun laws escalated, as did resistance to these efforts. The powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) spearheaded the resistance.

Yet, the story of gun control in America predates the 1960s. As Alexander DeConde, emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes in his new account of the gun issue in America, strict gun laws existed even in colonial America. Also, they were quickly enacted in newly established frontier towns during the nineteenth century, and they were widely debated in the 1920s and 1930s. One of the many ironies of the gun issue is that the gun control proposals debated in the 1920s and 1930s were more far-reaching than the modest proposals that have drawn so much political blood in the last two decades. As Franklin D. Roosevelt's attorney general, Homer Cummings, said in 1937,"Show me the man who does not want his gun registered, and I will show you a man who should not have a gun." It is difficult to imagine any attorney general of either party uttering such a statement today.

In his book, DeConde offers the most sweeping, detailed, and complete account of the history of guns and gun control in America to be found in print. In doing so, the book follows in the footsteps of--yet goes beyond--two pathbreaking earlier histories by Kennett and Anderson (1975) and Bellesiles (2000). Although both of these studies are important, Kennett and Anderson offer a more limited narrative. Bellesiles's award-winning book focuses more deeply on gun laws and practices, but it ends after the Civil War (DeConde finished his book before Bellesiles's book was published). DeConde begins with European antecedents, picks up in colonial America, incorporates the federal period, follows escalating gun manufacturing and use in the nineteenth century, and then describes more familiar gun developments in the twentieth century. Most of the contemporary discussion will be familiar to readers with even a passing knowledge of the gun issue. However, in addition to providing a single, complete narrative of the gun issue, DeConde's primary contribution is an integration of every important element of the debate. That is, he includes not only social behavior, practices, and changes, but the important court cases, legal enactments, and political debates that frame the issue. Thus, this is a book for social historians as much as for legal scholars.

DeConde parallels Bellesiles's analysis by noting that guns were indeed present in colonial America from its earliest days but that the number of guns was far less than legend would have it. Further,"English colonists did bring firearms with them for self-defense as well as for offense," but they"also brought the practice of restricting gun keeping, usually to selected upper-class males" (p. 17) The relative rarity of firearms in America was attributable to some obvious facts, including that they were expensive (guns were either made by hand in America, or imported from abroad), were made of materials that deteriorated rapidly, meaning that they had to be constantly serviced and maintained; required considerable skill to master; required maintenance after relatively few firings; and required firing materials that were also difficult to come by and that had short shelf lives. During the Revolutionary War, 80 percent of all firearms and 90 percent of the needed powder had to be imported from France and Holland. In the early 1790s, Secretary of War Henry Knox concluded that only about 20 percent of the nation's 450,000 militiamen possessed firearms. Of the government-owned stock of 44,000 muskets, half were inoperable.

Rolled into DeConde's historical narrative of gun practices is the poorly understood tale of the Second Amendment. In a nutshell, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have interpreted the Second Amendment uniformly: that the amendment pertains to citizenship ownership of firearms in connection with citizen service in a government-organized and regulated militia. Although the history of private ownership of firearms is as old as the nation, that ownership connects to the Constitution only as it pertained to militia service. To date, no gun control law has ever been struck down by a federal court as a violation of the Second Amendment (leaving aside the Emerson case that is still before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit). This fact of constitutional law has taken a beating in recent years from gun control foes anxious to impose their own, individualist view onto the Second Amendment. That this effort is picking up steam is noted in the astounding recent statement by Attorney General John Ashcroft (as first articulated in a letter to the NRA), who baldly and wrongly stated that the non-militia view of the amendment has been long supported by the federal courts, and by FDR Attorney General Cummings. The fact that these astonishing statements provoked so little scrutiny underscores the lack of understanding of what the courts have said about the Second Amendment. DeConde's clear-headed presentation of this legal chronology justifies the value of this book by itself.

The most interesting elements of the book include DeConde's careful discussion of social connections to guns and gun use in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The actual role of the gun in the settling of the rural American frontier was little, and strict gun controls emerged as soon as settlements were incorporated. As one cowboy noted,"this business of gunfights" was"nearly all exaggeration." Instead, the West was settled by"a lot of hard work on the range but very little shooting." (p. 86) In contrast, gun use and gun carrying became a major issue in urban areas, ultimately spurring progressive-era reformers to demand strict laws on gun carrying and possession. George Templeton Strong noted with dismay on the eve of the Civil War"An epidemic of crime" in New York City, which prompted many of his upper-class friends to purchase and carry revolvers as they walked the streets,"though it's a very bad practice," Strong added.

By the end of the nineteenth century, two social pathologies came to dominate the gun issue, as would be true from that day to this: assassinations, and crime. So, too, emerged the primary counter-argument--the need for self-defense. Ironically, the Second Amendment would only enter the gun debate as an argument against more gun control in the 1980s. (Even during congressional hearings on what became the National Firearms Act of 1934, two representatives of the NRA, including its president, offered extended testimony in opposition to the bill before Congress, but in all of their arguments, they never even mentioned the Second Amendment.)

DeConde's cool, clear-headed, and careful historical treatment of the gun issue provides a welcome antidote to the abundant hysterical and fictional cant that passes for analysis (witness some of the shocking and disgraceful, not to mention inaccurate, commentary spurred by the Bellesiles book). Useful and readable for the generalist and specialist alike, DeConde's book reminds us what and how a careful scholar can contribute to an important public debate.


Bellesiles, Michael A. 2000. Arming America<.i>. New York: Knopf.

Kennett, Lee, and James LaVerne Anderson. 1975. The Gun in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

This review first appeared in Law and Politics Book Review.

Copyright 2001 by the author, Robert J. Spitzer.

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