A responsible nation

A mid-20th century Baptist editor was taking on gun control decades before the nation’s current debate.

By Fred Anderson

For 300 years after the first permanent English settlement on its eastern seaboard, the United States had an open frontier looking west. Venturesome pioneers who occupied the new land faced conditions which made the possession of firearms essential for protection of life and property. During the closing century of pioneering in America, the harsher aspects of life on the frontier were clothed with a romantic spirit which later found expression in the Wild West circus, dime novels and, more recently, the melodramatic “western” movie for television. Six shooters and the rifle became symbols of survival for courageous frontiersmen who dared to make homes in the “wild west.” 

This tradition, coupled with the national experience in two world wars, has given rise to the extremely dangerous and anti-social fallacy that all citizens have the competence, the lawful right and the duty to protect themselves by owning and using, if necessary, a deadly weapon. Actually the individual citizen does not have authority to exercise the police power of the state. While recent tragic acts of violence have brought the problem into sharp focus, national control of firearms has been for years a matter of grave concern.

Those first two paragraphs should be wrapped in quotes and attributed to Reuben E. Alley, editor of the Religious Herald in the mid-20th century. They were lifted from his editorial published on Independence Day in 1968. His concern regarding firearm possession and gun control still resonates nearly a half-century later.

“Attempts at improvement within the social structure always encounter opposition where proposed changes require a break with traditional patterns of conduct,” the editor continued. “This human trait accounts in part for the vigorous protests by citizens who, for many years, have opposed the enactment by Congress of legislation to limit the distribution and to require registration of all firearms. These citizens seem reluctant to accept the fact that frontier life in the United States long ago gave place to a community life that is exceedingly complex and increasingly dangerous.”

Troubled times

The times in which Alley was writing included the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. The week before the Independence Day issue went to press it was reported that 176 persons across the nation had died that week as a result of gunfire. 

Alley maintained that Congress needed to address the issue. “Some have claimed that control legislation by Congress would violate the rights of citizens as provided by the Second Amendment to the Constitution,” wrote the editor. “The amendment reads:  ‘A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to bear arms, shall not be infringed.’ The language is plain. The amendment simply restrains Congress from forbidding a state militia. Irving Brant, author of the book The Bill of Rights, has explained that this was plainly the intent of James Madison who included the following clause in the original amendment: ‘but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms should be compelled to render military service in person.’”

The issue surfaced at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Houston in 1968. Alley contended that the messengers made an error in interpretation when they voted to approve an amendment to a resolution which commended and supported President Lyndon B. Johnson in his plea to Congress for legislation to control the traffic in firearms. The amendment inserted the following words into the resolution: “while maintaining the constitutional right of legitimate possession of arms.”

Alley argued: “There is no such ‘constitutional right’ for individual possession of arms. The latest recommendation by President Johnson to Congress provides for national regulation of all firearms; licensing each person before he receives permission to own a gun, and standards in licensing dealers to prevent sale and possession of firearms by criminals, mental incompetents, and other disqualified people.

“Opponents to enactment of strict legislative controls by Congress have tried to equate compulsory registration of arms with denial of ownership. The contention is absurd. The law would permit ownership by citizens who are competent.”

Hearing from hunters

Alley anticipated arguments from sportsmen and hunters so he included a quote from a U.S. senator: “For every hunter who is worried about buying a gun, I have ten women who are worried about crime in the streets.”

The Herald’s editorial lifted a paragraph from the New York Times: “The United States cannot abolish private violence by fiat. But a responsible nation can insist that its Federal and state lawmakers enact legislation drastically reducing the availability and accessibility of weapons. When tens of millions of people are living in densely congested, highly sophisticated urban centers, it is time for responsible people to stop pretending that it is still high noon in old Dodge City.”

Nearly 50 years later, concerned voices continue to be heard. Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in the last five years have interpreted those few critical words in the Second Amendment to mean that citizens can own personal firearms and that the states can regulate ownership. 

Our contemporary life has been characterized by mass killings by crazed gunmen. The horrors of schoolhouse, theatre and shopping mall shootings have been played over and over again into our national psychic. The stories of individual violence from drug traffic, petty theft, or just road rage — not even to mention domestic violence — have become commonplace. The gun lobby is so powerful that few politicians can escape their strong-arm tactics. 

Surprisingly, a new study released by the Pew Research Center finds that while violent gun crime has dropped 49 percent the last two decades, the general public remains alarmed that something must be done. The theory is that the public believes that the horrific homicides which make national news are indicative of the larger society.

Somehow there is little comfort in the Pew report. It seems that nearly a half-century after Alley’s editorial on gun control, we still need to become “a responsible nation.”

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.