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CHAPTER 19 Gun Control On a sweltering Sunday morning the day after Bobby Kennedy was laid to rest next to his brother at Arlington National Cemetery, my staff and I met in our otherwise empty Senate offices to talk about what I should say later that morning on the NBC news program Meet the Press and how could I use the opportunity to honor Bobby’s memory. All of us were emotionally destroyed. Heartbroken. Almost physically sick. It was as if all hope was gone. Part of the feeling was anger— anger that the world could be so cruel, so heartless, so savage. Although distraught, I had agreed to a request from Bobby’s staff to take his place on Meet the Press. Because he had been assassinated with a handgun, we thought the issue of gun violence would come up. I thought I really had to take advantage of this opportunity to do something meaningful in his memory. I knew gun control was a nearly impossible issue but that this was probably the best opportunity I would ever have to lay it out before the American people. I thought that one way to pay proper tribute to Bobby was to find some way to convince voters to do something to curtail gun violence. I began dictating to my staff elements of the gun control legislation I intended to introduce as soon as the Senate reconvened. I wanted every gun in the country to be registered and local police departments to issue licenses before people were allowed to keep or purchase guns. Licenses would help keep guns out of the hands of felons, drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally ill, or others who could pose a danger to society. I wanted to make it clear that sports enthusiasts who wanted guns for hunting or target shooting, or families who wanted guns for home protection , would have access to them. But the evidence was overwhelming : we had to get control of the gun violence in our country—violence that had taken the lives of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and now Senator Robert F. Kennedy, not to mention the lives of thousands of ordinary citizens. 293 GUN CONTROL I certainly knew that my proposal would be unpopular with hunters in rural Maryland, including blue-collar union members who otherwise should have been supporting me. But I did not want to squander the opportunity to add meaning to Bobby’s tragic death. On the air that morning, I tried to be measured in my comments, telling the moderator, Lawrence Spivak, that “we need a responsible, sane gun policy in this country.”1 But when asked specifically what I thought about confiscation of firearms, particularly pistols, I could not hold back. I said the legislation I intended to propose would let local police refuse to issue a gun license if an applicant had a criminal record. “I think that is a minimum step, a responsible step, and if you couldn’t meet those requirements, then I think the government should pay you just compensation and you should turn [the gun] in,” I said. “A person who is an alcoholic, who has a record of conviction involved in riots or a felony, they shouldn’t be permitted to own a gun. The gun should be turned in and confiscated.”2 I had co-sponsored and supported gun-control laws ever since I arrived in the Senate, so the National Rifle Association (NRA) was not particularly friendly toward me even before my Meet the Press interview. But those legislative proposals really got their attention, and I would later pay the price.3 1. Senator Joseph D. Tydings, transcript of televised interview on the NBC television show Meet the Press, vol. 12, no. 23, June 9, 1968, 1. 2. Ibid., 5. 3. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was an old institution, first chartered in New York State in 1871. It was organized in part to improve the poor marksmanship that Union soldiers had displayed in the Civil War. The founders of the group were Colonel William C. Church, editor of the Army and Navy Journal, and General George Wingate, and the first NRA president was former Union General Ambrose Burnside. The NRA formed the Legislative Affairs Division after the National Firearms Act of 1934 became the first federal gun-control law. Karl Frederick, the NRA president, testified in 1934, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. . . . I...


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