JFK was not the first U.S. President to shuffle off this mortal coil via an assassin’s bullet. Nor was Kennedy the most beloved President in American history. But the former Senator’s dramatic exit from the public stage was covered on live TV. It was a relatively new medium that created a new kind of instant mass bonding experience. While people who were alive at the time feel a need to ask and answer the highly personal question “where were you when Kennedy was shot?”, it was the collective experience of JFK’s assassination that elevated the event into cultural mythology. Well that and a legion of liberals—now known as progressives—who knew a good thing when they saw one. Did I just say that? I did. And I also want to say something about Kennedy and guns . . .
John. F. Kennedy was a Life Member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). As JFK wrote in a letter to NRA President Franklin Orth accepting his membership, “The Association fills an important role in our national defense effort, and fosters in an active and meaningful fashion the spirit of the Minutemen.”
Notice that the attaboy refers to a collective benefit to the NRA’s activities.This was before the so-called Revolt at Cincinnati (where “hard-liners” took over the NRA) and Heller (the Supreme Court ruling affirming the individual right to keep and bear arms). Individual gun rights were flying under the radar—unless you were an African-American trying to get a carry permit in the Deep South (e.g., Martin Luther King) the urban North or mostly everywhere else.
Which was the entire point of U.S. gun control, from the earliest post-Civil War restrictions to California Governor Ronald Reagan’s legislative retaliation for a Black Panther open carry demonstration at the California state house. As President, JFK wrestled to remove Jim Crow racial discrimination laws. The idea that African-Americans should have their gun rights restored wasn’t part of the “discussion.”
Kennedy’s assassination—rather than any policy initiative—had the greatest impact on Americans’ gun rights. And not in a good way. It marked the beginning of a period of tremendous civil unrest. Public paranoia about crime in general, and gun crime in particular, escalated. The cry went up: something must be done! Just as they did after the Newtown massacre, power-hungry pols carpe’ed the diem.
In 1968, four years after the Kennedy assassination, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. Amongst other things, the Act raised the minimum age for handgun purchases to 21. It also established a national gun licensing system (a.k.a., gun registration). But that was just the beginning.
Congress introduced The Gun Control Act of 1968. It was by no means a slam-dunk. And then assassins took out Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Cities burned. Signed into law by President Johnson, the Act prohibited private interstate handgun sales, made it a federal crime to sell a gun to felons, drug users and the mentally ill; added a “sporting purposes” requirement to firearms imports and established a gun registration system (the federal firearms licensee or FFL system).
You can draw a straight line from Kennedy’s assassination to the historically recent and entirely regrettable trampling of Americans’ gun rights. No question: the grievous harm done to our firearms freedom is an inescapable if entirely unintentional part of President Kennedy’s legacy. And, of course, the legacy of a lone gunman in a brick building on a seasonable November day some 50 years ago.