One of the consolations available to an amateur historian, such as myself, is the knowledge that there is very little new under the sun. The current hysterical campaign against gun ownership is reminiscent of many other half-thought-out crusades the American public has been gulled into embarking on since before we became a nation. The menace may differ, but the stigmata are very similar. Mawkish propaganda, shameless appeals to emotion, demonization of opposition; all of these were old, familiar friends long before the Centennial celebrations in 1876.
The "gun control" campaign reminds me very strongly of the war against the Demon Rum, as waged by the various groups dedicated to doing him down, between the early 1800s and the onset of Prohibition in 1919. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment was not, as was later charged, something foisted on the nation while the men were off making the world safe from spike-helmeted maniacs with uniform fetishes. Instead, it was something that had been building for a very, very long time, and had been supported by very much the same sort of people that now shout loudly and long for gun control. For many years, to be for Temperance was to be on the side of religion, the family, children, and public order -- does this sound at all familiar?
As with gun control, the origins of the "Temperance" movement were in some sincere people's dismay at a situation that seemed to be out of control. In fact, unlike the gun-control zealots, the earliest Temperance advocates did have some real things to complain of -- in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, almost everybody drank, and drank enough that today we would say they had a problem with alcohol. This was because alcohol was thought to be positively healthy, as well as a sign of respectable financial standing. To abstain from alcohol was to confess extreme poverty or extremely strict religious views; in some areas, pastors making rounds of calls on their parishioners often came home reeling because every home visited was expected to provide him with a drink -- and he, in his turn, was expected to drink it. Young children were given "flip" (a concoction of cider, applejack or rum, an egg, and various other ingredients) just as adults were, to keep them warm and fortified in cold meeting-houses. Even funerals were occasions when serious drinking went on; in fact, paupers' funerals cost the taxpayers for cider and beer, just as they did for a coffin and grave, for not drinking would show insufficient respect for the dead.
Unlike the very early Temperance movement, the gun-control movement can not claim that it was formed to deal with a serious problem. At the time of President Kennedy's assassination, crime was down, and the great rise in the crime rate characteristic of the times after that can easily be traced to other factors than the relatively easy access Americans had to firearms. The huge demographic bulge of the Baby Boomers entering their most crime-prone years, the insane refusal to even consider legalizing marijuana, much less anything "harder," and the breakdown in the social structure of minority neighborhoods due to Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," more than account for the rise in the crime rate. Unfortunately, the spectacular, televised assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, as well as that of Martin Luther King (for some reason, nobody seemed to mind much about George Wallace), as well as the unrest in the ghettoes consequent upon the civil rights movement, frightened many middle-class Americans. Modern gun control started out, at least as much as anything else, as a way to get guns out of the hands of militant blacks.
In most ways, the Temperance movement has the gun control movement beaten hands down in terms of sheer honesty. Except for the notoriously supple-minded Anti-Saloon League, one of the most Machiavellian lobbies ever seen on the North American continent, most of the Temperance movement was at least intellectually honest. In fact, the modern grape-juice industry can be traced to some churches with strong Temperance leanings trying to find an acceptable non-alcoholic substitute to use during Communion services. The worst dishonesty they can usually be accused of is continuing to use the word "Temperance," which means "moderation," instead of "Prohibition of Alcohol," but this can be explained by an adherence to tradition. Their propaganda was incredibly mawkish, even by the standards of their times, but sincerely meant and often, I must confess, quite true in individual cases. As the son of two alcoholics, I can testify that at no time did the Temperance/Prohibition movement ever lack for factual data about what can happen to people who drink too much. They did dwell too much on the alcoholic and ignore the moderate drinker, but they usually honestly believed that "moderate drinker" was another word for "future alcoholic."
The gun-control lobby, on the other hand, is extremely chary of naming its true goal, most of the time. They are past-masters at dividing and conquering, having managed to successfully convince people that, at first, they just wanted to get guns out of the hands of those scary militants and Black Panthers; then, that they just wanted to get the scary-looking guns and inexpensive guns out of the hands of those ordinary people, and so on. This reassures the rich celebrities that their expensive shotguns are safe, or at worst, won't be thrown into the blast furnaces until they, themselves are safely dead.
Similar Profiles; Similar Results?
The gun-control and Temperance movements appeal to much the same sort of people; middle-class, comfortable, and easily frightened by scary stories about what will happen if some awful hobgoblin is not put down at once. As the churches became more and more friendly to Temperance, the Temperance movement could increasingly count on women's support; no mean thing, even before the vote was given to them. Since the saloon was more and more a men-only establishment, and in many cases was as disreputable and frowzy as Temperance painted it, it wasn't difficult to stir up feminine resentment at this rival to home and family; it diverted the family's rightful income, it tempted upright, apple-cheeked youths into the tobacco-stinking world of men, away from their sorrowing mothers, and in their imaginations, it hosted all sorts of other vices, ranging from gambling to prostitution to God-knows-what. After the Civil War, the Temperance movement was mainly dominated by women, beginning with the eminently respectable, unmarried Emma Willard, and descending to poor, crazy Carry Nation -- the Harridan with the Hatchet.
Similarly, in many suburban families, a gun is a thing you only see on TV, or in the possession of the police. The huge expansion of suburbia following World War II meant that fewer and fewer men could easily go hunting, and target ranges grew rarer and rarer. Lack of familiarity with anything is easily translated into fear of that thing, and since until recently, very few women were at ease with firearms, many of the gun-control lobby's arguments are targeted on them with laser-beam accuracy: "A gun in the house means a child will die," "Children will shoot each other if guns are around," and so on play on the fears of almost any mother. Never mind that if safety for children was the goal, it would be far better to outlaw bicycles, or private swimming pools. All you have to do is mention a possible threat to children, and just like their great-grandmothers, suburban housewives will rush like lemmings to Do Something Now. I have never heard of some mentally-disturbed woman taking the rantings of the gun control movement as much to heart as Carry Nation did, but times and mores have changed, and so have the laws about dealing with mental illness.
Legally, the Temperance activists can also claim the palm for honesty and clarity of thought. They first tried local solutions, but since evil men persisted in liking liquor, and loopholes in the law persisted in popping up, they went to state-wide prohibition. When this proved to be a flop, the Anti-Saloon League stole an idea from the Prohibition Party and went for an amendment to the Constitution. Although they used some extremely slippery means to get Congress to vote for it, and although they depended frankly on being able to muster their members to the polls like so many medieval mercenaries, willing to vote for a known alcoholic who always voted the way the League said over a sincere teetotaler who didn't do as he was told, the ASL at least didn't treat the Constitution as so much excess baggage from a long-gone era. Also, the Volstead Act, passed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, did not allow for many exceptions, and the exceptions it did allow were almost all for religious or medicinal uses. The only bit of kowtowing in there was to farmers, who were allowed to brew cider for themselves, although the popularity of Temperance in the rural areas meant that most did not take advantage of this.
The gun-control zealots, on the other hand, are unwilling to admit defeat, and equally unwilling to say, out loud, that the Constitution is flatly against what they dearly want. If they were as open and honest as the old-time Anti-Saloon League, they would try to get people to support repealing the Second Amendment. Since they know that this will not ever happen, they try endless end runs around the plain language of the amendment, or weasel-worded statements that the Founding Fathers didn't really mean it, or didn't write what they really meant, or that "militia" and the modern National Guard are one and the same.
The things that the old-timers who wanted to prohibit alcohol and the moderns who want to prohibit firearms have in common are hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. I know that I said, above, that the Prohibitionists were more honest than the Brady Bunch, but this isn't exactly pinning the George Washington I-Cannot-Tell-A-Lie medal on them, not for one second. Many leaders in the Womens' Christian Temperance Union guzzled healthy doses of heavily alcoholic patent medicines, while rebuking their menfolk if they drank a beer, just as people like Sarah Brady and Carl Rowan feel entitled to have and use firearms, while denying them to the common rabble like you and me. Congressmen and Senators, from behind their screens of bodyguards, tell people in high-crime neighborhoods to depend on the police instead of arming themselves, just as wealthy men of the last century, sipping the wines they could buy perfectly legally, tried every trick in the book to close down the working men's saloons and taverns, to preserve the lower orders from temptation. Although I am not a Marxist, I can understand a good deal of what moved them sometimes.
The legacy of the Prohibition movement was manifold; ranging from the people crippled or dead from drinking poisonous wood alcohol, to a firmly-entrenched gangster subculture that only now seems to be loosening its hold, to attitudes about alcohol that are still heavily spiced with overtones of "The Sinful Thing." If poor old Carry A. Nation could be brought back from the grave to see what she had helped bring about, she would be distraught. What legacy will the gun-control fanatics leave us? Probably, given the track record of such well-meant, poorly-thought-out reforms, something not nearly as nice.
© 1999 Eric Oppen