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When It Comes To Guns, Congress Has Always Been in the Pocket of Profit Chasers

How profit motives have driven two centuries of American gun laws.
Mark Ralston/Getty Images

No matter how bad mass shootings get, no matter how much the stomach-churning scenes from Las Vegas play across our televisions this week, Congress simply will not act.

The massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook gave rise to the Moms Demand Action grass-roots movement for gun control, but even they could not force Congress into action. The Republican majority’s inaction in the face of this tragedy is striking evidence of the National Rifle Association’s enormous influence on Capitol Hill.

But if we are to take lawmakers at their word, one more principled reason they have not passed new gun control legislation is because gun control laws don’t work. Only a day after the horrific murder of scores of people in Las Vegas, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders invoked this reasoning when she explained, “One of the things we don’t want to do, is to try to create laws that won’t stop these types of things from happening.” Look at Chicago, she continued. It has “the strictest gun laws in the country and that certainly hasn’t helped there.”

Put another way, Sanders believes that there is just something about Americans that means that some will get guns and will murder their fellow citizens. That’s just who we are, apparently.

Much of the story of gun control in America has played out from the New Deal to the present, with Congress enacting major legislation after the advent of the “Tommy gun” in the 1930s, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

But a long-lost episode from America’s earliest days illustrates that even in the nation’s infancy, politicians wrestled with the problem of firearms, both in terms of the scope of federal authority and of a mythic American exceptionalism that purportedly marked the outer limits of the power of law when it comes to guns.

Like so much of American politics in these years, the story began with the Haitian Revolution. In 1791, black revolutionaries rose up against French colonizers in a conflict that lasted for more than a decade.

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