Power  /  Antecedent

Even in the 1960s, the NRA Dominated Gun Control Debates

Lyndon Johnson wanted sweeping new gun control laws. Instead he got crumbs.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the immediate aftermath of the terrible massacre in Las Vegas, reporters asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the tragedy had changed President Trump’s views on gun control. She responded that it was “premature to discuss policy when we don’t know all the facts.”

The answer was unsurprising. Since November, Trump and Republicans in Congress have moved to further promote the agenda of the National Rifle Association on issues such as gun silencers and background checks. Even the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others did not stymie the rush to weaken existing laws.

But for those seeking significant gun control, Sanders’s admonition fell on deaf ears. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut blasted his fellow lawmakers who offered words without policy, tweeting, “To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”

Murphy’s admonishment echoes those of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, who sought to strengthen gun control laws in the wake of the violence and assassinations that rocked the 1960s. But, like today, Johnson faced a firm and committed foe in the form of the National Rifle Association and its allies. While the NRA was less focused on politics in 1968 than it is today and less stridently opposed to any gun regulation whatsoever, it already had ample political power to crush Johnson’s efforts.

Johnson’s last crusade against guns before leaving office began in June 1968, just weeks after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Earlier that month, the assassination of Robert Kennedy shook the nation, adding to the urgency of Johnson’s effort. For the second time in only two months, he was forced to confront a national tragedy related to gun violence.