Guns and Politics: Why It’s So Hard to Stop the Shooting

By Jack Limpert

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 1.03.19 AMOne of my first Washingtonian issues, in February 1970, had this cover headline:

Will the Gun Lobby Get Joe Tydings?

The story, by Ernest B. Fergurson, Washington bureau chief of the Baltimore Sun, looked ahead to the November 1970 election. Democratic incumbent Tydings had been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964 with a 63-37 percent margin over J. Glenn Beall, a Republican two-term incumbent. Tydings’ opponent in 1970 turned out to be J. Glenn Beall Jr.

The inside head on the Tydings story was: “Can a Kennedy Liberal, Unloved by the Political Pros, Hated by the Gun Lobby, With Only Good Looks and a Famous Name, Guts, and $2,581,520, Win Reelection to the United States Senate and Grow Up to be Vice President?”

The opening of Furgurson’s story:

The bumper stickers say, “Playboy Joe Has Got to Go.”

Playboy Joe is not Joe Willie Namath. He is instead blond, six-two, a former end and lacrosse player. He seldom drinks in public, and holds it to a couple of scotch-and-waters before dinner when at home with his wife and four children….

A playboy Joe Tydings is not. When he was 26 and a freshman legislator in Annapolis, his colleagues considered him a square, a bachelor who cramped their style in the bumptious after-session night life. That was 15 years ago. Now he is 41, the senior Senator from Maryland, chairman of the District of Columbia Committee, chairman of the judicial improvements subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, subject of occasional gossip about great things to come—and still as square as any man with a beautiful wife, a stable of hunters, and $2,581,520 can be.

The bumper stickers refer to the magazine. Last March, Playboy sold five-million-plus copies which had, sandwiched in between the bosom of Playmate Kathy MacDonald (a suburban Baltimore girl) and the screen doings of Mercy Humppe, Senator Joseph D. Tydings’ outspoken article on “Americans and the Gun.” Thus sandwiched, it got a lot of readership. As a result, Tydings, habitually a political maverick, is in more trouble than usual as he comes up for reelection this year.

His article was a strongly stated argument for gun control, which did not elaborate enough on the fact that Tydings himself is a regular huntsman and has been since he used to greet the morning sun in the blinds with his step-father, the late Senator Millard E. Tydings….

Tydings bemoaned the defeat of stronger gun control legislation in 1968, when the public dismay following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy did not last long enough to overcome the organized lobbying of the National Rifle Association. He took on the NRA’s “extremist bureaucracy,” claiming the NRA had an economic stake in the fight against gun controls, and “is only the most visible part of a hobby that includes some gun manufacturers, large surplus-gun importers, and some wildlife organizations.” He outlined the NRA’s phony exemption from lobbying regulations, declared that “the radical right’s philosophy, fears and militant racism pervade the gun lobby,” and swore to come back and try again for strong gun laws despite such opposition.

Merely voting for gun controls is enough to put a state or national legislator on the NRA’s black list. Tydings’ head-on attack put him in the bull’s-eye of the organizations’s efforts to retire any politician who differs with it. Within a month after Playboy hit the stands, the bumper stickers starting showing up.
In November 1970, Joe Tydings lost to Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr. by a 51-48 percent margin.

In 1976, Democrat Paul Sabanes defeated Senator Beall by a 57-39 percent margin and was re-elected four times by margins of 64-36, 62-38, 59-41, and 63-37.

A politician, looking at what happened to Joe Tydings in 1970, probably would conclude that taking on the gun lobby can cost you an election—even after the 1960s assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.


  1. Mike Feinsilber says

    Front-page editorial in the December 4 New York Times:

    End the Gun Epidemic in America

    ​ It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.

    All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of innocents, in California. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are searching for motivations, including the vital question of how the murderers might have been connected to international terrorism. That is right and proper.

    But motives do not matter to the dead in California, nor did they in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places. The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.

    It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.

    Opponents of gun control are saying, as they do after every killing, that no law can unfailingly forestall a specific criminal. That is true. They are talking, many with sincerity, about the constitutional challenges to effective gun regulation. Those challenges exist. They point out that determined killers obtained weapons illegally in places like France, England and Norway that have strict gun laws. Yes, they did.

    But at least those countries are trying. The United States is not. Worse, politicians abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them, and voters allow those politicians to keep their jobs. It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their number drastically — eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition.

    It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment. No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.

    Certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition, must be outlawed for civilian ownership. It is possible to define those guns in a clear and effective way and, yes, it would require Americans who own those kinds of weapons to give them up for the good of their fellow citizens.

    What better time than during a presidential election to show, at long last, that our nation has retained its sense of decency?

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