Sources for Connecticut's role in the gun control debate
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which “protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” was written in December 1791, yet since then this issue has often been subject to as much interpretation and argument as any other in our nation. The right to own a gun, central to many as representative of our rights and responsibilities as citizens, has been controversial and divisive throughout our country’s history, yet never more so than the present. Connecticut was tragically placed in the forefront of the gun debate after a horrific mass shooting of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in December 2012. History shows us that Connecticut had other roles in history in the gun debate, particularly in the formation of The Gun Control Act of 1968.
Thomas J. Dodd placed himself in the forefront of the debate when he represented Connecticut in the Senate in the 1960s. Born in Norwich in 1907, Dodd graduated from Providence College in 1930 and earned his law degree from Yale Law School in 1933. He worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Youth Administration in the 1930s and was an assistant to the United States Attorneys General from 1938 to 1945. One of Dodd’s most notable accomplishments was serving as Executive Trial Counsel during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 and 1946, which prosecuted Nazi war criminals after World War II.
Dodd served in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Connecticut’s first district, from 1953 to 1957, and in the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1971. As a Senator, one of his signature causes for which he relentlessly fought was that of gun control. As early as 1961, as Chairman of the Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee, Dodd was speaking out about the need for greater regulation, citing the problem of violence on television and rising levels of gun violence, particularly as it affected young people. Dodd broadened his focus to encompass all gun violence and in 1963 crafted Senate Bill 1975, a Bill to Regulate the Interstate Shipment of Firearms, which promoted the need for regulation of interstate sales of long guns, dealt with issues of juvenile delinquency and accessibility to firearms, and barred criminals and the mentally deficient from owning guns. Dodd contended that this bill would not render an undue burden to lawful gun owners; in a statement he made to the Senate’s Commerce Committee on December 13, 1963, he said it “ involves no real obstacle to any law-abiding citizen who wishes to purchase a weapon, no more an obstacle than that to operate a bicycle, far less than that required to operate an automobile.” The bill, which Dodd described in a speech given on August 12, 1964, was “unreasonably and unjustly opposed by a loud and well organized hard-core minority,” faced resistance and died in the Commerce Committee without a vote ever taken on it.
The defeat of S. 1975 did not deter Dodd’s quest for gun control legislation, and he pressed ahead with other bills. Senate Bill 1592, A Bill to Amend the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, which Dodd submitted in May 1965 at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to control the illicit sale of guns “to known criminals, mental patients, narcotic addicts and others to which local law prohibits the ownership of firearms.” With the encouragement of the National Rifle Association thousands of hunters across the country sent Dodd letters stating their opposition to the bill. Like Dodd’s previous bill, this one died in committee.
Dodd pressed on. In January 1967 he introduced a similar bill, designed to increase fees and the regulation of firearms dealers and impose a federal minimum age requirement for handguns and long guns. Better known as the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, it passed in the Senate in May 1968 and by the House of Representatives on June 6, the day after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Other firearms measures were introduced, including the proposal to ban interstate sales of long guns, affixing a serial number on all firearms, and establishing a national gun licensing system, and on October 22, 1968, President Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968. The main objectives of this Act were to eliminate interstate traffic in firearms and ammunition; deny access to firearms to minors, convicted felons, and persons who had been committed to mental institutions; and enact prohibitions on the importation of firearms “with no sporting purpose.”
Dodd’s Congressional papers, held in Archives & Special Collections of the University of Connecticut Libraries, are replete with the many speeches, press releases, passages from the Congressional Record, and memoranda where he spoke out for the need for gun control. The records show he repeatedly spoke to Congress on this issue, citing statistics and examples of the rise in crimes involving firearms in localities across the United States. His passion on the topic shows in every document and aptly illustrates his relentless fight against overwhelming opposition. In October 1968, following the passage of the bill, he wrote “No one can predict how many lives will be spared because of this bill, but, if the bloody record of our yesterdays is any measure, millions of future Americans will live to enjoy the promise of many peaceful tomorrows. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play a part in this great moment in our time.”
Links to sources in the Thomas J. Dodd Papers:
Statement by Senator Thomas J. Dodd...concerning S. 1975, with Amendments, a Bill to Regulate the Interstate shipment of Firearms, to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, December 13, 1963.
Speech by Senator Thomas J. Dodd in the Senate, as recorded in the Congressional Record, on the Amendment to Federal Firearms Act, October 15, 1965
Press release -- "Senator Dodd Urges Controls Over Long Guns", May 16, 1968.
Press release -- "Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D-Conn.) fired a double salvo at the nation's 'gun lobbies' and 'gun-nuts' today when he called for stiff regulation of all firearms in America," June 10, 1968.
Statement on the floor of the Senate, "The Sickness of Violence and the Need for Gun Control Legislation," June 11, 1968.
Press release -- "Dodd Gun Bill Becomes Law, First in 30 Years," June 20, 1968.
Telegram from a supporter to Senator Dodd congratulating him on a speech he gave before Congress, May 8, 1968.
Cartoon by Hugh Haynie, "Anybody Who'd Deny Guns to Us Crackpots, Kids and Criminals Oughta Be Shot!," referring to Senator Dodd's bill to curb mail-order guns, undated.
Many more documents can be found in the Thomas J. Dodd Papers, Archives & Special Collections of the University of Connecticut Libraries.
Links to other sources for information about The Gun Control Act of 1968:
Zimring, Franklin E. "Firearms and Federal Law: The Gun Control Act of 1968. Journal of Legal Studies, no. 133, 1975. http://www.saf.org/lawreviews/zimring68.htm
Public Law 90-618, United States Government Printing Office. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-82/pdf/STATUTE-82-Pg1213-2.pdf
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