As our national debate on gun control continues, we can learn a great deal from FDR and his Fourth Freedom. This was part of his declaration of American principles as World War II loomed. He wrote:
The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into international terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation anywhere will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor.
Obviously, FDR’s focus was on the international aggression of the time, and how the Allies would respond. His goal of a world without fear also applies to his view of the presence of guns in the United States.
As Adam Winkler writes in the New Republic:
Like health care, social security, and so many other issues central to the Democratic agenda, the party’s support for gun control stems from Franklin D. Roosevelt. For most of American history, regulation of guns was a matter of state law. State-level regulation, however, came under tremendous pressure during the 1920s and 30s, when Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone overwhelmed local police resources and traveling desperadoes like Bonnie and Clyde easily escaped capture by racing across state lines. FDR promoted a “New Deal for Crime,” which, like his other New Deal policies, involved expanding the role of the federal government in serving the people.
Roosevelt’s original proposal for what would become the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal gun control law, sought to tax all firearms and establish a national registry of guns. When gun owners objected, Congress scaled down FDR’s proposal to allow only for a restrictive tax on machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, which were thought to be gangster weapons with no usefulness for self-defense.
Clearly, FDR’s initial proposal is one that would be the dream of every current progressive Democrat and anathema to the NRA and its compatriots in the Tea Party. It’s hard to compare the “paring down” the Congress did with regard to machine guns and sawed-off shotguns to current calls for restrictions on semi-automatic, or at least automatic, weapons.
The outgrowth was:
Congress watered down FDR’s bill because of concerns about maintaining the right of people in rural communities, where there was little police presence, to have handguns for protection—not because of the Second Amendment.
As we previously reported, the wording of the Second Amendment is confusing at best. It has only been in recent years that the libertarian view of gun ownership has adopted the Second Amendment as its primary principle. In FDR’s era, even those who wanted few restrictions on gun ownership used more reasonable arguments such as the need for people in rural communities to protect themselves, particularly in areas where few law enforcement officials were available.
FDR’s work was carried on by Lyndon Johnson, in the wake of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. But by Johnson’s time, the NRA had become a powerful political force, and Congress refused to pass his modest proposals.
Many people feel that because of the recent spate of mindless massacres, the timing is auspicious for meaningful reform. However, the time was even more auspicious following the assassinations of the 1960s, yet Congress did not act. If we are able to achieve meaningful reform, we should be thankful to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who preached and practiced consistent international and domestic policies that worked to minimize the presence of any and all kinds of lethal weapons.