U.S.A. –-(Ammoland.com)- On October 22, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968 into law. Initially conceived in 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the idea really gained momentum after the 1968 assassinations of both civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
President Kennedy was killed with a rifle purchased through the mail; King was killed with a rifle purchased by a convicted felon, and Senator Kennedy was killed with a revolver purchased by an alien (non-citizen) of the United States.
In the years between 1963 and 1968, there was plenty of debate surrounding gun control and the Second Amendment. The most notable quote from this timeframe came from now-deceased Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) during hearings before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in 1965.
Rep. Dingell said, “Consider the fact that we now have on the lawbooks of this nation over 20,000 laws governing the sale, distribution and use of firearms.”
With that in mind, Dingell's hope was to get people to consider the staggering amount of laws already on the books, and what, exactly, would adding one more accomplish. Dingell’s statistic would go on to be one of – if not the – most often quoted statistic regarding gun laws in the United States, even to this day. Much to the chagrin of legal minds everywhere, no one has ever been able to pin down the source from which Dingell came up with that figure.
The new Gun Control Act of 1968 aimed to curb the circumstances under which the arms used in the assassinations were acquired. As such, the new law imposed stricter licensing and regulation on the firearms industry, established new categories of firearms offenses, and prohibited the sale of firearms and ammunition to felons and certain other prohibited persons.
More specifically, it led to the rise of the Federal Firearms License for dealers and manufacturers of firearms, banned mail-order firearm sales, required serial numbers on all guns, and prohibited interstate handgun sales. The law also required that all newly manufactured firearms produced by licensed manufacturers in the US, as well as those imported into the country, bear a serial number. Firearms made prior to passage of the Gun Control Act and firearms manufactured by non-FFLs remain exempt from the serial number requirement. This is why many guns from the first half of the 20th century don't have serial numbers. It's also why Federal law does not prohibit a person from creating a firearm for their own use from one of the many 80% products on the market today.
When President Johnson signed the bill into law, these were some of his remarks: “Congress adopted most of our recommendations. But this bill – as big as this bill is – still falls short, because we just could not get the Congress to carry out the requests we made of them. I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry those guns. For the fact of life is that there are over 160 million guns in this country—more firearms than families. If guns are to be kept out of the hands of the criminal, out of the hands of the insane, and out of the hands of the irresponsible, then we just must have licensing. If the criminal with a gun is to be tracked down quickly, then we must have registration in this country. The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for the moment in an election year.”
In a contemporaneous issue of American Rifleman magazine, the NRA's Executive Vice President Franklin Orth opined on the new law. He wrote that even though parts of the law “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
About Logan Metesh
Logan Metesh is a historian with a focus on firearms history and development. He runs High Caliber History LLC and has more than a decade of experience working for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, and the NRA Museums. His ability to present history and research in an engaging manner has made him a sought after consultant, writer, and museum professional. The ease with which he can recall obscure historical facts and figures makes him very good at Jeopardy!, but exceptionally bad at geometry.