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Against All Odds

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In a sense, the court was right. Advocates of gun confiscation were aiming at law-abiding citizens, not criminals. At an anti-gun rally the week before the election, Sen. Edward Kennedy explained, “We won’t keep guns out of the hands of criminals.” After the election, an official with the League of Women Voters (which vigorously supported the ban) said, “I think a lot of voters have that idea that this was designed to get guns away from the criminals. That’s not the real purpose.”

In the early 1970s, Massachusetts gun owners were numerous, but they were disorganized, disillusioned and defeatist. That began to change in 1974, when the NRA helped organize a joint sportsmen’s committee, which soon became the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL). With gun owners cooperating and contributing, goal was able to hire a full-time executive director, and then a secretary. To have two people working full-time on gun rights issues made a big difference, starting in the state legislature.

Together, GOAL and NRA began a grassroots education campaign against Question 5. It started with county-level meetings throughout the state in August. Voter registration information was distributed in English and Spanish. The meetings were attended by 18,000 people, and from them came nearly 2,000 volunteers. The meetings also raised money for billboards, fliers and other advertising.

The GOAL and NRA activists made their case to other organizations, including the Farm Bureau, Grange, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, the Western Massachusetts Labor Council and many local union members, who joined them in opposing Question 5.

By far the most important, in the eyes of swing voters, were the police. Every major police organization in the state opposed handgun confiscation—including the Chiefs of Police Association, the State Police Association, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the Sheriffs Association.

The police pointed out the ban was not enforceable, that it took the focus off the criminals and that it was unfair to deprive good citizens of defensive handguns. The police also objected that the law would disarm off-duty police: Massachusetts law required off-duty police have a pistol carry permit, and if Question 5 passed, pistol carry permits would no longer exist.

The confiscation lobby may not have intended to disarm the police, but their bill had been drafted by someone who admitted that he did not understand guns. Apparently the drafter did not understand gun laws very well, either.

Perhaps surprised by the police opposition, diGrazia ordered the Planning and Research Department of the Boston Police Department to conduct the first national survey of police attitudes toward guns. The survey of leading police officials found that 82.8 percent did not believe that only the police should be allowed to have handguns. The survey was kept under wraps until 1977, by which time diGrazia had left Boston. (He took over in Montgomery County, Md., and was later removed after rank-and-file police voted “no confidence” in him.)

Another major public concern was the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that would be needed to compensate gun owners for the seizure of at least 800,000 handguns. Even Dukakis admitted that there was no money in the state budget to do so.

Buckley retorted that the proposal said that the compensation price would be “determined by the Commissioner of Public Safety.” So, continued Buckley, gun owners should receive “not one cent.” Nor would they receive anything for their now-worthless ammunition, holsters, reloading tools and so on.

Yet advocates continued to describe the handgun confiscation plan as a “buyback”—even though the government had never owned the guns in the first place, and even though taking someone’s property against his or her will and without paying for it is usually called “stealing” rather than “buying.”

Buckley’s rationale for paying nothing was simple: “We’ve got a right to get poison out of society.” He denounced the Springfield, Mass., handgun manufacturer Smith & Wesson as “merchants of death.”

The week before the election, the dirty tricks began. Common Cause, a leading proponent of Question 5, and (supposedly) an election ethics watchdog, held a press conference to accuse GOAL of money laundering. The charge was based on nothing more than the fact that GOAL’s street address had been omitted from some campaign finance reports.

On Election Day, Nov. 2, 1976, pro-gun volunteers distributed over 2 million handouts outside the polls.

The final poll, a few days before, had showed Question 5 with a 10-point lead. Everyone anticipated a long night waiting for the election results. Everyone was wrong.

Handgun confiscation was crushed by a vote of 69 percent to 31 percent. Of the approximately 500 towns in Massachusetts, only about a dozen (including Cambridge, Brookline, Newton and Amherst) voted for the ban. Even Boston rejected the ban by a wide margin.

People vs. Handguns said that it was “shocked.” The group had been counting on what Buckley called “women power” to defeat the “false machismo” of men. Frightening women about handguns in the home (such as by showing a baby with a gun in his mouth) was part of Buckley’s strategy to move the focus away from “street crime.” But in the final week, Massachusetts women swung decisively against the ban. Apparently they did not think that “women power” meant disarming women and the police.

The gun prohibitionists bitterly complained that they were outspent by the gun rights advocates. This is true, if one looks solely at direct election expenditures. However, the gun prohibitionists received millions of dollars in free publicity from The Boston Globe, The Berkshire Eagle, television stations and much of the rest of the media. The constitutional rights advocates spent much more money on advertising because they had to in order for the public to hear their point of view. Without the paid advertising purchased by gun rights advocates, the free media in support of the prohibitionists would have overwhelmed the debate and won the day. Without the three-month campaign by volunteers handing out fliers in shopping malls, union halls and polling places, many voters would never have learned about the dangers of confiscation.

The 1976 victory in Massachusetts teaches some important lessons for today. First, the continuing support of Second Amendment issues by rank-and-file law enforcement officers is extremely important in garnering public support for the rights of law-abiding citizens. This is why the anti-gun groups are relentless in their efforts to attempt to drive a wedge between Second Amendment supporters and the police, with phony claims that Second Amendment rights endanger the police.

Second, the preservation of Second Amendment rights nationally depends upon a national organization that has resources to fight locally. Perhaps you live in a state such as Montana, where there is zero possibility that any state or local government would ever confiscate guns. But that doesn’t mean that what happens in Massachusetts (or New York, California, etc.) is irrelevant to you. The tactics of the national gun-ban groups are to use state and local bans as the starting point for national bans.

By 1994, only four states and a handful of cities had passed bans on so-called “assault weapons.” Two of the states (California and New Jersey) had far-reaching bans, while in Maryland and Hawaii, the ban was only for “assault” handguns. Yet this four-state foundation was enough for the gun prohibition lobbies to be able to push a national ban into law in 1994.

Counting on the U.S. Supreme Court for protection would be extremely foolish. With one more Obama appointment, there will be a Supreme Court majority to overturn the Heller and McDonald decisions, or to interpret them so narrowly as to make them useless.

As a result of the election, the National Council to Control Handguns (now known as the Brady Campaign) shifted its tactics, to move toward confiscation more gradually. Its leader, Pete Shields, explained, “People can be led, but only a little way at a time.”

Today, the enemies of the Second Amendment are considerably stronger in some respects than they were in 1976. It is true that what little grassroots support they had then has now almost entirely disappeared. But instead, they have the enormously deep pockets of billionaire gun banners such as Michael Bloomberg and George Soros. With the plutocrats’ wealth, plus the free publicity that the mainstream media continue to give to the gun ban advocates, the prohibitionists have a much larger advantage than they did in 1976. On Capitol Hill and in the state legislatures, Bloomberg’s army of professional lobbyists is enormous.

In 1775 and 1776, the brave citizens of Massachusetts, aided by patriots in other states, defeated the attempts by King George III to confiscate their firearms. In 1976, the citizens of Massachusetts once more defeated gun confiscation, again with the help of patriots from all over America.

The gun banners are not stopping, and neither must we. Even where the gun banners are strongest, they can be defeated—if Americans who revere the Constitution remain vigilant and active in support of the NRA and its state and local allies.

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