Context — June 26, 2015, 5:29 pm

The Traffic in Guns

A Forgotten Lesson of the Assassination 

Published in the December 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The Traffic in Guns” explores how the gun lobby stifled gun-control legislation in the 1960s. The full article is free to read at through June 29. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to our entire 165-year archive.


From a Huffington Post report, published June 18, 2015, on President Barack Obama’s response to the massacre of nine African Americans by a white gunman in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities have had to endure tragedies like this too many times,” [President Obama] continued. “Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. … We as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

The guiding principle of the NRA is the belief that the only justifiable laws are those providing stiffer penalties for the criminal use of guns, and that preventive measures, such as a registration requirement, would neither stop lawbreakers from obtaining guns nor reduce crime.

To support this thesis, the NRA vilifies as ineffective New York’s strict Sullivan law, which requires a permit to own as well as to buy a handgun. Congressman Dingell once called it “the continuing sorrow of collectors, shooters, and hunters.” The state’s high crime rate is cited as evidence.

But in fact, as Senator [Thomas] Dodd has pointed out, the homicide rate per 100,000 population in cities with some gun regulation is lower than in those with no controls. In the first group the rate in 1962 was: New York, 5.4; Chicago, 7.6; Los Angeles, 6; Philadelphia, 4.9; and Detroit, 5.5. In pistol-packing Phoenix and Dallas, with virtually no gun controls at all, the homicide rates were 8.1 and 13.4, respectively.

Opponents of gun-control laws question the validity of such comparisons. But this is really not the issue. For like most lobbies, this one is powered by dollars-and-cents logic, with a strong admixture of pseudopatriotism to give it added status.

Hunting, target, skeet, and trap shooting are big business today. Their devotees spend an estimated $200 million to $250 million a year on guns, ammunition, and shooting accessories. Even more lucrative are the “side” ramifications, which probably produce a billion dollars annually for the makers of automobiles, fuel, wearing apparel, and boats. 

Also worried about legislation that might hamper hunters are state conservation departments, which depend heavily on hunting license fees and taxes for financial support. There is, of course, no law now on the books or under consideration that would prevent the bona fide sportsman from buying any weapon or ammunition he needs to train his sights on a buck, quail, or clay pigeon. Indeed the genuine sportsman’s voice is seldom heard in the outcry against gun-control laws. The dominant note is the shrill voice of the superpatriot. His sentiments were once well synthesized by Goldwater’s ghost-writer, Karl Hess, in a magazine article. “The question of freedom, when stripped to its steel center, is just this: Who has the guns?” 

Read the full article here.

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Secrets and Lies·

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Seeking Asylum·

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Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Poem for Harm·

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Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Good Bad Bad Good·

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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