As parents in Newtown, Connecticut, bury the innocent victims of the nation’s latest gun rampage, it is worth nothing that politicians have been talking about gun control – and, on occasion, acting on it – for more than a century.
One of the nation’s oldest gun-control statutes was passed in New York in 1911. Known as Sullivan’s Law, in honor of its author, state Senator Timothy “Big Tim” Sullivan, the statute made the illegal possession of a firearm a felony, and required permits for those who wished to carry a concealed weapon. Gun dealers could no longer simply sell their wares – under the new law, they had to ask for and inspect a would-be buyer’s permit before they could complete the purchase.
Sullivan was one of the leaders of Tammany Hall, the political organization uniformly denounced in history as a den of corruption and sin. The New York Times once insisted that Big Tim Sullivan was not fit “for civilized company.” And yet it was Sullivan who decided that it was nothing short of insane to allow unrestricted gun ownership in New York.
Sullivan was, as his nickname indicated, a large man, and he was up to the challenge of taking on New York’s gun enthusiasts of a century ago. When he delivered an anti-gun speech at a political gathering in 1910, he noted that there probably were people in the audience who had a gun in their possession at that very moment. If they had a problem with gun regulations, Sullivan said, they should speak up. But nobody dared challenge Big Tim.
Sullivan hailed from the tough Bowery neighborhood, where gun violence was becoming commonplace. “No man knows more about [gun violence] than I do,” Sullivan said when he introduced his bill. “You must take my word … that I know what I am doing.”
His opponents in the progressive-reform movement thought they knew exactly what he was doing. One journalist charged that Sullivan supported gun control because he wanted his allies to plant weapons in the pockets of political opponents and gangsters who wouldn’t pay bribes.
Sullivan brushed off the criticism. And today, Sullivan’s Law still is on the books, a milestone in efforts to cut down on the slaughter of innocents in this country.