Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle, and the gun control debate it ignited

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on March 22, 2013 at 10:36 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 10 at 10:50 AM

DALLAS -- When President Obama unveiled his gun control plan in mid-January with a sense of urgency after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings, it was a political echo from Dealey Plaza, 1963.

At his announcement, the president said, "To make a real and lasting difference, Congress, too, must act. And Congress must act soon."

Because history shows the best time to pass gun control bills follows national tragedies.

For the first time since the 1930's, the assassination of President Kennedy focused the nation's attention on the regulation of firearms after learning how Lee Harvey Oswald got his.

"It was very easy to order guns in those days," said Gary Mack, Curator of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. "There weren't any warnings or lookouts of any kind about Lee Harvey Oswald."

Within the first day after the assassination, through good police work and some luck, the FBI determined that Oswald bought the rifle the Warren Commission says he used to kill the president by simply ordering it through the mail.

Mack pointed out that Oswald bought the bolt-action Mannlicher Carcano rifle with scope from a Chicago company that placed an ad in the February, 1963, "American Rifleman" magazine. Using an alias, Oswald sent his order in for $21.45, including shipping.

He also bought the revolver used to kill Officer J.D. Tippit by mail, from a California firm.

"In 1963, there's no background check, you didn't have to have any witnesses, you didn't go through any paperwork to process a gun purchase," Mack said. "You send in the form and your check, and you're good to go."

Five days after the assassination, Democratic Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd filed legislation to restrict the sale of rifles and shotguns through the mail.

Although National Rifle Association leaders backed the bill, many members did not, and the legislation went nowhere in 1964 -- an election year.

At the presidential library of Lyndon Johnson in Austin, the record is clear that even LBJ, the consummate politician, couldn't push through a gun control bill in 1965, 1966, or 1967, either.

"Again, he was not able to circumvent the gun lobby," said LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove. "A great example of what he did do that year was get Medicare through. The AMA was also an incredibly powerful lobby, and LBJ figured how to outmaneuver them, but he couldn't quite get by the gun lobby."

But through tragedies in 1968, Johnson found a way.

In April of that year, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. And in June, just after winning the California Democratic primary, Senator Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

Updegrove says LBJ saw an opening for a renewed push for gun control in Kennedy's death.

"LBJ was a master at exploiting tragedy in order to get through legislation that wouldn't pass otherwise," he said.

With the public outraged, Johnson told aides he had 10 days to two weeks to strike in congress. He leaned hard for a senate vote on a gun control bill and succeeded, and kept the pressure on.

Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 by October, ending gun sales to minors, felons, the mentally ill, and by mail, except for licensed dealers.

At the October 22, 1968, bill signing Johnson said, "Effective crime control remains, in my judgment, effective gun control."

Johnson effectively showed why, in politics, timing is everything. Updegrove said the history lesson for President Obama is clear.

"[I]f you let that moment go, our attention focuses to other things," he said, "we look to other things and that moment is lost."

As the gun politics of the past ripple to the present, no one ever sees the weapon that ignited the gun control debate nearly five decades ago in Dallas, Oswald's rifle. The National Archives never loans it out.

Mack explained the reason: "It's an instrument of death."

E-mail bwatson@wfaa.com

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