Assassination, Blame, and Gun Control

In the wake of the recent shootings in Arizona, Wired magazine looks at at a Secret Service study on the motivations of assassins. Although they vary, politics plays a surprisingly small role.

Contrary to popular assumptions about public killings, the attackers didn’t conform to any particular demographic profile. But when Fein reconstructed their patterns of thinking, he was able to distill them into a handful of recurring motives for killing a public person — motives that seemed consistent regardless of whether a given individual was delusional or not (and three quarters of those who pulled the trigger were not).

Some hoped to achieve notoriety by killing a well-known person. Others wanted to end their pain by being killed by Secret Service. Still others hoped to avenge a perceived, idiosyncratic grievance unrelated to mainstream politics. Some hoped, unrealistically, to save the country or call attention to a cause. And some hoped to achieve a special relationship with the person they were killing.

Related, especially in the case of the Arizona shooter, is a look at the psychology of conspiracy theories, which were just as prevalent in the 19th century (maybe more so) than now.

Although John Brown was not an assassin, he fits the profile also as someone who saw himself as God’s instrument. Brown may have been nuts but he was far from being a lone madman—he was abetted and financed by a group of radical New England Abolitionists who later became known as the Secret Six. These were not marginal figures—some, like Gerrit Smith, were quite wealthy and others were ministers. Without them Brown could not have done what he did.

What they were not, however, were Republicans. Then as now the Democrats immediately began to try to hang the blame for the Harpers Ferry raid on their opponents. Although many Republicans privately favored abolition, the party’s platform called only for stopping the spread of slavery in the territories. Lincoln addressed this in his famous Cooper Union speech:

You charge that we stir up insurrections among your slaves. We deny it; and what is your proof? Harper’s Ferry! John Brown!! John Brown was no Republican; and you have failed to implicate a single Republican in his Harper’s Ferry enterprise. If any member of our party is guilty in that matter, you know it or you do not know it. If you do know it, you are inexcusable for not designating the man and proving the fact. If you do not know it, you are inexcusable for asserting it, and especially for persisting in the assertion after you have tried and failed to make the proof. You need to be told that persisting in a charge which one does not know to be true, is simply malicious slander.

Also predictably the Tucson shooting has led to calls for gun control. While pushed as a public safety measure, gun control also has a long history as a tool of political repression. I will not bore you with the usual suspects (Hitler, Lenin, Mao, etc.), but it’s worthwhile to note that in the Reconstruction-era South gun control was pretty much synonymous with “disarming the Negroes.” Similarly, modern gun control stems from the still-in-force Sullivan Act in New York, passed in 1911. It is named for Tammany Hall pol “Big Tim” Sullivan, whose idea it was. Among his other accomplishments Sullivan pioneered the idea of an active partnership with criminal gangs, and the main purpose of the act seems to have been to disarm his opponents, mainly the Italian immigrants who were muscling in on his rackets, while allowing his bodyguards to keep theirs. The $3 registration fee, a lot of money in those days, also effectively disarmed the rest of the population, especially since issuance of the permit was (and is) totally at the discretion of the police.

Still, proponents have been at pains to point out that gun control was common in the Old West, and to some extent this is true. For example, in Arizona

In late 1880, as regional violence ratcheted up, Tombstone strengthened its existing ban on concealed weapons to outlaw the carrying of any deadly weapons within the town limits. The Earps (who were Republicans) and Doc Holliday maintained that they were acting as law officers—not citizen vigilantes—when they shot their opponents [at the OK Corral]. That is to say, they were sworn officers whose jobs included enforcement of Tombstone’s gun laws.

However this was a local ordinance that applied only in town. Otherwise you were free to own and carry any gun you liked. Like Sullivan, the Earps were not exactly saints—Tombstone was a hotbed of vice including gambling and prostitution, all of which the they indulged in freely. Once again, it looks a lot like people protecting their own rackets.

So what’s the Civil War connection here?

Vitriolic politics served as the backdrop in both cases. Most historians of the Shootout at the OK Corral now agree that partisan divisions between the mostly Republican Earp faction and the Southern Democrat Clantons and McLaurys helped stir the pot. The violence can be viewed as a last battle of the Civil War – the bloodiest political conflict of them all.

The Earps were Republicans. Who knew?


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