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Archives Find of the Month: Gun Control, 1914

In June 1914, Seattle’s chief of police wrote to the mayor and city council urging passage of a gun control ordinance, attaching a recently passed Chicago law that he thought was a good model. The law required sellers to obtain a license and to report all sales, and required buyers to obtain permits, which could be refused to minors and criminals. It also prohibited the display of weapons in store windows. The chief stated that “a number of officers in this department believe that such an ordinance, if enacted in this city, would do very much good.”

A bill based on the Chicago law was introduced about a month later (after a second urging by the police chief), but languished under discussion for another 18 months. During that time, citizens and other interested parties made their views on the proposed law known to the council. Owners of sporting goods stores wanted the law to forbid secondhand and pawn shops from stocking the regulated weapons. If the law was passed as drafted, they were concerned that “legitimate dealers will adhere strictly to its terms while the second hand and pawn shops will violate it freely, selling to anyone, licensed or unlicensed. In this way we will be at a greater disadvantage than now.”

Another store owner protested the proposed $25 yearly license fee to sell firearms, claiming it “operates to the benefit of the big Gun dealers and will bring the death knell of such firms as our own.” He stated that his store had been “doing a straightforward, honest, clean business in Seattle for the past twenty odd years…and no one can point the finger of reproach at us for furnishing arms to crooks.” He claimed the law “will never prevent crooks getting guns, but will make it difficult for honest citizens to obtain them for legitimate use.”

However, the other side was speaking up as well. One woman wrote in support of the proposed regulations because “every fool nowadays can by [sic] a weapon and come and shoot other[s] down.” She wrote of talking to a woman whose cat had been stolen; the woman had told the writer she would “fix the party so she would never again take a cat” by shooting her. The writer believed that if guns were harder to obtain, there “would be less crime and expense to the country.”

The ordinance was finally voted on and passed in January of 1916 – but was promptly vetoed by Mayor Hiram Gill. He disliked both the sellers’ license fees and the buyers’ permits, saying the latter created a hassle for law-abiding citizens “who purchase weapons for the protection which they will give women at home,” while criminals would always find a way to get a gun. He also argued that most weapons were not used for criminal purposes, claiming that “the greatest protection which homes have is where the ordinary criminal believes there is a firearm.” He added, “Many people have been killed with axes, and you might just as well legislate against them.”

Councilmembers were not persuaded by the mayor’s arguments – they voted to override the veto, and the passed bill became Ordinance 35790.

 

See other Archives Finds of the Month here:

http://seattle.gov/CityArchives/Exhibits/finds.htm

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/seattlemunicipalarchives/

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