While campaigning for president in 1968, Bobby Kennedy was confronted by protesters in Roseburg, Oregon.
They were upset with a bill he backed in the Senate that banned mail-order sales of shotguns and rifles and made it illegal to sell them to most felons and people with mental illnesses. Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated with a rifle bought by mail.
"Does that make any sense that you should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, of people who are insane, or of people who are mentally incompetent or people who are so young that they don’t know how to handle rifles or guns?" Kennedy asked.
At the time, the gun lobby had successfully stalled his push for the bill. But within two weeks of his remarks in Roseburg, Bobby Kennedy would be shot dead in a hotel in Los Angeles, prompting swift action by Congress to pass the bill. Gun owners were able to fend off President Lyndon Johnson's effort to strengthen the measure by requiring gun owners to be licensed and to register their firearms, according to a contemporaneous writeup in the CQ Almanac. But the weaker version passed with the assent of NRA executives.
What's really amazing, though, is that for a long time, some gun owners and their representatives in Washington thought it was okay for felons, the mentally ill, and children to have access to firearms — or at least that it was appropriate to stall federal legislation aimed at keeping weapons out of their hands. It took the assassination of a second Kennedy in less than five years to move Congress in 1968.
In the aftermath of the shooting rampage in Roseburg last week — and countless massacres before that — the answer from Congress is silence. Just like after the mass killings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Charleston, South Carolina. It used to be that major events spurred American policymakers to action. That was the case after Bobby Kennedy died, and the "Brady bill," which established background checks for gun sales, was named for White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was disabled in the 1981 attempt on Ronald Reagan's life.
But we found out when Rep. Gabby Giffords was nearly killed in a fatal shooting spree in 2011 that Congress won't even act to protect its own anymore. And if Congress won't protect its own from gun violence, you can be sure it won't be moved to protect ordinary citizens.