DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And this week's mass shooting at a church in Texas has many people talking about gun control. Now, Congress first started looking into different kinds of gun legislation during the Prohibition-era gang violence of the 1920s and '30s which eventually led to passage of the first gun-control measure in 1934. Many of you had questions about gun laws and we put them to commentator Cokie Roberts as part of our regular Ask Cokie segment. Hi there, Cokie.
COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So I want to start with a question that comes from Andrew Austin from Tacoma, Wash.
ANDREW AUSTIN: Why do all the reports say worst shooting in, quote, "modern history"? Were there really worse ones with muskets?
ROBERTS: Well, muskets probably and all kinds of other weapons, as well. These are the kinds of weasel words we actually use today (laughter) to cover ourselves in case we're wrong. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were massacres. The Sacramento River massacre in 1846 when John Fremont led in the slaughter of several hundred Native Americans. And then lots of other painful examples of mass shootings. I think the big difference is that those were often done by mass shooters. And what we're dealing with now is these lone-wolf shooters who come in and kill dozens of people.
GREENE: Yeah. As we've been seeing, most recently at that Texas church. So, you know, we're seeing something right now, Cokie, that we've seen after other mass shootings. There's been a call for more gun control. But then you have the National Rifle Association - the NRA - a powerful lobby that has been able to push back against legislation. A lot of our listeners have questions about the NRA. Here is Staci Anne Hedge. And she asked if the NRA was around during Prohibition and when - as we've just said - the first gun-control act was passed.
ROBERTS: Yes. The NRA's been around since 1871. It was formed to promote marksmanship after seeing what poor shots the Union soldiers were into the Civil War. And they set up rifle ranges around the country. They didn't lobby on that 1934 bill, but - and here's a surprise, David - the head of the NRA at the time - Karl Frederick - testified, quote, "I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses."
GREENE: Wow. That's surprising.
ROBERTS: Yes. He'd be run out of the organization now.
GREENE: Well, and, Cokie, that takes us to a question from another listener.
BECKY MCCABE: Hi. My name is Becky McCabe. I'm from St. Charles, Ill. My question for Cokie is please give a history about the NRA's influence on gun laws.
ROBERTS: Well, the influence is huge. What we're talking about here is intensity. In the 1968 gun control bill - a great big bill written after the assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King - President Johnson complained about the power of the lobby as he signed the legislation. Let's listen.
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LYNDON B. JOHNSON: The Congress adopted most of our recommendations. But this bill - as big as this bill is - still falls short because we just could not get the Congress to carry out the request we made of them.
ROBERTS: He went on to say it was a powerful lobby - the gun lobby - that operated in an election year that kept out of the bill national registration of guns and licensing. But look, David, I have to hand it to the NRA. They participate. They organize. They contribute. They vote. That's the way you influence legislation. And if the other side wants to get gun control done, they can't just tell awful stories. They have to organize and contribute in the same degree.
GREENE: That is commentator Cokie Roberts talking to us about the history of gun control. Cokie, thanks a lot.
ROBERTS: OK, David. Good to talk to you.
GREENE: You, too. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work, a couple of ways to do it. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can go on Twitter and tweet us - just use the hashtag #askcokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.