April 5, 2018 4:22PM

Bootleggers, Baptists, and Gun Control

In the May/June 1983 issue of Regulation, economist Bruce Yandle outlined a theory of regulation he referred to as “bootleggers and Baptists.” Using the example of laws forcing bars to close on Sundays, Yandle explains how well-intentioned Baptists worried about the “dangers” of alcohol and self-interested bootleggers hoping to profit when bars are closed both support the law for fundamentally different reasons.

While public discourse over regulation frequently identifies the “Baptists,” the role of “bootleggers” is often ignored. For example, a recent New York Times article discussing the Gun Control Act of 1968 overlooks the influence of U.S. gun manufacturers. The article describes the Act as a response to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, which motivated President Lyndon Johnson to call for gun control legislation.

While the assassinations did propel the gun control movement, the Gun Control Act was also a chapter in a long running battle between U.S. gun manufacturers and importers of foreign firearms. In the fall 2015 issue of Regulation, Joseph Michael Newhard recounts the history of gun control legislation and contends that U.S. manufacturers have frequently benefited from gun control legislation that reduces their competition.

The 1968 Gun Control Act was no different. Limits were imposed on foreign imports and manufacturers, importers, and dealers were forced to be licensed, reducing the ability of individuals to sell firearms. Instead of a decline in firearms sales in the United States, the law simply transferred profits originally going to importers to manufacturers. As the Times reported on May 4, 1969, the Act,

which barred the importation of cheap, concealable-type handguns, is being defeated by the domestic manufacture of the guns or by the importation of foreign parts for assembly in this country….A domestic industry is thus blossoming to meet the brisk demand and will soon be turning out about 500,000 cheap pistols a year, compared to roughly 75,000 made here before the import restriction.

The recent Times article, however, ignores the role of gun manufacturers and the benefits the Act conferred to them. The article focuses on provisions that were ultimately left out of the act—namely, licensing and registration requirements—because of political pressure and lobbying by the NRA. The fact that provisions that directly benefited gun manufacturers survived political opposition and remained in the final bill is a testament to the power of bootleggers and Baptists.

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.