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Column: Gun rights ... more than a century-long debate

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“In view of the fact that about half the men and boys in this country carry pistols, and that thousands of accidents and crimes happen every year on this account, is it not about time to begin to agitate another prohibition question — that of the manufacture and sale of pistols? If the framers of the Constitution had foreseen the present state of affairs they would probably have omitted that clause giving all citizens the right to bear arms.”

The above comment has a familiar ring these days. Similar sentiments have been repeatedly expressed over the past few weeks following the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn., last month that claimed 26 lives, 20 of them children.

One of the things that sets the italicized comment above apart from the post-Newtown calls for action is that it was made in this newspaper.

The other thing that makes it unique is that it was written for the Sept. 14, 1881, issue of what was then called The Daily Republican.

In other words, calls for gun control have been around for at least 131 years.

I suspect the subject was argued about long before that.

I’m not about to dive into the current gun-control debate. The issue is so emotional on both sides that rational discussion is almost an impossibility. Regardless of the position anyone stakes out, there will be some on the other side who will demonize them for simply speaking their mind.

I raise the issue in this context, however, to make the point that after 131 years (and then some), people are still trying to find a balance between what the Constitution declares and how lives can be protected.

The quote above was discovered by Rhonda Brown, a reference librarian at the Bartholomew County Library. It was an accidental discovery.

Rhonda, who is described by fellow workers as the library’s official historian, was scanning microfilm copies of the local newspaper for items related to a genealogical question posed by a patron.

“Newspapers in those days weren’t put together like they like they are today,” she said last week. “There was no order to where news stories were placed. They were sort of tossed into the newspaper; and when you’re searching for a particular item, you have to read every page very carefully.”

Readers of most 19th century papers had to navigate their way through a variety of stories. Editorial comments were mixed in with reports of home fires or fatal accidents. Advertisements for highly suspect medical potions were handled no differently than reports of weddings or the most recent arrivals and departures at the local railroad depot.

The “pistol control” paragraph was nestled among a number of other opinions on an inside page of the newspaper under the masthead. C. Ricketts was identified as the editor. At the time, the newspaper was being printed in a building that is now Smith’s Row on Fourth Street.

It obviously was a different time. In 1881, Columbus was about 60 years old. It wasn’t exactly a wild-west town, but it had been in the lifetime of some of its residents that it could have been described as frontier.

Guns were a vital part of the culture. Hunters provided sustenance for their families by shooting wild animals. Although Columbus was settled, there was a significant portion of the country where survival of the fittest was taken literally. People needed weapons to protect themselves.

There were half-hearted attempts to protect people from unintended consequences of the right to bear arms.

“Remember those were the times when saloons posted signs telling people to leave their guns at the door,” Rhonda said. “Either that or drop them off with the sheriff.”

Who knows if Editor Ricketts (or whoever wrote the gun-control paragraph) was right in his estimation that about half of the men and boys in this country carried pistols. Statistics was not an exact science in 1881. Maybe there were more, maybe less.

The sad irony to Rhonda Brown’s discovery is that we’re still debating the issue on gun rights and public safety and people are still being killed.

Last month, 20 of them were children in a small town in Connecticut.

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