Try It Again
by H.L. Mencken
The Evening Sun, Baltimore, MD, 1925
The eminent Nation [note: Mencken is referring to the leftist magazine,
"The Nation"] announces with relish "the organization of a
national committee of 100 to induce Congress to prohibit the inter-State traffic
in revolvers," and offers the pious judgement that it is "a step
forward." "Crime statistics," it appears, "show that 90% of
the murders that take place are committed by the use of the pistol, and every
year there are hundreds of cases of accidental homicides because someone did not
know that his revolver was loaded." The new law or is it to be a
constitutional amendment? We'll do away with all that. "It will not be
easy," of course, "to draw a law that will permit exceptions for
public officers and bank guards" to say nothing of Prohibition agents and
other such legalized murderers. "But soon even these officials may get on
More than once in this place, I have lavished high praise upon the Nation.
All that praise has been deserved, and I am by no means disposed to go back on
it. The Nation is one of the few honest and intelligent periodicals published in
the United States. It stands clear of official buncombe; it prints every week a
great mass of news that the newspapers seem to miss; it interprets that news
with a freedom and a sagacity that few newspaper editors can even so much as
imagine. If it shut up shop then the country would plunge almost unchallenged
into the lowest depths of Coolidgism, Rotarianism, Stantaquaism and other such
bilge. It has been for a decade past, the chief consolation of the small and
forlorn minority of civilized Americans.
But the Nation, in its days, has been a Liberal organ, and its old follies
die hard. Ever and anon, in the midst of its most eloquent and effective pleas
for Liberty, its eye wanders weakly toward Law. At such moments the old lust to
lift 'em up overcomes it, and it makes a brilliant and melodramatic ass of
itself. Such a moment was upon it when it printed the paragraph that I have
quoted. Into that paragraph of not over 200 words it packed as much maudlin and
nonsensical blather, as much idiotic reasoning and banal moralizing, as Dr.
Coolidge gets into a speech of two hours' length.
The new law that it advocated, indeed, is one of the most absurd specimens of
jackass legislation ever heard of, even in this paradise of legislative
donkeyism. Its single and sole effect would be to exaggerate enormously all of
the evils it proposes to put down. It would not take pistols out of the hands of
rogues and fools; it would simply take them out of the hands of honest men. The
gunman today has great advantages everywhere. He has artillery in his pocket,
and he may assume that, in the large cities, at least two-thirds of his
prospective victims are unarmed. But if the Nation's proposed law (or amendment)
were passed and enforced, he could assume safely that all of them were unarmed.
Here I do not indulge in theory. The hard facts are publicly on display in
New York State, where a law of exactly the same tenor is already on the books
the so-called Sullivan Law. In order to get it there, of course, the Second
Amendment had to be severely strained, but the uplifters advocated the straining
unanimously, and to the tune of loud hosannas, and the courts, as usual, were
willing to sign on the dotted line. It is now a dreadful felony in New York to
"have or possess" a pistol. Even if one keeps it locked in a bureau
drawer at home, one may be sent to the hoosegow for ten years. More, men who
have done no more are frequently bumped off. The cops, suspecting a man, say, of
political heresy, raid his house and look for copies of the Nation. They find
none, and are thus baffled but at the bottom of a trunk they do find a rusted
and battered revolver. So he goes to trial for violating the Sullivan Law, and
is presently being psycho-analyzed by the uplifters at Sing Sing.
With what result? With the general result that New York, even more than
Chicago, is the heaven of footpads, hijackers, gunmen and all other such armed
thugs. Their hands upon their pistols, they know they are safe. Not one citizen
out of a hundred that they tackle is armed for getting a license to keep a
revolver is a difficult business, and carrying one without it is more dangerous
than submitting to robbery. So the gunmen flourish and give humble thanks to
God. Like the bootleggers, they are hot and unanimous for Law Enforcement.
To all this, of course, the uplifters have a ready answer. (At having ready
answers, indeed, they always shine!) The New York thugs, they say, are armed to
the teeth because New Jersey and Connecticut lack Sullivan Laws. When one of
them wants a revolver all he has to do is to cross the river or take a short
trolley trip. Or, to quote the Nation, he may "simply remit to one of the
large firms which advertise the sale of their weapons by mail." The remedy
is the usual dose: More law. Congress is besought to "prohibit the
inter-State traffic in revolvers, especially to bar them from the mails."
It is all very familiar, and very depressing. Find me a man so vast an
imbecile that he seriously believes that this prohibition would work. What would
become of the millions of revolvers already in the hands of the American people
if not in New York, then at least everywhere else? (I own two and my brother
owns at least a dozen, though neither of us has fired one since the close of the
Liberty Loan drives.) Would the cops at once confiscate this immense stock, or
would it tend to concentrate in the hands of the criminal classes? If they
attempted confiscation, how would they get my two revolvers lawfully acquired
and possessed without breaking into my house? Would I wait for them docilely or
would I sell out, in anticipation, to the nearest pistol bootlegger?
The first effect of the enactment of such a law, obviously, would be to make
the market price of all small arms rise sharply. A pistol which is now worth,
second-hand, perhaps $2, would quickly reach a value of $10 or even $20. This is
not theorizing; we have had plenty of experience with gin. Well, imagining such
prices to prevail, would the generality of men surrender to the Polizei, or
would they sell them to the bootleggers? And if they sold them to the
bootleggers, what would become of them in the end: would they fall into the
hands of honest men or into the hands of rogues?
But the gunmen, I take it, would not suffer from the high cost of artillery
for long. The moment the price got really attractive, the cops themselves would
begin to sell their pistols, and with them the whole corps of Prohibition
blacklegs, private detectives, deputy sheriffs, and other such scoundrels. And
smuggling, as in the case of alcoholic beverages, would become an organized
industry, large in scale and lordly in profits. Imagine the supplies that would
pour over the long Canadian and Mexican borders! And into every port on every
Certainly, the history of the attempt to enforce Prohibition should give even
uplifters pause. A case of whisky is a bulky object. It must be transported on a
truck. It can not be disguised. Yet in every American city today a case of
whisky may be bought almost as readily as a pair of shoes despite all the armed
guards along the Canadian border, and all the guard ships off the ports, and all
the raiding, snooping and murdering everywhere else. Thus the camel gets in and
yet the proponents of the new anti-pistol law tell us that they will catch the
gnat! Go tell it to the Marines!
Such a law, indeed, would simply make gun-toting swagger and fashionable, as
Prohibition has made guzzling swagger and fashionable. When I was a youngster
there were no Prohibition agents; hence I never so much as drank a glass of beer
until I was nearly 19. Today, Law Enforcement is the eighth sacrament and the
Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals is itself the
authority for the sad news that the young of the land are full of gin. I
remember, in my youth, a time when the cops tried to prohibit the game of catty.
At once every boy in Baltimore consecrated his whole time and energy to it.
Finally, the cops gave up their crusade. Almost instantly catty disappeared.
The real victim of moral legislation is almost always the honest,
law-abiding, well-meaning citizen what the late William Graham Summer called the
Forgotten Man. Prohibition makes it impossible for him to take a harmless drink,
cheaply and in a decent manner. In the same way the Harrison Act puts heavy
burdens upon the physician who has need of prescribing narcotic drugs for a
patient, honestly and for good ends. But the drunkard still gets all the alcohol
that he can hold, and the drug addict is still full of morphine and cocaine. By
precisely the same route the Nation's new law would deprive the reputable
citizen of the arms he needs for protection, and hand them over to the rogues
that he needs protection against.
Ten or fifteen years ago there was an epidemic of suicide by bichloride of
mercury tablets. At once the uplifters proposed laws forbidding their sale, and
such laws are now in force in many States, including New York. The consequences
are classical. A New Yorker, desiring to lay in an antiseptic for household use,
is deprived of the cheapest, most convenient and most effective. And the suicide
rate in New York, as elsewhere, is still steadily rising.
(Copyright, 1925, by The Evening Sun. Republication without