Nothing spurs talk of gun-control legislation quite like a highly publicized crime committed with the aid of a handgun.
Such was the case 100 years ago this month, when a brazen murder committed near Gramercy Park led to the enactment a few months later of New York State’s landmark Sullivan Law, which required police-issued licenses for those wishing to possess concealable firearms and made carrying an unlicensed concealed weapon a felony (pdf).
On Jan. 23, 1911, a novelist, David Graham Phillips, was shot by Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough in a brazen early afternoon attack on East 21st Street (or, as it is known today, Gramercy Park North). After firing six shots, Goldsborough put the gun to his temple, killing himself. Phillips survived until the next evening.
George Petit le Brun, who worked in the city’s coroner’s office, was moved to act. “I reasoned that the time had come to have legislation passed that would prevent the sale of pistols to irresponsible persons,” he wrote in his 1960 autobiography. “In the vernacular of the day, ‘There oughta be a law.’ ”
He sent letters to prominent New Yorkers urging their support for “a law, whereby a person having a revolver in his possession, either concealed or displayed, unless for some legitimate purpose, could be punished by a severe prison sentence,” as he told The New York Times less than a week after the killing (pdf). He drew up a list of recommendations for the State Legislature and delivered them to State Senator Timothy D. Sullivan, a Tammany Hall boss better known as “Big Tim” Sullivan.
Sullivan was already on record as pledging to introduce legislation that placed restrictions on guns. “The gun toter and the tough man – I don’t want his vote,” he said during his 1910 campaign. “There are a lot of good, law-abiding people in the Lower East Side. They do not like to have the red badge of shame waved over that part of the city. They have no sympathy with the tough men, the men who tote guns and use them far too frequently.”
The Sullivan bill was opposed by the state’s gun manufacturers and, most prominently, State Senator Timothy Ferris of Oneida County. “Your bill won’t stop murders,” Ferris saidduring the legislative debate (pdf). “You can’t force a burglar to get a license to use a gun. He’ll get one from another state.” The issue of whether the law violated the United States Constitution was raised. In a letter to The Times (pdf), a “law-abiding citizen” wrote that he objected to the “automatic establishment of a presumption of felonious intent by the proposed law on the part of a citizen possessed of arms for home defense. Hence the unconstitutionality of the proposed law.”
Others were skeptical of the motives of Sullivan, notorious for his association with the underworld. “Cynics suggested that Big Tim pushed through his law so Tammany could keep their gangster allies under control,” wrote Richard F. Welch in his 2009 biography, “King of the Bowery: Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany Hall, and New York City from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era.”
“Hoodlums who forgot who really ran things in the city could be easily arrested if found with gun – or if one was slipped into their pocket,” Mr. Welch wrote. “The Big Feller surely heard the charges and likely shrugged them off. If there were political benefits from doing the right thing, what was the problem? But all the available evidence indicates that Tim’s fight to bring firearms under control sprang from heartfelt conviction.”
He certainly sounded sincere.
“I don’t know anything about the Bible except what I’ve heard from Senator Brackett and others here, where quotations are continually made,” Sullivan said during the Senate debate. “It seems to me, though, that this bill, if passed, will help along obedience to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ I think so much of this measure that if you pass it I believe it will save more souls than all the preachers in the city talking for the next 10 years.”
The Sullivan Law, which sailed through both houses of the Legislature, went into effect as the clock struck midnight on Aug. 31, 1911 (pdf).