Congress's gag rule on guns
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On Feb. 6, 1837, former President John Quincy Adams, then a congressman from Massachusetts, presented a petition to the House calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, signed by what he referred to as "nine old ladies of Fredericksburg, Virginia."


One of Virginia's representatives, John Mercer Patton, was curious as to what "respectable" ladies of Virginia would sign such a document. He accused Adams of presenting a petition on false pretenses, claiming that the ladies in question were no real ladies at all, in his book, but mixed-race women and former slaves.

But Adams, who could be both cool and calculating, was only setting the stage for the conflagration that was sure to come. He next asked Speaker (and later president) James K. Polk (Tenn.) a question of order that would cause an explosion like none that had previously been seen before in that chamber: Holding up a petition purported to be signed by 22 slaves regarding slavery, Adams inquired whether or not such a petition could be considered. He then sat back and watched the combustion.

Sure enough, the House flew into a rage, with calls for Adams's censure, or, worse, his expulsion. It was an insult to the South, Southern reps declared. Georgia's Julius Caesar Alford called for the petition to be burnt. A resolution was presented charging Adams with "gross disrespect." Another resolution charged him with attempting to spark an insurrection. It stated: "John Q. Adams ... by his attempt to introduce into this House a petition of slaves for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, committed an outrage on the rights and feelings of a large portion of the people of the Union, a flagrant contempt on the dignity of this House; and by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen [the right to petition], directly incites the slave population to insurrection; and that the said member be forthwith called to the bar of the House, and censured by the Speaker."

I imagine that John Q. had perhaps just a slight smile on his mug when he rose to make a correction. The petition he had inquired about, he declared, was not a petition for the abolition of slavery in the district, but one that supported it. Evidently forged by a slaveowner with an ax to grind, Adams had decided to present it to Congress in order to both make a point and make fools of slavery's proponents.

He was protesting a series of resolutions that had begun the previous year and had just been renewed. The Pinckney Resolutions stated that Congress had "no constitutional authority to interfere ... with the institutions of slavery in any of the States" and "ought not" do so in the District of Columbia. Furthermore, the rule prohibited any papers or petitions from being presented about the issue of slavery, placing an effective "gag" order on such attempts, and leading to its more common nickname, the "Gag Rule."

Adams immediately sought to defeat the Gag Rule, countenancing constant condemnation, potential expulsion and even death threats. But he challenged the rule anyhow, letting the cards fall where they may. He understood that rules are a product of morals, and not a dictator of them.

Year after year he was the Gag Rule's consistent opponent, leading the anti-slavery movement in the House. In December 1844, he was finally able to succeed in building enough of a coalition to defeat that awful rule. Adams inscribed the date on an ivory cane he had received from admirers that already bore the words "Petition Right Triumphant."

Today we have a different sort of gag rule. Of course, nothing else in the history of this country can compare to the horrors of slavery, but we are witnessing the same type of pigheadedness that plagued us then. This modern-day gag rule, of course, applies to guns.

In a typical year, over 10,000 people will be murdered with guns and over 20,000 will use guns for suicide. Well over 2,000 of those killed will be kids (19 and under).

Now, to be clear, the legislation that sparked the Democrats' sit-in before the holiday break would not have solved these problems. In fact, many liberals (myself included), find the proposed bill morally problematic: It would've placed limitations on individuals who have not been convicted of any crime, purely based on suspicion. After all, there are approximately 1.5 million names on the terrorist watch list and often, mistakes are made. Furthermore, as Wired has pointed out, placing a ban on individuals looking to buy a gun could potentially alert terrorists to the fact that they're being watched. Worse still, the list tends to be biased against Muslims.

And perhaps most importantly, experts doubt whether the bill would do much to reduce gun violence.

But all this does not detract from the frustrations of the Democrats when faced with the gag rule Republicans have placed on anything having to do with guns. Even the weak legislation that Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece Cutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis Juan Williams: Trump's GOP descends into farce MORE (R-Wis.) has finally agreed to bring up for a vote may be stymied by his own party. Just like with the old Gag Rule, no discussion can be had over guns in Congress and no legislation, no matter how reasonable, can be considered.

Such obstinate obstruction requires extraordinary measures. Perhaps John Quincy Adams would be a good role model to follow in this instance.

Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.