50th Anniversary Flashback: Taking on Guns

In the wake of John Lennon's assassination, 'Rolling Stone' entered the fight for meaningful gun control. Four decades later, the battle rages on

Ever since John Lennon was gunned down in New York City, Rolling Stone has advocated for responsible gun laws. Credit: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

In 1980, the nation's gun-violence epidemic hit close to home for Rolling Stone when John Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman. For the magazine's founder, the slaying in New York sparked a now-four-decade commitment on the gun issue. "It all started with Lennon," says Jann S. Wenner. "That tragedy. Trying to make sense of it. Or make something good come out of it." Within months, Wenner had launched the Foundation on Violence in America, a nonprofit that began a public-education campaign, including PSAs starring Oprah Winfrey and Walter Cronkite. But momentum quickly stalled. "It became obvious that the beginning and end of this was the NRA," Wenner says.

Exposing the National Rifle Association's influence has been a mainstay of Rolling Stone's political coverage ever since. In his 1981 exposé, "Inside the Gun Lobby," Howard Kohn wrote that "politicians fall into three groups on the gun issue. There are hardcore believers on both sides. But the majority of congressmen would appear to belong to a third group … those who don't want to be put on the NRA's hit list." Exiting the NRA headquarters, Kohn recalls, "I had an incredibly sick feeling because it hit me right between the eyes that they were absolutely sure that nothing would change."

Still, there was a persistent optimism in Rolling Stone's coverage that common-sense reform would carry the day. "We've got the gun 
lobby and the NRA on the run," Hillary Clinton had said in a 1993 piece, "Gunning for Guns." Two years later, Eric Alterman predicted the NRA's crusade to overturn the assault-weapons ban "may prove to be its Vietnam." But the NRA only emerged more powerful – as did the weapons it champions. Wenner now describes gun control as "one of the most frustrating issues in American politics" – likening it to climate change. "The logic, the science, the policy, the research are so clear," he says. "Yet nothing gets done."

The magazine also set its sights on the wider culture. Dan Baum's 2000 piece "What I Saw at the Gun Show" describes a table of bumper stickers, one with a picture of robed Ku Klux Klansmen and the caption THE ORIGINAL BOYZ IN THE HOOD; another warns, WELCOME TO AMERICA: SPEAK ENGLISH OR GET THE HELL OUT. Three years later, Peter Wilkinson reported from a West Philadelphia hospital, where half of trauma-center deaths were the result of gunshot wounds.

In the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut – which led to zero political change in Congress – I chronicled how the NRA and gun manufacturers had joined forces, politically and financially, to block major litigation. Today, the NRA functions as a front group for gunmakers, championing their deadliest and most lucrative products. As I described in "The Gun Industry's Deadly Addiction," assault rifles have been marketed "to children as young as the first-graders slaughtered in Newtown."

On election night 2016, I was finishing a cultural and political history of the AR-15 – "All-American Killer" – expecting a Hillary Clinton presidency might cement modest restrictions around weapons bred for war. Instead, the nation was upended anew by the political muscle of the NRA, which spent $30 million to elect Donald Trump, helping target rural gun owners in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Wenner, who remains committed to pursuing the subject, acknowledges the frustration of the beat. "You really feel," he says, "like you're shouting against the wind."