What The 1920 Opinion Piece On The Front Of 'The New York Times' Can Tell Us About How Little Has Changed

The New York Times made waves on Saturday when it posted a front page op-ed on gun control — a statement in response to the most recent mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, and at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Heavily critical of Washington's refusal to discuss increased gun safety measures and legislation, The Times suggested that citizens "give up" certain types of firearms in order to do something proactive about the mass shooting problem in America. Whether readers largely agreed with the opinion or not, it was a momentous occasion for the 164-year-old newspaper — most notably because the last front page New York Times editorial was printed in 1920.

"Opponents of gun control are saying, as they do after every killing ... that determined killers obtained weapons illegally in places like France, England and Norway that have strict gun laws," wrote the editorial board on Saturday. "Yes, they did [but] at least those countries are trying. The United States is not." The board added that it was "not necessary" to debate the wording of the Second Amendment. No right, it argued, was "unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation."

Within hours of the paper's release, voices on both sides of the aisle began arguing in support and in criticism of the move. "#ShameOnNYTimes being political on the back of the murdered #SanBernadino [sic]," wrote one Twitter user, angry that The Times had dared to speak out on such a volatile issue. "Not about guns, about terrorism #WakeUpAmerica." Another user wrote, somewhat menacingly, "Come and take [my guns]! I dare you!"

Even The Washington Post decided to toss its hat into the ring. In a response on Saturday, Post columnist Callum Borchers wrote that the paper had done its due diligence in establishing the piece as an op-ed, but worried that it had created complex barriers for the days ahead:

It's no surprise that The Times' editorial board would take a firm, pro-gun-control position. ... [But] The Times has (at least temporarily) knocked down a [journalistic] wall by placing an editorial in a spot normally reserved for news. ... That does not mean the paper's political reporters will suddenly abandon all sense of fairness as they cover candidates who staunchly back gun rights. But it does give those candidates new cause for suspicion -- a cause they will almost certainly exploit on the campaign trail.

Reason Editor-in-Chief Matt Welch wasn't so kind, calling the piece a "vainglorious yet petulant act of emotive signaling that mangles the plain meaning of the English language" in a blog post.

Regardless of what the public felt about the move, the piece had done its job by raising the discussion of gun control once more and the ire of those about whom the editorial was written. As Borchers pointed out, the intent of publishing an op-ed wasn't to present hardline facts or report the news — it was to do exactly what its title suggested: Opine. It's a line the paper had not allowed itself to cross so boldly in nearly a century.

For perspective: In 1920, The Times was already relatively well-established, but still unafraid to test the waters. At the time, then-senator Warren G. Harding, a relative unknown on the national scene, had just been elected the Republican Party's 1920 presidential nominee, in an underhanded, smoke-filled room gathering of party heavyweights. Harding, of course was the compromise candidate that no one had forseen, leaving many on both sides of the political aisle shell-shocked. In response to the sudden nomination, The Times put out a scathing op-ed on June 13 that year, in which it called Harding a "very respectable Ohio politician of the second class," but never a serious "leader of men."

Lamenting the back-room dealings and Harding's suspect nomination, The Times criticized the breakdown of the Republican Party itself. "What has befallen the Republican Party of the early days, the party of 60 years ago, when it was possessed of moral purposes," the paper questioned, "or of forty and thirty years ago, when it could still profess to have them and find believers?"

It was an impassioned argument, but seemed to do very little in the way of changing hearts, especially given the current situation in which the United States now finds itself — too stubborn to evolve.

Despite nearly a century dividing that 1920 op-ed and Saturday's bitter plea, it seems The Times editorial board hasn't lost an ounce of its concern over the morality of the country's political dealings, whether based on social issues like gun control or on election season hijinks. Times may have changed, but this newspaper hasn't.

Images: The New York Times; TimesMachine Archives