The Bowery Kid Behind New York’s Gun Law SCOTUS Just Eviscerated

But that’s precisely who and what Sullivan was. His parents were impoverished Irish immigrants who lived in the infamous Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan, described by Charles Dickens in his “American Notes” as a place where “poverty, misery and vice abound enough.” Sullivan was born in 1862; his father, a Union Army veteran, died of typhus five years later. Big Tim was on the streets, shining shoes, before he turned 10. He must have been good with brushing and polishing – by his 20s, he was a prosperous saloon owner.

He quickly moved from the brass rail of the saloon to the politics of the Bowery and soon became a powerhouse within New York’s Democratic machine, Tammany Hall. He was elected to the State Assembly in 1886, to the State Senate in 1893, to Congress in 1902, and then back to the more friendly confines of the State Senate in 1909. His return to Albany was timely as the The state capital of New York was about to become a driving force for social reform, and those reforms were written and passed by the children of the huddled masses, some of them ill-educated, some of them ethically dubious, and most of them witnesses at first sight. hand of the inequalities of society. industrial age. Big Tim was in the right place at the right time.

He formed one of the most unlikely partnerships in New York history, working with serious social reformer Frances Perkins – destined to become the country’s first female cabinet member – on a series of welfare projects, including one that limits the working week for women and children. to 54 hours. Sullivan told Perkins why he supported the project: “My sister was a poor girl and went out to work when she was young. I feel a little sorry for these poor girls… I’d like to do a good deed for them.

Perkins, unlike others in the reform movement at the time, saw Sullivan and other tough politicians like him as natural allies in the struggle for social justice, as they saw the effects of unbridled and unregulated capitalism. Unlike the reformers Perkins dealt with early in his career, Sullivan and his allies did not dare to judge the character of people who needed help. “I never ask a hungry man about his past,” Big Tim once said. “I feed him not because he is good, but because he needs food.”

Perkins reveled in the folk wisdom of Sullivan and his colleagues. “If I had been a man serving in the Senate with them,” she later wrote, “I’m sure I would have had a glass of beer with them and had them tell me what the old Bowery was like.” The reformers would have been horrified.

Sullivan got the law that bears his name passed in 1911, when the Bowery and other neighborhoods were awash with cheap pistols, leading to terrible street violence. The notion of requiring citizens to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon was considered so enlightened that reformers and elite progressives naturally suspected that this rude Irishman from the Bowery was up to something evil.

It was suggested that he would work with corrupt neighborhood cops to plant guns on thugs and pimps who wouldn’t play ball with Tammany. It was an interesting theory. All that was missing was evidence. It fell to reformist journalist MR Werner to complain that Sullivan and his allies were preventing “citizens from protecting themselves from thieves.” Clearly he wasn’t thinking about having a beer with Sullivan and his friends.

Big Tim left Albany in 1913 for another term in Congress, but fell ill and died shortly afterwards, aged 51. The lessons he taught the most open reformers were not forgotten. Decades later, President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of Labor, Perkins, were reminiscing about their Albany years and people like the great man of the Bowery.

“Tim Sullivan used to say that the America of the future would be made up of people who came in old age and who knew in their own hearts and lives the difference between being despised and being accepted and appreciated,” Roosevelt said. “Poor Tim Sullivan…he was right about the human heart.”

Your law is now off the books. Your wisdom remains.

Terry Golway is senior editor at POLITICO and oversaw political coverage of the state of New York. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics”.

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