Congress once dealt with gangsters’ Tommy guns to save American lives

Firearms


  1. Route 91 Harvest Festival, Las Vegas, Nevada, Oct. 2, 2017: 60 killed, more than 850 injured. Main weapon: AR-15.
  2. Pulse nightclub, Orlando, Florida, June 11, 2016: 49 killed and 53 injured. Main weapon: Sig Sauer MCX assault-style rifle.
  3. Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, Dec. 14, 2012: 27 killed. Main weapon: AR-15.
  4. First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas, Nov. 5, 2017: 25 killed and 20 injured. Weapon: AR-15.
  5. WalmartEl Paso, Texas, August 3, 2019: 23 killed and 26 injured. Weapon: AK-47.

This year is on track to be the worst in history for mass shootings in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive. Mass shootings are defined as incidents in which four or more people are killed, not including the shooter.

According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, the U.S. is on pace for 60 mass shootings this year. There were 31 in 2019, 21 in 2020, 28 in 2021 and 36 in 2022, The Guardian reported. As of May, there had been 21 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, including the mass shooting at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas on May 6 in which eight people were killed.

RELATED STORY: Mass shootings provide daily reminders that Republicans actively support American slaughter

How it all began

So how did we get these killing machines? During World War I, Brig. Gen. John T. Thompson was tasked in 1917 with designing a “Trench Broom,” a portable short-range submachine gun that a soldier could use to sweep out a trench filled with enemy troops. 

Thompson turned over the job to his own firearms firm, the Auto-Ordnance Corporation. But the first working model wasn’t manufactured until 1919 after the war had ended. Thompson contracted with the Colt firearms company to assemble the guns, and the first Tommy guns rolled off the manufacturing line in March 1921. The Tommy gun was originally marketed to law enforcement agencies and the military. Auto-Ordnance Corporation’s motto was: “On the Side of Law and Order.” 

The first purchasers included the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Marine Corps. But the weapon also ended up in the hands of the Irish Republican Army and Chinese warlords. However, at a price of $200—equivalent to about $3,800 today, or half the price of an average Ford car at the time—the Tommy gun was too pricey for police departments. The submachine gun could be purchased at local sporting goods or hardware stores and by mail order.

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Price was no object for Prohibition-era organized crime gangs flush with money from sales of bootlegged liquor. The first reported use of a Tommy gun by a gangster came in Chicago on Sept. 25, 1925, when bootlegger Frank McErlane fired a burst in an attempted hit on a rival gangster.

In February 1926, Al Capone went to a local hardware store and ordered three Tommy guns. A few months later, the Capone gang used a Tommy gun in an attack on a rival bootlegger. But it was the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that sent shock waves across the country. Seven members of Bugs Moran’s North Side Gang were lined up against the wall of a Chicago garage and killed in a hail of machine gun bullets fired by gunmen using Tommy guns. Although no one was ever convicted in the case, it’s widely assumed that the massacre was carried out by Capone’s South Side-based gang. The Tommy gun became known as the “Chicago Typewriter.”

Then on the night of July 28, 1931, a gunman fired a machine gun on a crowded street in Harlem’s Little Italy neighborhood in a botched attempt to kidnap a rival gangster. The drive-by shooting killed 5-year-old Michael Vengalli and wounded four other children. Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll was tried for the crime, but managed to get acquitted.

outrage stirs in America

A Pathe newsreel headlined “Disarm Gunmen” had this caption: “The ruthless butchery of innocent babes in this New York Street—an outrage which has stirred America—emphasizes the need for drastic laws to stop the sale of deadly weapons to gangsters forever!”

Credit: Pathe Newsreel Collection/Courtesy of Sherman Grinberg Film Library

Over the next few years, the Tommy gun gained further notoriety as it became the weapon of choice for infamous Depression-era gangsters who used the automatic weapon in bank robberies and in shootouts with police. These weapons were often stolen from police stations, gun shops, and sometimes National Guard armories. Criminals liked the Tommy gun because the buttstock could be removed and the drum magazine, capable of holding 50 or 100 rounds, could be replaced with a 20-round clip, enabling the weapon to be concealed in overcoats and fired with one hand.

There was George “Machine Gun” Kelly who used a Tommy gun in the 1933 kidnapping of a wealthy oilman from his Oklahoma City home. That same year, “Pretty Boy” Floyd used a Tommy gun when he and his gang killed four law enforcement officers at a Kansas City, Missouri, train station, also killing the prisoner they were trying to set free. And on April 22, 1934, Dillinger and “Baby Face” Nelson used Tommy guns to shoot their way out of an FBI trap at the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin. A federal agent and civilian were killed.

the National Firearms Act passes

Two months later Congress passed the National Firearms Act, but many states had already taken action to regulate machine guns. By 1934, at least 27 states had enacted measures to restrict or outlaw the sale and possession of the Tommy gun and other fully automatic weapons. The first state to act was West Virginia, which required gun owners to be bonded and licensed. Some states, including Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Ohio also extended the ban to include semi-automatic weapons.

And it might come as a surprise to learn that Texas was among the states that banned machine guns. An editorial in the Waco News-Tribune asked: “Why should desperadoes, brazen outlaws of the period be permitted to purchase these weapons of destruction?”  

In fact, Texas historically had some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, including a law prohibiting the carrying of any deadly weapon in public, whether worn openly or concealed. That all changed when Republican Govs. George W. Bush and Gregg Abbott began loosening firearms regulations in the name of Second Amendment rights.

At the federal level, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had already decided to make gun control part of his New Deal on Crime legislative package. The Washington Post described the National Firearms Act as follows:

Rather than a federal ban on machine guns, the Roosevelt administration proposed taxing the high-powered weapons virtually out of existence. It would place a $200 tax on the purchase of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. The tax — equal to about $3,800 today — was steep at a time when the average annual income was about $1,780.

“A machine gun, of course, ought never to be in the hands of any private individual,” Attorney General Homer Cummings said at a House hearing. “There is not the slightest excuse for it, not the least in the world, and we must, if we are going to be successful in this effort to suppress crime in America, take these machine guns out of the hands of the criminal class.” 

While the proposed action might seem drastic, he added, “I think the sooner we get to the point where we are prepared to recognize the fact that the possession of deadly weapons must be regulated and checked, the better off we are going to be as a people.”

The NRA gave qualified support to the act after Congress stripped the bill of regulations on pistols and revolvers. Back then, the NRA represented hundreds of thousands of gun owners, but not gun manufacturers. At a hearing on the bill, NRA President Karl Frederick, a New York lawyer, said: “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

In addition to the $200 tax, the National Firearms Act also required that at sale or transfer the new owner would have to be fingerprinted, photographed, and listed on a national registry. Cummings told Congress that nobody expected gangsters to register their machine guns. But anyone caught with an unlicensed weapon could be charged with federal tax evasion, punishable by a $2,000 fine and up to five years imprisonment. Also, anyone attempting to register a machine gun with the federal government in states that had banned private possession of machine guns could face state charges.

The bill was approved by voice vote in the House and Senate and signed into law by Roosevelt on June 18, 1934. By 1937, federal officials declared that the sale of machine guns in the U.S. had practically ceased. Law enforcement officers had arrested or killed many of the era’s most notorious gangsters. “It is a good example of something that is little known, which is a gun control law that was pretty effective in keeping such weapons out of civilian hands,” gun laws expert Robert Spitzer of the State University of New York at Cortland told NPR.

In 1939, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law in a case, United States v. Miller, that involved the prosecution of two men with criminal records who were caught with an unregistered and untaxed short-barreled shotgun. They claimed the law violated their Second Amendment rights.

In its ruling, SCOTUS said there was no evidence to show that a short-barreled shotgun is the type of weapon that someone serving in a well-regulated state militia would ordinarily have. “We cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument,” the high court ruled.

In the 1960s, it became illegal to import machine guns. And in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a law barring any newly produced fully automatic weapon from possession by civilians.

The National Firearms Act remains in place today. The fine remains $200, but the only machine guns that are legal to sell are old ones—and there is a fixed number of them. They cost tens of thousands of dollars and purchasers still must go through the rigorous registration process.

Part two will cover how the GOP and NRA have paralyzed efforts to stop the carnage from assault weapons.



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