By Robert M. Hausman
As crime began to increase in the years following World War One, state and local governments began enacting laws requiring licenses to own or carry handguns. Much of this legislation was aimed at the proliferation of “two-dollar pistols,” or poorly made snub nose revolvers appearing on the market in great abundance starting at about the year 1900. While pocket pistols came under regulation, the sale and ownership of all other firearms, including a new type of fast firing firearm using pistol cartridges, epitomized by the Thompson submachine gun, went completely unregulated.
The onset of the Volstead Act on January 16, 1920 changed the face of American crime, which had largely been perpetuated by low level street criminals, dramatically. There were already gangs in large American cities, or groups of ethnic residents who had banded together for social/political reasons and sometimes to provide protection to local vice operations. These organizations soon discovered the enormous profit potential in supplying the populance with outlawed liquor.
Disputes between the now highly organized gangs soon arose over territory and other issues, and the submachine gun came to their attention. A handgun or shotgun required the shooter to get dangerously close to the victim to be effective, but the machine gun allowed assassination of rival gang members to take place at a safer distance.
A Chicago gangster, Frank McErlane, became America’s initial Tommygun pioneer on February 9, 1926 in a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune:
MACHINE GUN GANG SHOOTS 2
Thirty-seven bullets from a light automatic machine gun were poured into the saloon of Martin (Buff) Costello, 4127 South Halstead street, last night, by gangsters striving to assassinate two rivals for the highly profitable south side traffic in good beer.
Both men were wounded. William Wilson, 329 South Leavitt street, was shot in the head and probably fatally wounded. John (Mitters) Foley, 2838 Wallace street, vice president of the Ice Cream Wagon Drivers’ union, beer runner, and one time stickup man, was struck in the forehead, but was not seriously injured.
Criminals escalated their attacks on each other and employed an ever-greater amount of ordnance. In addition to the submachine gun, they employed bombs, armored vehicles and airplanes. Public opinion had not yet turned against the submachine gun. Police shrugged off the gangland killings since they mainly involved criminals killing other criminals. The public found the gang wars entertaining reading in their daily newspapers.
Articles began appearing in the press decrying the free trade in arms. In December, 1926, Collier’s magazine published a sensational article entitled, “Machine Guns for Sale,” which detailed the writer’s “shock” in finding that a “respectable” New York City arms dealer would sell him a submachine gun. In an effort to increase circulation, newspapers routinely began reporting that a submachine gun was involved in nearly all sensational slayings, even when it was shown other firearms were used. By the close of the 1920’s, after having read for years about gangland slayings, the submachine gun had become firmly embedded in the public’s mind as a gangster weapon.
In the early 1930’s, several trends occurred which spelled the doom for unregulated firearms ownership, particularly in regard to full-auto firearms. One was the use of the submachine gun in armed robberies by high profile criminals, such as John Dillinger. No longer were Thompsons aimed only at other criminals, but they began to make their appearance in use during bank, train and other robberies by known criminals whose exploits were regularly reported on in the daily newspapers. Secondly, the U.S. Justice Department began compiling national crime statistics for the first time in 1930. The New Deal-era Justice Dept. also needed justification for its program of federalized crime control, which had heretofore been in the province of the individual states.
President Roosevelt’s attorney general, Homer Cummings, began drafting federal laws to empower federal agents to nab criminals interfering with “interstate commerce.” Since the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power “to regulate commerce amongst the several states,” this was the only legal justification Cummings could find for his proposed legislation. Working with Cummings, was J. Edgar Hoover, then the director of the Bureau of Investigation, a little known federal agency with little authority who dreamed of transforming his agency into a national police force.
Cummings and Hoover realized, however, that they needed to build public support for their plans. To do this, they needed to show that there was a national crime wave that endangered the public. This came in the form of the botched rescue of convicted bank robber, Frank “Jelly” Nash, in 1933.
Nash, who was being taken to Leavenworth by way of Kansas City, was being transferred from a train to an automobile when retired bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd and two others, armed with submachine guns, opened up on Nash’s guards. Killed were three policeman, a federal agent and (due to the poor gunhandling skills of the shooters) Nash himself. Called the “machine-gun challenge to a nation” by the press, it was just what the Justice Dept. had been waiting for.
Attorney General Cummings declared a “war on crime” and unveiled his legislative proposals. Congress quickly authorized the arming of Hoover’s agents and President Roosevelt ordered an inquiry into transforming the bureau into a “superpolice force.” Hoover, using an old idea from Chicago’s reform movement, captured the public’s imagination by establishing a list of “public enemies.” This resulted in escalating the chosen criminals in the public’s mind as being of exceptional challenge to capture. It also worked to help depopularize the myth of criminals as being folklore heroes who only robbed the rich and posed no danger to the average citizen.
A number of states passed laws banning or regulating machine gun ownership in response to the highly publicized instances of their use by criminals. When the means of acquisition of submachine guns by criminals was investigated, it was found many were bought at local gun stores. 1930’s era Chicago gun dealers, Alex Korecek and Peter von Frantzius, were said to have sold such guns to anyone who had the cash and would even grind off the guns’ serial numbers upon the buyers’ request. A Philadelphia dealer, Edward Goldberg, when accused of selling Thompson to local gangsters, told a grand jury he didn’t know who bought them and didn’t consider it any of his business so long as he got the money.
After state laws began to tighten and the police crackdowns on dealers that usually resulted after a sensational slaying, criminals turned to theft to obtain their hardware. National Guard armories were the favored target. Another favored source was local sheriffs and deputies who would buy submachine guns through police channels, and then conveniently “lose” them or report them stolen.
The Justice Department presented its national solution to the machine gun problem in 1934 in the form of a proposed National Firearms Act. Cummings proposed a comprehensive federal law regulating the sale of all types of firearms. Sportsmen’s groups, led by the National Rifle Association realized the tidal wave of public opinion for some sort of national legislation and conceded the need to regulate “gangster” weapons, such as the submachine gun, only. However, states’-rights sentiment still ran strong through the country at the time. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Hatton Sumners of Texas, held up in committee Cummings firearms and other legislation as he felt they “did violence” to state’s-rights. Then on April 22, 1934, John Dillinger and his gang machine-gunned their way out of a government attempt to capture them in Wisconsin, leaving two dead and four wounded.
The next day, President Roosevelt called chairman Sumners to an “emergency” White House conference. When he emerged from the meeting, Sumners announced he would override his personal feelings and rule for the gun legislation’s passage.
The National Firearms Act soon passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law in June 1934. The “gun lobby” succeeded in eliminating most handguns from its scope, as the law covered only full-auto firearms, smoothbored handguns, sound suppressors and short-barrel long guns, etc. While not outlawing full-auto firearms entirely, the prohibitively high (in Depression-era 1930’s dollars) of the $200 per gun transfer tax, effectively destroyed the market for submachine gun sales. In December 1934, The New York Times reported that 15,791 arms had been registered with the Treasury Dept. as per the terms of the new National Firearms Act.
Note: Much of the material in this piece was based on the excellent book, “The Gun That Made The Twenties Roar” by William J. Helmer, available from Numrich Gun Parts Corp.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N1 (October 2002)|