The United States has the most lax gun laws of any developed country in the world. The 2nd Amendment itself is a one of a kind law (‘Well Regulated Militias’ and the Right to Bear Arms). Yet there have been some efforts to control guns and gun violence, dating back over 200 years.
Gun control measures have usually come about after a wave of gun violence that prompted a demand from the public. Throughout the 19th century and early in the 20th, the gun restrictions that existed were either local or statewide. The shock of the Burr-Hamilton duel and the subsequent death of some other national politicians on the dueling grounds led 18 states to ban the practice of dueling (The Americanization of the Duel). While those new laws set the practice in decline it wasn’t until the widespread bloodshed of the Civil War that it disappeared.
In the latter half of the 19th century, gun violence on the Western frontier prompted some of even the most notorious “Wild West” towns like Dodge City and Tombstone to require visitors to check their guns before entering town. Many states also had what were called “may carry” laws that allowed local officials to determine who may carry a firearm. These laws were clearly more restrictive than the open carry laws that are in effect in most U.S. states today.
It was a another wave of gun violence that resulted in the first federal gun control laws. That violence happened in the 1920’s and was a result of the 16th Amendment, or as we know it, Prohibition. Drinking alcohol was illegal, but it was far from stopped. What Prohibition killed were the legal brewers, distillers and distributors, to be replaced by smugglers, moonshiners, bootleggers and ultimately gangs of mobsters who, in keeping America wet, shot up each other and anyone else who was in the way.
That wave of lawlessness coincided with an advance in the deadliness of gun technology. Maybe, like me, you grew up watching “The Untouchables” or more recently saw the “Boardwalk Empire” series. In either case, you’ll be familiar with the “tommy-gun.” Invented in 1918 by a guy named Thompson, hence the name, the tommy-gun was fully-automatic, meaning you pulled the trigger once and produced a deadly barrage of bullets in a matter of seconds. It became the weapon of choice for the mobsters and gangs of the black market alcohol trade. It was the tommy-gun that was used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a mob assassination of seven rival gang members in Chicago.
Once again the American public was roused by the gun violence that they read about in the papers and saw on the newsreels. While most folks might not of much cared if one mobster shot another, the violence of the weapons being used was a public safety issue. Newsreels of the time showed pictures of urban areas pock marked by bullet holes and told stories of children caught in the crossfire.
Many states responded by banning automatic (and in some case semi-automatic) weapons. Beginning with West Virginia in 1925, 27 states passed laws banning the tommy guns. The first federal response to Prohibition era violence was a 1927 law banning mail-order pistols. A more comprehensive response was the 1934 National Firearms Act. This legislation was targeted at machine guns and short-barreled shotguns. But being sensitive to gun advocates and the 2nd Amendment, the legislation didn’t outright ban these weapons, instead it imposed a $200 tax on the sale of these guns and required the buyer to register, be fingerprinted and photographed. While the $200 tax might not have been a deal killer for many gangsters, what mobster wants to register?
Mob violence did in fact decline after passage of the National Firearms Act, but one also needs to take into consideration that by that time, Prohibition had been repealed. The 1934 legislation has been amended and added to, but it is still in effect and it has been successful in getting machine guns off the street. Despite the wave of mass killings and gun violence that has beset the U.S., virtually none of it has been committed with fully-automatic weapons. The National Firearms Act, however, did not address the issue of semi-automatic weapons and we have paid the price for that omission. The mass shooter in Las Vegas who killed 58 people last year used a semi-automatic rifle. So did the murderer of 49 people in an Orlando nightclub in 2016. The Parkland, Fla., high school shooter used a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle, as did the Sandy Hook Elementary School murderer.
The National Firearms Act also gave rise to a test of the definition of the 2nd Amendment before the Supreme Court. The United States vs. Miller case in 1939 was brought by two defendants with a criminal records who claimed that the requirement to register and pay a tax on a short-barrel shotgun violated their 2nd Amendment rights. The court took a literal definition of the 2nd Amendment and ruled against the defendants because the gun involved is not one that would be used in a “well-regulated militia.” More recent court rulings have adopted broader interpretations of the 2nd Amendment and interpreted it as protecting individual’s right to own guns with no regard for the “well-regulated militia” qualifier.
We now are in the midst of another wave of gun violence in America which has raised the public voice of those seeking more stringent control of firearms. It remains to be seen whether this will result in new and more restrictive gun laws. So far, that has not been the case with a Republican controlled legislature. We are, however, only weeks away from a mid-term election that could change control of Congress as well as a number of state houses.