I’m not even sure where to start with this, so I’ll just direct you to the link.

As the 1930s progressed, racial tensions between Blacks and Whites in America began to rise. The KKK had been heavily involved in White discrimination in the 1920s, and in the 30s, they focused their attention on Blacks. During the Great Depression, Blacks were hit particularly hard. While the wealthy had been spared from the severe effects of the Depression, Black families living on the East and West coasts were hit the hardest, and many were forced to live in Hoovervilles.

In 1928, after a series of high profile gang shootouts in Chicago, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bold gun control law. The Chicago Crime Commission, a state-sponsored group of police and criminal justice officials, called the bill “a gross miscarriage of justice” for the growing gang violence in the city, and argued that modern firearms laws did not match the gang violence of the day.

In the 1930s, America’s gun control laws were driven by trigger-happy criminals. 

The United States had a crime issue in the early 1930s. Heavily armed outlaws such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker, among a slew of other less well-known figures, were robbing banks at whim throughout the Midwest, becoming household names in the process. Gangsters have become wealthy and strong in cities as a result of a population that is prone to ignore them. With the end of the experiment in 1933, Prohibition was born, with a renewed emphasis on gambling, loansharking, and prostitution. Along with pistols, some hoodlums carried Thompson M1921 and later variants of what military armorers referred to as “submachine guns” since they shot pistol bullets rather than the rifle rounds that machine guns did. A “Tommy gun,” capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute, was a terrifying, though moderately accurate, weapon. 

The government needed a means to limit access to these and other illegal firearms, such as sawed-off shotguns, but it lacked the authority to do so. Congress had little power over interstate trade at the time, and state regulation of guns was regarded as a subject for the states to manage. The Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear weapons had never been put to the test. In early 1934, the United States Department of Justice devised a cunning scheme to control certain kinds of firearms by enforcing a fee on gun-toting criminals. The resultant law was the most comprehensive gun-control legislation ever enacted in the United States. 

Since the early 1900s, firearms have been on the public agenda. States re-examined the necessity to carry guns as more Americans moved to cities and cities became more crowded. The Sullivan Act, enacted in 1911, required residents who wanted to keep a gun at home to apply for a permission; the legislation also needed a separate permit to carry a hidden weapon. State Senator Timothy D. Sullivan, a well-known Tammany Hall fixer, was the bill’s sponsor. Minors, criminals, drunkards, and people “of unsound mind” are prohibited from carrying concealed guns in California, Pennsylvania, and other states. (The United States Supreme Court stated in April 2023 that it will examine the legality of these statutes.) 

How 1930s American Gang Violence Paved the Way for Gun Control John T. Thompson, inventor, with his revolutionary “trench broom.” (Getty Images/Bettmann)

Several innovators patented devices that used the mechanical energy produced by firing a weapon to fire the next round between the late 1800s and World War I. Machine guns could unleash a hail of lead slugs with a single stroke of the trigger. The units produced by manufacturers like as Maxim, Lewis, and Browning, on the other hand, were huge and heavy, requiring many men to transport, install, and operate them. As the First World War drew to a close, US Army ordnance officer John T. Thompson developed a portable auto-fire “trench broom” that a single doughboy could use to remove strong positions. Thompson’s 35-inch weapon had twin pistol-style grips and a shoulder stock and weighed less than 10 lbs. At close range, a drum or stick magazine carried 20 to 100.45-cal. bullets that were deadly. 

Another new military weapon, the Browning Automatic Rifle, was more heavy than the Thompson, weighing 13 to 24 pounds and measuring almost 4 feet in length. In 20- and 40-round clips, 30-06 rifle bullets are loaded. 

Thompson guns and BARs may be purchased legally from shops. With a depiction of a cowboy chasing off rustlers by discharging a Tommy gun at the miscreants, fanciful ads sold Thompsons to civilians. The pistol was marketed by patent holder Auto-Ordnance Corp. as the “ideal weapon for the defense of big estates, ranches, plantations, and other large estates.” Dubious dealers and pilferage from National Guard armories also contributed to the illegal circulation of these firearms.

Prohibition, a constitutional prohibition on the production and sale of alcoholic drinks, followed World War I and the development of portable automatic guns. On January 17, 1920, the United States became a dry country. However, Americans still desired to drink, and underground groups catered to their needs. Bootlegging generated more than $100 million in annual sales in Chicago alone, with violence among rivals to match. The Chicago beer wars claimed the lives of almost 700 people. Mobsters adopted the Thompson, but pistols remained popular. Individuals who were prohibited from purchasing handguns in person by certain states, such as convicted felons, were able to do so simply via the mail, prompting Congress to enact the mainly symbolic 1927 Mailing of Firearms Act. This legislation made it illegal to send handguns via the US Postal Service, but it didn’t apply to shipments sent by private express firms. Individual states, such as Massachusetts, West Virginia, Michigan, New Jersey, and Missouri, controlled weapons sales to some extent, typically by prohibiting convicted felons from purchasing pistols. A prospective buyer was often required to state that he or she was not prohibited from purchasing a firearm under these rules, based on the perhaps unrealistic assumption that someone in a prohibited class would not purchase a firearm for fear of being caught and prosecuted for making a false statement.

How 1930s American Gang Violence Paved the Way for Gun Control The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 encapsulated the rising tide of bloodshed in the United States. (Getty Images/Corbis Historical)

Four guys broke into SMC Cartage, a garage on North Clark Street in Chicago, Illinois, on the night of Thursday, February 14, 1929. Two of the guests were dressed in police clothes and armed with Thompsons. All of them worked for Alphonse Capone, the criminal lord. Bugsy Moran’s adversary Al Capone had a presence at SMC. Capone’s men lined up seven Moran men and opened fire, leaving 70.45-caliber bullet casings as a calling card. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre garnered international news. 

The car, which allowed criminals to evade cops, was also a modernizing factor in crime. Bandits, some using Thompsons or BARs, trained to rob banks and cross state borders in the manner of robbers like Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, who used the BAR as their weapon of choice. In 1932, 13 people were killed in robberies committed by Barrow and Parker. In September 1933, John Dillinger, a fan of the Tommy gun, led his gang on a 10-month robbery spree that claimed the lives of ten people throughout the Midwest. With house and farm foreclosures at an all-time high—nearly 1,000 per day in 1933—some Americans saw thieves as less dangerous than bankers. In his song “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Woody Guthrie sings, “And as you wander through your life/yes, as you roam through your life.” “You’ll never see an outlaw or force a family to flee their home.” Despite the fact that there were very few Thompson submachine guns on the loose, gangster movies depicted gunplay with Thompsons. Murderous spasms were a part of that reality. 

Agents from the United States Justice Department Division of Investigation, subsequently the Federal Bureau of Investigation, entered Kansas City’s Union Station on June 17, 1933, headed for a destination 30 miles north. Frank Nash was being escorted to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth by the agents. Nash had been running with Pretty Boy Floyd when he escaped the prison in 1930, six years into a 25-year sentence for mail robbery. Floyd and two associates attacked the agents accompanying Nash at the railway station. Nash and FBI agent Raymond J. Caffrey were killed by Thompson rounds. The assailants were able to flee. State and federal authorities traced John Dillinger to a cabin in northern Wisconsin on April 22, 1934, and conducted a surprise raid. On their way out, Dillinger and Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis murdered federal agent W. Carter Baum with Thompsons and pistols. 

These, and a slew of other horrific acts, resonated far and wide. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to “bring to book every lawbreaker, large and small,” and he meant it. He claimed that a federal gun control law should take precedence over state regulations. “What good does it do to make it harder to acquire guns in New York if the gunman can travel to Connecticut or New Jersey and get whatever he wants?” FDR inquired.  

Homer S. Cummings, the United States Attorney General, was Roosevelt’s crime czar. The previous chairman of the Democratic National Committee had fought tirelessly to elect Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932, and he was to be named governor-general of the Philippines as a reward for his dedication. When the president’s candidate for attorney general died unexpectedly, Cummings assumed command of the Justice Department—at least temporarily. He remained there until 1939.

In 1934, Congress enacted 20 anti-crime measures supported by the government. Agents of the Division of Investigation may now conduct arrests and carry weapons for the first time. The Justice Department and the Division of Investigation became significant actors in the battle against crime as a result of the new federal criminal categories created by the legislation. Robbing a federally insured bank, crossing a state border to escape punishment, and interfering with or murdering a federal agent all became federal crimes. Despite the fact that Cummings believed that over 500,000 criminals were “armed to the teeth,” there was still no federal weapons ban. 

Cummings submitted a gun-control proposal to Congress in 1934. When a machine gun changed hands, he suggested a $200 tax—nearly $4,000 today. A Thompson retailed for between $175 and $227; the federal tax would likely price it out of the legitimate market while also leaving a paper trail of ownership in the event the weapon was used illegally.

Cummings suggested registering machine weapons as part of the tax system. The weapon’s serial number, as well as the new owner’s picture and fingerprints, would have to be sent to the Internal Revenue Service at the time of sale or transfer. Owners of automatic firearms who had them before the law went into effect would have 60 days to register them. Failure to register, as well as possession of an unregistered machine gun, carries a five-year federal prison sentence and a $2,000 fine.

How 1930s American Gang Violence Paved the Way for Gun Control Alphonse “Al” Capone (Getty Images via George Rinhart/Corbis) )

The plan avoided the difficulties that an outright prohibition would have brought. “You could argue there is some constitutional issue here if we established a law completely prohibiting any human being from having a machine gun,” Cummings added. “You are easily within the law,” he replied, framing the control mechanism as a charge. The tax strategy circumvented the criminal law’s restrictions. The 1914 Harrison Act, a fundamental federal narcotics law based on an international migratory bird treaty, was based on government taxing power to limit access to opium, cocaine, and other drugs. The drug legislation was maintained by the United States Supreme Court. As in 1931, when federal tax offenses tripped up once-untouchable gangland leader Al Capone, tax law might reach places where regular criminal law couldn’t. 

How 1930s American Gang Violence Paved the Way for Gun Control (Getty Images/Chicago History Museum)

Cummings framed his plan in terms of revenue—enactment, he calculated, would bring $100,000 into federal coffers each year—but he truly wanted to keep criminals and outlaws out. He told Congress, “I don’t expect criminals to comply with this legislation; I don’t expect the underground to be running about providing their fingerprints and obtaining licenses.” “However, when I discover such a person, I want to be able to condemn him since he has not complied.” A federal accusation of having an unlicensed machine gun was pending. According to Assistant Attorney General Joseph B. Keenan, gangsters “will not be able to put up hazy alibis and the typical ruses,” but “it will be an easy way to put them behind prison.” There were other snares in the trap. Texas, along with 27 other states, had outlawed civilian possession of machine guns by 1934. A person who registers a machine gun with the federal authorities in any of those areas may face state criminal charges for possessing the weapon.

Representative Hatton W. Sumners (D-Texas) presented Cummings’ proposal in the House on April 11, 1934. Not everyone agreed with the plan. Some lawmakers believe Cummings’ plan went too far. 

H.R. 9066 also included pistols, revolvers, and “any other weapon capable of being hidden on the person” in addition to machine guns. Cummings viewed handguns as critical to the plan, thinking that a machine gun-only law would be a half-hearted compromise, and the statistics back him up. Only a few hundred machine guns were held by goons, but they had thousands of pistols hidden in waistbands and shoulder holsters. Each firearm transfer would be subject to a $1 fee, and every buyer or current owner of a pistol or revolver would be required to register it. 

The registration of handguns was fiercely opposed by sportsmen’s organizations and gun clubs. The National Rifle Association, a 250,000-member organization that was once so obscure that The New York Times mistook it for its monthly magazine, American Rifleman, and referred to it as the “American Riflemen’s Association.” (The NRA was founded in 1871 by two Union veterans with the aim of improving marksmanship and promoting safe gun ownership.) To add to the confusion, the public mistook the letters NRA for the National Recovery Administration, a contentious New Deal institution. Cummings remained steadfast. “Show me a guy who doesn’t want his gun registered, and I’ll show you a man who shouldn’t have a gun,” he added.

At hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, NRA officials blasted Congress in good guy/bad guy performances. NRA President Karl T. Frederick, who portrayed calm reasonableness, was the nice guy. The Harvard-educated lawyer, 53, had won three gold medals in shooting at the 1920 Olympics and was well-known among environmentalists for his attempts to establish a natural reserve in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. NRA executive vice president Milton A. Reckord, 54, a World War I combat veteran and adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, was the bad guy. 

How 1930s American Gang Violence Paved the Way for Gun Control On May 5, 1941, NRA member Milton Reckord spoke before a Senate committee, decrying the notion of combating criminals by restricting lawful gun owners. Henry Griffin/AP Photo

Frederick informed House members, “I have never believed in the widespread habit of carrying firearms.” “I am not a believer in the open carrying of firearms. I believe it should be severely limited.” However, he believes that regulating crime by requiring law-abiding people to register their firearms is excessive. “I don’t think we should burn the barn down to get rid of the rats.” 

Reckord was a little more outspoken. “A handgun or revolver is not hazardous; it is dangerous only in the hands of a crook,” he said. “Honest citizens…would refuse to comply with [a pistol-registration requirement], and with the stroke of the President’s pen, you will turn 15 million sportsmen into criminals.” The NRA promised to back the bill wholeheartedly if the government removed firearms from it. 

Gun rights activists worried that H.R. 9066 was only the beginning. The law is part of an attempt, according to hunting magazine Field and Stream, to “ultimately deprive all people the ability to own weapons of any type and for any purpose.” The National Rifle Association warned of “subterfuge disarmament.” Senator Royal S. Copeland (D-New York), a proponent of gun registration, dismissed these allegations. Copeland observed that his own kid possessed a number of pistols, and that “if I were to arrange it so he couldn’t have a pistol, before they were taken away from him, he would load me full with lead…” 

Gun owners were comforted by Assistant Attorney General Keenan. “There will be no spying teams going around from home to house to check who has and does not have weapons,” Keenan vowed.

In press releases, the NRA enraged members by warning of “dictatorial” gun regulation, in which law-abiding gun owners would be “fingerprinted and photographed for the Federal rogues’ gallery every time he buys or sells a gun of any kind.”

The General Federation of Women’s Groups, or “clubwomen,” as The New York Times dubbed the organization’s membership, backed the bill. Any measure that excluded handguns and revolvers would be a “laugh,” according to the federation, which also rejected any intention to “destroy the rights of any honest man to legal defense.” FDR remained quiet. The legislative squabble received little coverage in the press, and reporters mostly ignored the topic during Roosevelt’s news conferences.

H.R. 9066 was defeated in the House of Representatives. Rep. Robert L. Doughton (D-North Carolina) proposed a similar measure, H.R. 97401, on May 23, 1934, that specifically exempted pistols and revolvers. Machine guns, as defined under Doughton’s bill, are any weapon capable of firing several shots with a single trigger stroke. Doughton was also seeking sawed-off shotguns and silencers, which are any rifle or shotgun with a barrel less than 18 inches long. Dealers of machine weapons would be subject to a $200 annual levy. The House approved Doughton’s measure on June 13, 1934, with minimal discussion, and the Senate followed five days later. On June 26, 1934, Roosevelt signed the measure. 

The Firearms Act was a flop as a money generator. The US Treasury received $8,015 in associated fees in 1935, and $5,342 the following year, considerably less than Cummings’ prediction of $100,000 each year. In 1934, there was no civilian purchase of a machine gun, although gun owners registered 15,791 guns purchased previously. Many were ancient shotguns with short barrels that meet the description of a sawed-off shotgun. The legislation was used to prosecute 54 people in 1934-36. The taxes part of the legislation was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1937, and the registration requirements were upheld in 1939.

Hotel manager Joseph H. Adams of Miami, Florida, was the first American punished under the statute. Adams, 39, was given an unlicensed Browning Automatic Rifle by a criminal friend in September 1934. Adams concealed the pistol in his office in a golf bag. He subsequently gave the BAR to a shady acquaintance, with the serial number scribbled on it. According to the government, that party attempted to sell it for $150 under the table.

On January 22, 1935, federal authorities confiscated the weapon and accused Adams with illegally transferring an unlicensed machine gun. The arrest was contested by Adams’ attorneys on constitutional grounds. “The Constitution does not give the privilege of carrying weapons of the type dealt with in the act to racketeers and desperadoes,” the judges said. There was no further information on the case that could be found.  

Outlaws wielding Thompson and BARs were apprehended by aggressive police, not the National Firearms Act. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed and killed by sheriff’s deputies in Sailes, Louisiana, on May 23, 1934. On July 22, federal authorities shot and killed John Dillinger as he walked out of Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Pretty Boy Floyd was killed in a firefight with federal investigators and police near East Liverpool, Ohio, in October. Federal authorities murdered Baby Face Nelson in Barrington, Illinois, on November 27, 1934, in a shootout that claimed the lives of two agents. Urban criminals went underground after learning that gunplay drew attention from the media and the authorities.

During World War II, Auto-Ordnance produced about 1.7 million units, the majority for the US military but also for Allied troops. From Bataan to North Africa, Normandy to Okinawa, Thompsons saw combat. In Korea and Vietnam, Thompsons were smuggled to China and used against GIs. The Thompson was eventually replaced by the more contemporary M-14 and M-16 rifles, as well as later auto-fire versions, by the US military.

How 1930s American Gang Violence Paved the Way for Gun Control The 1934 crime bill is signed into law by President Roosevelt. Attorney General Homer Cummings, Director of the Division of Investigation J. Edgar Hoover, unnamed; Assistant Attorney General Joseph Keenan. (Alamy Stock Photo/Everett Collection)

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that the National Firearms Act’s registration requirements were unconstitutional. The rationale was the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, not the freedom to carry weapons or the commerce clause. Many states had outlawed the ownership of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns by this time, while also prohibiting criminals from possessing weapons. The court held that a criminal or a person in any of those states who followed the rules and registered a banned weapon was implicitly admitting to committing a crime. The government had been caught in the trap that U.S. Attorney Homer Cummings had laid for gangsters and criminals 34 years before, and Congress repealed the act’s registration requirements later that year.


The original version of this article appeared in the August 2023 edition of American History. To subscribe, go to this link.


In the early 1930s, the United States witnessed a new type of gangster in its midst. Called “marauders,” these criminals were better armed, more organized, and more violent than their predecessors. Armed with machine guns, hand grenades, and improvised explosive devices, the marauders were ruthless in their attacks, kidnapping, and extortion. With the new levels of violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began working to develop a new police force.. Read more about bonnie and clyde browning automatic rifle and let us know what you think.

Gun control became an issue in the United States after the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"Why was gun control created?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" Gun control was created to prevent people from using guns against others."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"When was the first gun control law passed?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":"

The first gun control law was passed in England in 1328."}}]}

Frequently Asked Questions

When did gun control become an issue?

Gun control became an issue in the United States after the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999.

Why was gun control created?

Gun control was created to prevent people from using guns against others.

When was the first gun control law passed?

The first gun control law was passed in England in 1328.

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