Prohibition-Era Gang Violence Spurred Congress To Pass First Gun Law In the 1930s, criminals with portable machine guns unleashed a torrent of violence that often caught civilians in the crossfire. The violence led to a tax and registration scheme still in effect now.
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Prohibition-Era Gang Violence Spurred Congress To Pass First Gun Law

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Prohibition-Era Gang Violence Spurred Congress To Pass First Gun Law

Prohibition-Era Gang Violence Spurred Congress To Pass First Gun Law

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Something changed in Washington after the massacre in Orlando. A Democratic senator and more than 30 of his colleagues held the Senate floor for nearly 15 hours. Then came the day-long sit-in by members of the House with the pledge to continue the fight for more comprehensive gun laws after the July 4 recess.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There was a lot of political will, too, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. But in the end, no new federal gun laws were passed. We're going to go back to a moment when Washington did act on this issue. But it wasn't after a single event.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This street marks gangland's greatest outrage, the machine-gunning of five little children in cold blood. The street was filled with youngsters like these when the gangsters unleashed a hail of lead that swept the sidewalks.

MCEVERS: This newsreel is from 1931. Prohibition had fueled a massive increase in organized crime. Gangsters like Al Capone were making big money trafficking illegal alcohol, and this coincided with the rise of the portable machine gun.

SIEGEL: That newsreel shows a New York City street, walls pock-marked with bullet holes and children who had been caught in the crossfire of gang warfare.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here is Samuel Davino, only 5 years old, pointing to where he was shot in the leg by gangland's ruthless gunmen. But poor little Samuel is more fortunate than Michael Vengali, also 5. Michael met death, and this casket will hold his tiny body, broken by machine gun bullets.

SIEGEL: The governor of New York at the time was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was the office he held just before becoming president. The experience of watching these events unfold on his watch stayed with him when he moved into the White House.

MCEVERS: When Roosevelt arrived in Washington in 1933, his fellow Democrats controlled both the House and Senate by substantial margins, and there was already momentum to do something to reign in guns. Here's New York Senator Royal Copeland promoting a bill to control the sale of firearms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROYAL COPELAND: We can never be free from the menace of promiscuous killings until a possession of firearms is everywhere restricted to persons of known character. To this end, I shall press my bill for passage through the United States Senate.

SIEGEL: There was talk in Washington of an outright ban on fully-automatic weapons, but President Roosevelt was wary of that - not because of the Second Amendment, by the way. It was because the Interstate Commerce Clause. The Supreme Court had already imposed strict limits on the ability of Congress to regulate commerce. So instead, FDR backed a tax and registration plan called the National Firearms Act.

MCEVERS: Here's how it worked. Anyone purchasing a fully-automatic weapon would have to pay a $200 tax. That might not sound like a lot, but adjusted for inflation...

ADAM WINKLER: It's approximately $3,500.

MCEVERS: That's Adam Winkler of UCLA's law school and author of the book "Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right To Bear Arms In America."

WINKLER: This was the depression. I mean, this was in the early 1930s when there wasn't a lot of money. The $200 tax was not meant as just tax. It was meant to discourage people.

SIEGEL: FDR signed the National Firearms Act into law 82 years ago this week with the support of the NRA.

WINKLER: And when the president of the NRA was asked to testify before Congress, he said that he had not given any thought to the question about whether federal gun control law would violate the Second Amendment. And elsewhere, the president of the NRA wrote that protection for firearms does not come from the Second Amendment. It comes from just wise public policy.

SIEGEL: Despite the NRA's support, the new law was challenged in the courts with one case going to the Supreme Court. It unanimously upheld the law. And over the years, the law was strengthened. In the 1960s, the import of machine guns was banned, and by the 1980s, all new manufacturing in the U.S. for civilian use was outlawed.

MCEVERS: Today there are a fixed number of machine guns available to buy, which means they're expensive - tens of thousands of dollars. A purchase also requires a thorough registration process through the government, including being photographed and fingerprinted.

SIEGEL: Today the guns covered by this law are almost never used in crimes, and in the more-than-80 mass shootings that have taken place since the early 1980s, not one is known to have involved a machine gun.

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