The criminals were the Barker Gang, “Baby Face” Nelson and the Capone mob, and the tools spawning public outrage were the Thompson submachine gun (used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), the Browning Automatic Rifle (a favorite of Bonnie & Clyde), and the sawed-off shotgun (a toolbox standard of Murder, Inc.).
Through a wise law enacted by President Franklin Roosevelt — and dramatically extended by President Ronald Reagan — America transformed its deadliest weapons into statistically its safest weapons. And it did so without banning ownership of a single gun.
The National Firearms Act (NFA) requires mandatory registration of certain types of weapons: machine guns, short-barreled firearms and explosives. The NFA taxes and regulates the transfer of these weapons, and requires a person wishing to buy one to obtain the consent of local law enforcement and the approval of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Today there are nearly a half million registered machine guns from Florida to Alaska, and they are legal to own and shoot in most states. In Virginia alone, there are 30,220 registered machine guns owned by private citizens as well as law enforcement agencies. Gun advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association have, more or less, accepted the NFA as a part of America’s Second Amendment landscape, and machine gun dealers commonly advertise “All NFA Rules Apply.”
Under Reagan, the continued manufacture of machine guns for civilian ownership was banned after 1986. With the supply of legal machine guns frozen, these weapons are simply too expensive for the garden-variety mass killer to use in a school or workplace massacre.
As a result, legally transferred machine guns have been used in fewer than five homicides since 1968. By comparison, in the year 2005 alone, 671 people were murdered with blunt objects.
That’s right: legally owned machine guns have been the murder weapon in far fewer homicides than hammers, frying pans or baseball bats. Even illegal machine guns are rarely used in killings: from 1983 to 1992, there were 651 law enforcement officers shot to death in the line of duty, yet only five of these murders were committed with illegal machine guns.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the familiar battle lines are being drawn: Sen. Diane Feinstein is dusting off her old “ban list” and the NRA’s supporters are sounding the war cries that have proven so effective in years past. When the word “ban” is used — especially when combined with nouns like “Pelosi” or “Feinstein” — the reflexive formula translates into bitterly-fought laws that will be circumvented by minor modifications in weapons design, whittled down in court challenges, or at most, lived with until they can be repealed.
A solution — using a program endorsed by Reagan and Roosevelt, one that has passed constitutional challenge, one that has a stellar track record, and one that does not require nervous politicians to endorse a ban on any firearms — is to extend the National Firearms Act to military-style assault weapons. Regulate, register, but don’t ban.
This solution should please liberals, who don’t want to see Bushmasters sold for cash over a gun show table, and it should reassure law-abiding gun owners that they will not have to turn in their assault rifles. It avoids the worst fears of the gun lobby and the gun control lobby. And most importantly, it will go a long way to ensuring these machines, designed specifically for killing humans, do not remain cheap and easily available to people who think of them as extensions of video game violence.
As the presidents of the United States and the NRA have both observed, no single firearms regulation will be perfect. But the NFA’s registration system has worked spectacularly since the time of John Dillinger.
Now that the AR-15 has become the “Tommy Gun” of today, we can give gun owners and gun control advocates what they want by looking to America’s best and most effective gun compromise.
Attorney Jonathan W. Jordan is a historian and author in Marietta.