Tommy gun

Paul Muni plays the Tommy Gun wielding gangster Tony Camonte in the 1932 classic "Scarface."

Here’s an important question for our times: What’s the difference between a Tommy Gun, the submachine gun wielded by gangsters like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson roaming Wisconsin in the 1930s, and a military-style assault weapon, today’s weapon of choice routinely used to commit mass murders all over America?

The answer, of course, is there’s virtually no difference, except for this: President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress succeeded in removing Thompson submachine guns, firing 600 rounds of bullets in a minute, from city streets with the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first serious federal gun safety legislation ever passed to protect American lives.

“A machine gun, of course, ought never be in the hands of any private individual,” Roosevelt’s attorney general Homer Cummings testified to Congress. “There is not the slightest excuse for it, not the least in the world, and we must, if we are going to be successful in this effort to suppress crime in America, take these machine guns out of the hands of the criminal class.”

Those precise words apply today to removing assault weapons used by two private individuals in a single weekend to commit mass murders in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and regularly before that in cities throughout America. The same goes for the Dayton shooter’s 100-round ammunition drum killing nine people and wounding 27 others in 32 seconds. Ohio banned high-capacity magazines until 2015, when Republican legislators were rolling back gun regulations nationwide.

But no one even expects government to do anything now to ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines that facilitate mass murder. President Trump says Republicans have “no political appetite” for such bans.

Nothing kills politicians’ appetites for protecting American lives like millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association. The NRA contributed more than $11 million to Trump’s 2016 campaign and spent another $20 million publicly attacking Hillary Clinton. It spends tens of millions more on House and Senate races. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has received $1.3 million from the NRA as the 17th highest recipient in Congress.

The corrupt NRA practice of buying Republican opposition to banning weapons of mass murder is fairly recent. During those 1934 hearings on the nation’s first gun control legislation, Karl Frederick, then president of the NRA, not only supported ending civilian access to submachine guns, but also licensing and restricting handguns.

“I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons,” Frederick testified. “I seldom carry one. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

The federal machine gun legislation itself was a direct result of a famous shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wis. A botched FBI raid on the resort where Dillinger, Nelson and their gang were spending a weekend killed a federal agent and an innocent customer and injured four others. Dillinger, Nelson and gang members escaped.

Rather than an explicit federal ban on machine guns, the law was designed to tax Tommy Guns out of existence. It required finger printing, licensing and paying a $200 tax to purchase machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, famously used by Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. That hefty tax, the equivalent of about $3,800 in today’s dollars, was out of reach for most people at a time when the average annual income was about $1,780.

Attorney General Cummings told Congress nobody expected gangsters to register their weapons, but anyone caught with an unlicensed weapon would go to prison for tax evasion just as Chicago gangster Al Capone had two years earlier. By 1937, federal officials reported the sale of submachine guns in the U.S. had nearly ceased. In 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law constitutional. The law so effectively ended the spread and use of submachine guns the federal government didn’t get around to actually banning civilian ownership until 1986.

Then 25 years ago under Democratic President Bill Clinton Congress banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines after two mass murders in California. The ban lasted a decade until Republicans controlling the Senate refused to vote on renewal in 2004. Republican Senators defeated another renewal attempt after the 2012 Christmastime mass murder of 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Knowing the history of getting weapons of mass murder off our streets is important. The American people have always supported banning weapons of mass murder far more than NRA-funded politicians. A Morning Consult/Politico poll after El Paso and Dayton showed 70% of Americans supported banning military assault weapons, including 55% of Republicans.

To quote a former U.S. Attorney General, such weapons “ought never be in the hands of any private individual. There is not the slightest excuse for it, not the least in the world.”

Joel McNally writes a regular column for The Capital Times.

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