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In the 1930s, the U.S. Government Nearly ‘Regulated’ Handguns

Photograph of the XM17/XM18 Modular Handgun
Photograph of the XM17/XM18 Modular Handgun

Our neighbor to the north doesn’t have a “Second Amendment,” so there is little that gun owners can do if Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau passes his sweeping gun reform legislation. Not only would it ban the ownership of so-called “assault-style” firearms such as AR-15s, but it could allow municipalities to even ban handguns – all handguns regardless of age.

In a press conference earlier this month, the Liberal Party PM said he would move forward with a buyback program in the coming months, but also said that the legislation would empower municipalities to restrict storage and transportation of handguns within their boundaries. Breaching of the law would carry a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

Such a move couldn’t happen in the United States, right?

Actually, it almost did – and already some communities have sought to ban guns. While court cases such as District of Columbia v. Heller (554 U.S. 570) from 2008 and McDonald v. City of Chicago (561 U.S. 742) two years later essentially ensure that municipalities can’t infringe on an individual’s Second Amendment rights with an outright ban, many people today forget that the U.S. lawmakers actually considered a nationwide regulation of handguns back in the 1930s.

The NFA Almost Included Handguns

The National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA), which was passed into law to address gangland violence including the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, as well as the attempted assassination of then-President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, didn’t actually ban machine guns and short-barreled rifles/shotguns, but rather it highly regulated them.

The 1934 Act required those (and other) items to be registered and taxed. Buyers of those firearms had to undergo a thorough, almost methodical, background check and “transfer” those items via a $200 tax. That was roughly the price of a Thompson submachine gun at the time – and while it is not entirely clear on how Congress settled on that amount, it has been suggested that it essentially doubled the cost of buying the firearm. It is also worth noting that the $200 tax was likely considered quite prohibitive at the time, it has fortunately for buyers not increased in the nearly 90 years since its enactment.

According to Gregg Lee Carter’s 2002 book Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and the Law, “the legislation would use the tax power as a means to impose near-prohibitory controls on machine guns and handguns.”

As that noted, handguns – pistols and revolvers – would have been regulated as strictly as machine guns, due largely to the fact that such firearms could be so readily concealed. It should be noted that Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were in fact all assassinated by handguns; whilst Giuseppe Zangara, FDR’s would-be assassin, also carried a handgun.

Today, many opponents of the Second Amendment like to maintain that the National Rifle Association (NRA) wasn’t always a political lobbyist group and that it really was only focused on promoting shooting sports. As Carter noted, this wasn’t the case, as even in the 1930s the NRA maintained enough clout that it dropped its opposition of the proposal only when a compromise was made in which handguns were removed from the bill.

Had the NRA not stepped up, handguns might have been as difficult to own as machine guns – but it questionable, even doubtful, as to whether America would be any safer.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Peter Suciu
Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

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