The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They were killers with powerful guns. The president went after their weapons.

Indiana Reformatory booking shots of John Dillinger, stored in the state archives. (Indiana State Archives/Indianapolis Star/AP)
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They were the mass shooters of their day, and all of America knew their names: John “the Killer” Dillinger, Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

In the 1930s, the violence by the notorious gangsters was fueled by Thompson submachine guns, or Tommy guns, that fired up to 600 rounds in a minute. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was pressing Congress to act on his “New Deal for Crime,” specifically a bill officially called the National Firearms Act of 1934. Informally, it was known as the “Anti-Machine Gun Bill.”

At the time, Pretty Boy Floyd was on a killing rampage. Clyde Barrow and his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker, were blazing a bloody path through Oklahoma with submachine guns and sawed-off shotguns. Machine Gun Kelly had recently been captured and sent to Leavenworth prison.

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Dillinger, “with a submachine gun in his hands and a big green sedan awaiting him, shot his way out of a police trap today and once more foiled the law,” the Associated Press reported from St. Paul, Minn., in the spring of 1934.

The next week in Wisconsin, Dillinger killed a federal law enforcement officer in a hail of submachine-gun bullets.

Roosevelt’s firearms bill also proposed requiring newly purchased pistols and revolvers to be registered and owners to be fingerprinted. In February 1933 in Miami, a would-be assassin had fired a pistol at President-elect Roosevelt that mortally wounded visiting Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.

The gun-control effort foreshadowed the current debate over guns after a shooter carrying an AR-15-style rifle killed at least 19 students and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., on Tuesday. That evening, President Biden urged Congress to pass laws that would help end the “carnage” of gun violence across the country.

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By 1934, more than two dozen states passed gun-control laws. West Virginia required gun owners to be bonded and licensed. Michigan mandated that the police approve gun buyers. Texas banned machine guns.

“Why should desperadoes, brazen outlaws of the period be permitted to purchase these weapons of destruction?” the Waco News-Tribune editorialized.

Rather than a federal ban on machine guns, the Roosevelt administration proposed taxing the high-powered weapons virtually out of existence. It would place a $200 tax on the purchase of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. The tax — equal to about $3,800 today — was steep at a time when the average annual income was about $1,780.

“A machine gun, of course, ought never to be in the hands of any private individual,” Attorney General Homer Cummings said at a House hearing. “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.”

Nobody expected “the underworld to be going around giving their fingerprints and getting permits to carry these weapons,” Cummings said. But if they were caught with a gun that wasn’t registered, they could be charged with tax evasion, just as Chicago mobster Al Capone had been. “I want to be in a position, when I find such a person, to convict him because he has not complied,” the attorney general said.

While the proposed action might seem drastic, he added, “I think the sooner we get to the point where we are prepared to recognize the fact that the possession of deadly weapons must be regulated and checked, the better off we are going to be as a people.”

The NRA gave qualified support to the proposed law.

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“I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses,” testified NRA President Karl Frederick, a New York lawyer. But he was dubious about the proposed law. “In my opinion, the useful results that can be accomplished by firearms legislation are extremely limited,” he said. The NRA at the time represented “hundreds of thousands” of gun owners but not gun manufacturers.

The NRA and groups representing hunters opposed extending the tax to pistols and revolvers. “It is a fact which cannot be refuted that a pistol or revolver in the hands of a man or woman who knows how to use it is one thing which makes the smallest man or the weakest woman the equal of the burliest thug,” argued Milton Reckord, the NRA’s executive vice president. But as for a bill limited to machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, he said, “We will go along with such a bill as that.”

Congress eventually stripped the bill of regulations on pistols and revolvers. When Democratic Rep. Robert Lee Doughton of North Carolina introduced the final bill, he declared that the law would mean that the public no longer would be at the “mercy of the gangsters, racketeers and professional criminals.” But “law-abiding citizens who feel that a pistol or a revolver is essential in his home for the protection of himself and his family,” he said, “should not be compelled to register his firearms and have his fingerprints taken and placed in the same the same class with gangsters, racketeers, and those who are known as criminals.”

Congress passed the firearms act in June, and Roosevelt signed it into law along with more than 100 other bills. By 1937, federal officials reported that the sale of machine guns in the United States had practically ceased. In 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law didn’t violate the Constitution.

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Hundreds of illegal machine guns were still around, but a crackdown by law enforcement basically ended the run of gangster gun violence.

In May 1934 in Louisiana, a posse led by a former Texas Ranger ambushed and killed Bonnie and Clyde in a blaze of submachine-gun fire. Later that year, federal agents killed Pretty Boy Floyd in a gun battle in an Ohio cornfield.

In June, the feds tracked down Dillinger at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, where he was watching the movie “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable. Agents chased Dillinger into an alley, where he reached for his gun and was shot dead.

In May 1936, the Federal Bureau of Investigation nailed the last official “Public Enemy No. 1,” Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, in New Orleans. Karpis gave up without a fight. Personally leading the arrest was the FBI’s 41-year-old director, J. Edgar Hoover.

A version of this story was originally published on Aug. 9, 2019, under the headline “They were killers with submachine guns. Then the president went after their weapons.”