In almost every published description of the National Firearms Act of
1934 is a mention of the 1929 "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" , and a
statement to the effect that the Act was passed because machine guns
were being used with horrible results by bootleggers and other
organized crime figures. There are several things wrong with this
First, it is laughable to hope that people for whom murder is a
standard business practice will go present themselves to the local
police chief to get fingerprinted, and pay $200 for the privilege.
Similarly, it is ludicrous to think that putting legal restrictions on
firearms will reduce their availability to those people whose entire
livelihood involves finding, buying, transporting, selling, and
delivering illegal goods.
Second, the highly publicized incidents of underworld gangs machinegunning
each other over liquor shipments stopped overnight with the
repeal of Prohibition, which occurred a full year before passage of the
National Firearms Act.
Third, the Act also affects weapons other than machine guns; rifles and
shotguns with barrels or overall lengths below a certain minimum are
regulated by the NFA. It is very difficult to conceive of a reason why
the owner of a shotgun with a barrel 17 1/2" long should be charged
with a felony if he refuses to be fingerprinted and pay $200, when
owning a shotgun with a barrel a half-inch longer is no crime at all.
To compound this utter absence of logic, under the National Firearms
Act a person becomes a felon if he affixes a piece of wood to the butt
of his pistol (doubling the weapon's physical size), for he is now in
possession of a "short-barreled rifle", which is covered by the Act.
To make the final leap from the illogical to the ridiculous, the Act
regulates noise mufflers, which are not firearms at all. Hollywood to
the contrary, the FBI has been unable to document a single case of a
firearm silencer being used in a crime in the last fifty years17 . Given
that citizens fire upwards of six billion rounds of ammunition per
year18' , the inclusion of silencers into the NFA is one of the greatest
contributors to hearing loss in the United States and therefore must
rank as one of the largest public health blunders of this century19 .
The real reason for the passage of the National Firearms Act can be
summed up in four words: Expansion of federal powers. In 1934, two
major changes had recently occurred in the United States. The first was
that Franklin Roosevelt had initiated an exponential increase in the
size and power of the federal government. The second change was the
ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed Prohibition.
Let us examine the latter incident first.
In the thirteen years that Prohibition had been in effect, there was a
great proliferation of people involved in the illicit manufacture,
importation, and distribution of alcohol. This in turn produced a
tremendous expansion of the Treasury Department and the number of its
agents20 . With repeal, liquor distribution was done by legitimate
businessmen, and thousands of Treasury agents were idled. Federal
legislation levying $200 taxes on goods worth between $3 and $100 was
guaranteed to promote non-compliance by the citizens, thereby giving
former Prohibition agents something to enforce.
It is interesting to note that the original draft of the National
Firearms Act included all handguns then in existence in the United
States. Because of the handgun language, some of the strongest
opposition to the original version of the National Firearms Act came
from women, who were vulnerable to attack from stronger assailants and
got the greatest benefit from being able to carry a small weapon for
The number of pistols and revolvers in the U.S in 1934 has been
variously estimated at between thirty and one hundred million21 Compare
this figure with perhaps one million machine guns and short-barreled
long guns that fell under the Treasury's jurisdiction in the National
Firearms Act's final form22 . One can only guess at what would have
happened if in 1934 the government had told every citizen to cough up
$200 for each handgun he owned that he might some day want to take or
ship across state lines.
The removal of handguns from the National Firearms Act may explain the
odd inclusion of silencers in the legislation. In the first third of
this century, silencers were commonly available in any store where
firearms were sold. The term "silencer" is in fact a misnomer It was a
trade name coined by Hiram P. Maxim, an automotive engineer who applied
the principles of muffler design to safety valves, compressors,
blowers, and firearms23 . A "silencer" does not make a firearm
noiseless, any more than the muffler on a diesel truck exhaust conceals
the fact that the truck is approaching24 . With the 1934 Act making it a
felony to transport common noise mufflers in interstate commerce
without paying $200 (each!) to the government, millions of citizens
were now in violation of federal law.
Although the National Firearms Act stipulated a grace period where
owners could register these weapons and silencers free of charge, the
Treasury reported that a grand total of 15,791 registrations occurred
in this period25 . This indicates approximately 1% compliance. The 1934
Act was thus a huge success at turning millions of citizens into
The National Firearms Act fit in perfectly with the systematic creation
of government programs and deficit spending that Franklin Roosevelt
immediately began to institute the instant he took office. The NFA was
a model vehicle for the continued expansion of government power: It was
arbitrary (i.e. the 18-inch rule); it gave the government sweeping
authority over something very common; it focused on inanimate objects
rather than criminal behavior; it levied draconian taxes on these
objects; and most importantly, it created millions of criminals with
the stroke of a pen, just as Prohibition had.
A clear example of the fact that the National Firearms Act had nothing
to do with crime and everything to do with government power occurred
immediately prior to its passage. Senator Hatton Sumners of Texas, the
Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had been a virulent opponent
of the proposed bill and had bottled it up because it "did violence to
states' rights"26 . On April 23, 1934, Roosevelt called Sumners into the
White House for a chat. Sumners agreed to vote for passage27.
ENFORCEMENT OF THE NATIONAL FIREARMS ACT PRIOR TO 1968
After the NFA was passed, sales of affected items came to an abrupt
halt. Domestic firearms manufacturers stopped producing any long guns
with barrels shorter than 18". They also quit making any pistols with
lugs on the butt for shoulder stocks. Manufacturers of noise reducers
(most notably the Maxim Silencer Co.) went out of business entirely.
After the short grace period, citizens who owned NFA-regulated items on
which the tax had not been paid had several choices. The first was to
pay $200 to the Treasury for each item. In 1934, no one did this. The
second choice was to relinquish NFA-regulated items to the Treasury
without any compensation. No one did this, either. The third option,
theoretically at least, was to avoid selling or transporting anything
covered under the Act outside the state. The fourth was to disassemble
the machine gun, short-barreled long gun, or silencer so that it was
inoperable, and keep the parts separate. In the case of short-barreled
arms, the owner could also replace the barrel with one of 18" or
longer, and have a legal, functional gun again without paying $200.
Short-barreled rifles and shotguns were produced in low numbers in the
years prior to 193428 but the same could not be said for machine guns.
The Colt-manufactured Thompson, BAR, and belt-fed Brownings had all
been produced in large numbers and had been available on the civilian
market for over a decade. Furthermore, two million American soldiers
had been sent to Europe in WWI, and over half of these had served in
combat units. These veterans brought home many "war trophies", as they
are called, with complete legality29. Machine guns were a relatively new
and interesting battlefield weapon in 191830, and captured examples were
brought home by most soldiers. A conservative estimate of the fullautomatic
WWI weapons brought into the United States by the returning
two million veterans is one million31. Other knowledgeable sources place
the figure at over twice that32.
The Treasury Department decreed that owners of these weapons could
either register them for $200, or remove critical parts (such as the
bolt) from them, which would render them inoperable. In this latter
case, the gun was no longer considered a weapon subject to registration
and $200 tax, but rather a "DEWAT", which was the Treasury's acronym
(sort of) for Deactivated War Trophy.
When agents encountered an otherwise law-abiding citizen with a nontaxed
machine gun in his possession, standard procedure was to give him
the choice of paying the $200 tax and registering it "live", or
removing the bolt and/or other internal parts.
As years passed, the economy improved, wages and prices went up, and
the U.S. fought in two more wars. A few million more veterans returned
home from WWII and Korea with a few million more war trophies. By the
'50s and '60s, some citizens actually were paying $200 and getting tax
stamps from the Treasury Department on weapons brought back from WWI,
WWII, and Korea, and on newly-purchased machine guns from the many
manufacturers around the world.