Firearm Deaths, Gun Availability, and Legal Regulatory Changes: Suggestions from the Data

By Weaver, Greg S. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Firearm Deaths, Gun Availability, and Legal Regulatory Changes: Suggestions from the Data


Weaver, Greg S., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


INTRODUCTION

On February 27, 1926 the story of a shooting incident involving a Thompson machine gun appeared on the cover page of the Chicago Tribune. (1) That day, Al Capone went to a local hardware store and ordered three of these weapons. (2) Capone used the Tommy gun on April 27th of that year in an attack against a rival bootlegger, James Doherty. (3) These events launched an arms war of sorts among gangsters in Chicago that quickly spread to other cities. (4) In what later proved a critical mistake on the part of Capone, one of the three fatalities from this shooting was a prosecutor for the state of Illinois, William McSwiggin. (5) Police raided Capone headquarters in retaliation, during which time a federal revenue agent found a ledger that would subsequently be used to convict Capone of tax fraud. (6)

Possession of the Thompson machine gun--a weapon capable of firing .45 caliber bullets at a rate of up to twenty-five rounds per second and deemed unsuitable for use by the Chicago Police Department because of potential danger to innocent bystanders--was not in violation of the city's concealed weapon law. (7)

As will be shown, the incident described in the previous paragraph is an example typical of the seemingly paradoxical attitudes pertaining to firearms during the period. Even though possession and use of firearms in the city were, relatively speaking, strictly regulated, enforcement of these laws was generally lacking. For example: five days before his death in 1924, Frank Capone was arrested for violating the concealed weapon law of Cicero (a suburb of Chicago). The presiding judge dismissed the case and returned the weapons to Capone--commenting that he may need the firearms for the purposes of protection. (8)

On the other hand, however, highly publicized and often glamorized firearm incidents associated with Prohibition played an important role in the passage of subsequent gun legislation at the local, state, and federal levels. Following the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" of 1929, President Roosevelt proposed a bill that would regulate the sale and possession of handguns and machine guns alike, but these measures remained stalled in Congress until 1934. (9) That year, prompted in part by the 1933 death of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak during an assassination attempt on President Roosevelt (10) and the activities of John Dillinger, Congress passed the National Firearms Act of 1934. (11) This legislation regulated the sale, manufacture, and civilian possession of machine guns and other "gangster type" weapons. (12) The 1934 act originally contained a provision to place stricter regulations on the sale and possession of handguns, but it was removed before the final form of the statute passed. (13) A second key law, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, required that all gun dealers be licensed. (14) These laws provided the bulk of gun legislation in the United States until 1968. In that year a number of firearms laws were passed at the federal, state and local levels that increased restrictions on the sale, transportation and possession of firearms. (15)

The objectives of the present study follow a number of complementary paths: to explore Chicago gun homicides between 1879 and 1930, to outline significant developments in firearm laws in the city, and to identify possible factors that influenced changes in the increased availability of firearms. In doing so, gun homicide trends during the period will be examined and viewed in the context of significant events such a civil unrest, as well as the period of Prohibition.

I. FIREARM LAWS IN CHICAGO

In examining the development of legal restrictions on firearms in Chicago, a number of interesting points emerge. In 1982 the city enacted some of the strictest controls on gun purchases and possession in the country--particularly in regard to handguns. As of October 30, 1983, civilians were allowed to own handguns only if the weapon had been previously registered with the city prior to the effective date. …

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