John A. Tures: Prohibition and gun law

jtures@lagrange.eduJanuary 21, 2013 

Whenever there's a push to ban anything (marijuana, guns, abortion, entertainment violence), all we hear is the time-honored and trite analogy of the Prohibition Era, which both liberals and conservative tend to employ. "We couldn't ban alcohol," the line goes. "And because it didn't work during Prohibition, we can't ban X."

We focus so much on Prohibition when it comes to alcohol that we forget a very important lesson from that time period. And it isn't just some analogy that can be linked to guns. It's about guns.

When the Prohibition Era story isn't about alcohol, it's about guns being everywhere. There were plenty of Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) and Thompson submachine guns (Tommy guns) floating around America. There were all kinds of bank robberies, feuds, shootouts between rival gangs over a ton of illicit activities (rackets, numbers games, gambling, etc.) so that bullets were flying everywhere, taking out a lot of innocent bystanders.

There were plenty of these guns lying around. Many were made for World War I; as the conflict abruptly ended while many were on the assembly line, there was a huge glut of them. You could buy one at your local drugstore (according to the History Channel) for under $200. And these things can fire a lot more bullets than the AR-15 and similar weapons that would be covered in the proposed ban.

So how did we deal with these wartime weapons that could shoot 1,200 rounds a minute, if a magazine was big enough to hold that many bullets?

We taxed them.

That's right. In 1934, our government passed a law saying you could still own or purchase such a weapon, but you had to pay a $200 tax on it. You also had to register it, and couldn't take it across state lines, giving or selling it to someone else without getting permission from the authorities.

As a result, ownership of these weapons declined dramatically (which reduced the theft of these by criminals, who found breaking into homes to get them easier than robbing the national armories), but they could still be purchased today by collectors or those who want it for home security. It's like having a car tax that goes for roads. Each state has its own rules, but most defer to the U.S. government. I actually looked up how to buy one in Florida.

Unlike an assault weapons ban that won't get through the GOP House or avoid a Senate filibuster, a tax would go through regular budget channels. The money could be spent on those armed guards in schools that the NRA insists we should have. Maybe those who become armed guards might get a tax break on such a weapon. And I would give some of that tax over to the NRA to provide some firearms instruction for the flood of new guards who will need a lot of training. One of my former students is an NRA instructor over in Alabama, and would be a good trainer.

With those provisions and involvement of the NRA, the legislation would be more likely to pass Congress. The most important thing is that it would reduce the flood of these dangerous guns, concentrate them in the hands of responsible people, even the odds for those who protect their houses with something other than a converted M-16, and allow collectors to keep them, with a tax that would protect our schools.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science at LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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