Well, they're at it again, those crazy guys over at The Military History Channel! They have this (usually) great program called "How We Invented The World" and it always has a sub-title: "Railroads", "Planes", etc. Last night they did "Guns" which was a survey of how personal weaponry has changed (and how little it has changed) since the first example in the 17th century. Most of it was very entertaining and informative, but as with all such topics, it's very easy to get things wrong, and this is especially true when one allows one's bias to creep in. It appears that's what happened.
Discussing the early 20th century, they mentioned the venerable, iconic firearm of the Roaring Twenties, the Thompson submachine-gun, the Chicago typewriter. Now, a little background for those who haven't studied the political history of the era — from someone who has.
The Thompson (or "tommy gun") was invented in 1919, right near the end of WW-I. Thompson envisioned the thing as a "trench broom", but it never made it into battle before the war ended. There was a small pre-production run and full production began in 1921. Back in those good old days there were no federal gun laws to speak of. It was (literally) possible to send a letter to Auto-Ordnance of Hartford, Connecticut with your check for $200 and purchase (direct from the company) a Thompson with a 20-round stick magazine. Farmers and ranchers found it a worthwhile investment for scaring off predators, whether four-legged or two-legged, and many were sold "out west" for entirely lawful purposes. Your brand new Thompson would be delivered to your door by the Railway Express Agency or Wells Fargo or American Express (yes, they did deliver packages once upon a time).
Here is where The (Military) Revisionist History Channel goes astray. First, they ascribed the name "trench broom" to the Thompson as the weapon our doughboys used to clear WW-I trenches of pesky Germans, quite a feat for a firearm that hadn't been invented yet. In fact, doughboys used sawed-off shotguns and referred to them as "trench brooms".
Then, as if to ice the cake, they note that the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) was passed specifically to get these "weapons of war" off the streets because "they were making their way into the hands of criminals, probably via dodgy dealers". (I hope I got that quote right.) Well... not to put too fine a point on it... horsefeathers!
- The NFA was passed as a revenue bill because Congress knew they couldn't reguate firearms. The $200 transfer tax was enough, however, to flush nearly everyone out of the habit of keeping submachine-guns, sawed-off shotguns, and silencers handy — too damned expensive.
- "Dodgy dealers" included Sears-Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Ace Hardware, and the Auto-Ordnance Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Not every Tom, Dick, and Harry store could afford to stock inventory that cost over $200 per unit. This was the twenties, after all.
- In fact, there were not yet any federal firearms dealers since that didn't begin until 1934's National Firearms Act mandated a federal license to sell firearms commercially.
So many errors in a single sentence! (Military) Revisionist History Channel, you've outdone yourself!