01/24/2006 12:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Scary Pictures

In the debate over Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's opposition to the 1986 federal ban on machine guns, little attention has been paid to the bloody history that led to restrictions on these weapons and the very real threat -- defined by firepower and capacity -- they pose to public safety. A new web-based video from the Violence Policy Center offers a quick, visual reminder of why these guns are especially lethal.

In 1934, then-Attorney General Homer Cummings told a U.S. House of Representatives hearing, "There are more people in the underworld today armed with deadly weapons, in fact, twice as many, as there are in the Army and the Navy of the United States combined....[T]here are at least 500,000 of these people who are warring against society and who are carrying about with them or have available at hand, weapons of the most deadly character." Cummings' testimony was in support of legislation that eventually became the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA). The NFA was the first major federal statute to regulate firearms in the U.S., including machine guns. The 1934 law was Congress' response to the wave of gun violence precipitated by Prohibition and the notorious interstate robbery sprees of criminals such as John Dillinger and Al Capone. Congress heard ample evidence that immediate regulation of machine guns was necessary to stem a rising tide of gun violence -- a crime wave that lives on in celluloid in such gangland films as The Public Enemy.

As the Federal Bureau of Investigation's current website notes: "Perhaps the St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, might be regarded as the culminating violence of the Chicago gang era, as seven members or associates of the 'Bugs' Moran mob were machine-gunned against a garage wall by rivals posing as police." The NFA imposed a transfer tax and a series of licensing and registration requirements on machine guns. (In the original version of the bill, backed by Cummings, the requirements also applied to handguns, but those were stripped out of the final version.)

From 1934 until 1986, America's legal machine gun population grew to more than 250,000, with both new and old machine guns allowed to be registered. Other weapons and devices covered under the NFA include silencers, rocket launchers, and explosive devices. By 1986, the number of legally registered machine guns had reached more than 250,000. A 2000 Violence Policy Center study using federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) data reported more than 274,000 machine guns in America, with Texas leading the way with 18,919.

Unlike the 1986 federal ban, which was enacted under Congress' power under the Commerce Clause, Congress used its power to tax to impose the 1934 restrictions. One bizarre result of this distinction is that all information related to the machine guns registered under the NFA, including the type, owner(s), or use in crime, are not public information. They're secret, just like your tax returns. Which is one reason why no one really knows how often legal machine guns have been used in crimes.

And while the use of illegal machine guns in crime is barely better documented, when they are used in crime, the results can be horrific. In perhaps the most infamous example, the year after Justice Alito issued his minority opinion for the federal machine gun ban to be repealed, in February 1997 bank robbers wearing body armor opened fire on police in North Hollywood, California with automatic weapons. According to CNN, more than 200 police were on hand for the siege, which lasted more than an hour.  As one witness said, "These guys were ready for war." 
In calling for the 1986 federal machine gun ban to be overturned, Judge Samuel Alito displays not only a disturbing refusal to consider the substantial evidence relied on by Congress, but also a callous neglect of the real-world effects of such views.
The bottom line: more machine guns imperil public safety and security.