William Pitt “The Younger,” Britain’s youngest ever prime minister, said in a 1783 speech before the House of Commons: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom: it is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” That so-called “commonsense” gun control is necessary to end the “gun violence epidemic” is precisely what California Governor Gavin Newsom cites as the reason for his proposed 28th Amendment.
The Second Amendment clearly protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms – even if interested parties can’t all agree upon specifically which people may have what arms. Surely the very Constitution itself would never be rewritten in such a way that would turn the Founders’ ideal of individual liberty on its head?
Consider, if you will, the 18th Amendment. Congress passed the Prohibition Amendment, and two-thirds of the states signed on to add it to the Constitution. It, along with the National Prohibition Act, took effect in January of 1920, ushering in the era known as Prohibition. The “noble experiment,” as it was often called, failed miserably. And though the 18th Amendment was repealed just 13 years later by the 21st, the damage was done – and the deleterious effects of a nation swept up in a popular movement discarding liberty entirely to legislate behavior, even for so short a time and with such good intentions, are still being felt today.
The Soul of the Nation
While progressives who desired more government control over the affairs of the individual certainly contributed, the core driving force behind Prohibition was a revival of the old 19th-century temperance movement. The various temperance societies had myriad reasons for considering alcohol a great evil, but to boil it down to a message perhaps a bit more familiar today, they thought they were fighting a battle for the soul of the nation. Like Governor Newsom – and President Joe Biden, who has also long advocated strict gun control, including during his 2022 Battle for the Soul of the Nation speech – they thought the tyranny they championed was for the greater good of society.
Like modern gun control advocates today, the temperance activists used fear, shame, and appeals to compassion for those whose lives are destroyed to convince others to voluntarily give up their own freedom and to vilify those who would not do the same. Between 1905 and 1917, states across the country enacted prohibition laws – and Congress wasn’t far behind.
The nation got caught up in what seemed a righteous movement. Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1917, and two-thirds of the states ratified it a mere 13 months later. It was followed very quickly by the National Prohibition Act – or Volstead Act, as it is often called in honor of the man who introduced it, Rep. Andrew Volstead of Minnesota – to define the “intoxicating liquors” banned by the 18th Amendment as anything that contained more than 0.5% alcohol. The Volstead Act made it illegal to “manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish, or possess” such a beverage. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill, but to no avail; Congress quickly voted to override him.
This new, less vague, and far stricter law also led to the creation of the Prohibition Unit under the authority of the Treasury Department. Take note of this event; its relevance will soon become apparent.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
As filmmaker Ken Burns pointed out in his Prohibition documentary, what followed was “a litany of unintended consequences.”
In the early days of Prohibition, the law worked. Alcohol consumption and arrests for drunkenness both decreased, and the price of bootleg booze – like many illegal products and services – became far too expensive for the average worker to afford. But it didn’t last. People, it seems, wanted to drink more than they wanted not to be criminals.
“The illegal production and distribution of liquor, or bootlegging, became rampant,” the National Archives explains. “In fact, by 1925 in New York City alone there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.” In another National Archives article, Gregory Marose sums up the failure:
“As Prohibition commenced in 1920, progressives and temperance activists envisioned an age of moral and social reform. But over the next decade, the ‘noble experiment’ produced crime, violence, and a flourishing illegal liquor trade.”
While criminal gangs had terrorized various parts of the nation since the Civil War devastated America, there was little in the way of large-scale organization. Before the 18th Amendment, most of the big-city gangs were merely bands of small-time criminals running extortion and loanshark rackets, predominantly in ethnic Italian, Jewish, Irish, and Polish neighborhoods, according to A&E’s History.
When Prohibition began, these gangsters were well-positioned to step in and keep the booze flowing – and they did. As the money poured in, often millions of dollars per month, operations grew. Once mere street thugs, the leaders of these gangs had to become businessmen. They hired lawyers and accountants. To protect their profits, they brought on more muscle, armed their fighters well, and laid claim to territories.
So went the birth of organized crime in America – and the inevitable bloodshed that followed.
Modern Prohibition and Gun Control – The Scars That Remain
When the 18th Amendment was officially repealed with the 21st in 1933, it did not return the full liberty that had been taken from people. It was – and still is to this day – illegal at the federal level and in all but a handful of states to distill any alcoholic spirits for human consumption without a license. That license, of course, requires taxes to be paid on anything produced when it’s bottled – whether it sells or not.
Even homebrewing of non-distilled alcoholic beverages remained a federal crime until President Jimmy Carter signed a law that legalized home beermaking. It wasn’t until 2013 that the final states, Mississippi and Alabama, followed suit.
Like any other grievous injury, the wound of Prohibition never fully healed – but continued meddling of the government in brewing and distilling at home isn’t the only scar that remains. The organized crime outfits weren’t banished by the 21st Amendment – nor were the massive and intrusive government agencies and federal laws designed to combat them.
The first nationwide infringement upon the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the National Firearms Act of 1934, grew out of Prohibition, as well. “This legislation is a direct response to gang violence, this act imposed criminal, regulatory and tax requirements on weapons favored by gangsters: machine guns, silencers and sawed-off shotguns,” reads the ATF’s website. Recall the aforementioned Prohibition Unit. That unit went from enforcing Prohibition to collecting revenue on alcohol to enforcing the nation’s first gun control law, and, as such, moved back and forth between the departments of Justice and the Treasury, eventually settling in as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – commonly called the ATF – in 1972.
A century ago, this nation amended the Constitution to forbid what the self-righteous virtue signalers of the time thought was bad behavior – and it was done “for our own good.” Today, we can trace the lingering loss of liberty regarding both alcohol and firearms, the rise in organized crime, and a significant growth spurt for Big Brother back to this one attack on freedom. Though the failed experiment – a true student of history and lover of liberty can’t quite call it noble – was short lived, those scars will likely never fade. Can the nation survive another?
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