The Politics of Ineffectiveness: Federal Firearms Legislation, 1919-38

Carol Skalnik Leff, Mark H. Leff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The federal firearms legislation proposed and enacted between the two world wars, although a breakthrough in federal activism on the issue, left a neutral legacy for future regulatory efforts. The 1927 statute barred handguns from the U.S. postal system without closing off alternative shipping routes. The National Firearms Act of 1934 ultimately limited its registration provisions to “gangster” weapons, like machine guns. The more inclusive Federal Firearms Act of 1938 proved impossible to effectively enforce. In view of the New Deal Justice Department&s ambitious regulatory pro posals, which would be considered far-reaching even by later standards, this lackluster record proved decidedly anti- climactic. The minimal impact of federal law was partially rooted in the low enforcement priorities of the Treasury De partment and was in part attributable to the influence of a traditional individualist ethos hostile to the “civilizing” pre tensions of federal intervention. But just as important as the administrative and cultural barriers to gun control effective ness was the character of the policymaking process. Anti- regulation forces out-organized Justice Department regu lators, with their vaguer public anticrime constituency, and parlayed their intensive commitment into a formidable in fluence on the legislative outcome. This capacity to circum scribe federal initiatives helped to neutralize the impact of the first federal gun control legislation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)48-62
Number of pages15
JournalThe Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1981
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences


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