“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” –Alan Ladd in Shane
As champions of gun rights we try to show that firearms have legitimate uses for sport, self-defense, hunting, national defense, and to deter tyranny. But we must acknowledge that firearms have also played a role in infamous crimes. Some guns are forever linked to the criminals who wielded them and the crimes those men and women committed. Here are some famous crime guns, the crimes committed using them, and how some of those crimes led to the creation of new gun control laws in response.
Belgian Fabrique Nationale Model 1910
“The pistol that killed 8.5 million people” was a little FN pocket auto. Serbian nationalist and “Black Hand” member Gavrilo Princip was hanging out at an outdoor café after his organization’s attempt to bomb an official motorcade had failed. A motorcade driver took a wrong turn and Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car stopped right next to where Princip was standing. Ferdinand was wearing a primitive bulletproof vest made largely of silk, but this did not help him as Princip shot him in the neck. Both the heir to the Austro Hungarian Empire and his wife died in the attack. After a flurry of last-ditch diplomatic wrangling, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia a month later and mobilized its army. Serbia’s tiny army was already in the field expecting this to happen. Under the Secret Treaty of 1892, Russia and France had to mobilize their armies if Austria-Hungary did this. Germany’s military policy called for mobilization if Russia ever mobilized, and there was a small problem with that—for Germany, mobilize was the same thing as attack. Using the von Schlieffen plan, Germany would knock France out of the war before Russia could bring its massive infantry reserves to bear on the east front. World War One didn’t work out well for anyone, and it was all started by a .380acp pistol at point-blank range.
The most infamous crime gun of all time must be the 1921 Thompson. Known as the “Chicago Typewriter,” its distinctive profile became synonymous with organized crime. The 1929 “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre” saw two Thompsons and a pair of shotguns used to “rub out” seven members of the Moran gang, supposedly on the orders of Al Capone. Two shotgun-toting “police officers” had ordered the Moran gang members to line up against the wall of a garage to be “arrested.” Instead they signaled to the other two shooters, wearing plain clothes which concealed their Tommy Guns. One Thompson fired a 20-round stick magazine, the other a 50-round drum—against seven men taken by surprise, it was overkill. Massacre victim Frank Gusenberg held to the criminal’s creed of “no snitches” to the very end—despite receiving 14 gun shots he insisted to the police, “Nobody shot me, nobody shot me,” before dying three hours later. By the early 30s, the Thompson had become a favorite of infamous criminals such as John Dillinger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Lester “Baby Face” Nelson. In 1934, the federal government passed the National Firearms Act in response. Its $200 “tax stamp” requirement to legally register a fully automatic firearm is said to be based on the Thompson’s price of $200, at a time when a new car cost around $400. Therefore, if you wanted to own a Thompson after the NFA became law, you still could—as long as you were willing to pay as much as a new car for it!
Bonnie and Clyde’s Browning A5 “Whippet”
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow used a wide variety of firearms during a crime spree so violent and infamous that John Dillinger once said they gave bank robbing a bad name. They had several 1911 .45 pistols, various revolvers, and even a few .30-06 Browning BAR machineguns they had taken in a raid on an Oklahoma National Guard Armory. But their most famous weapon was Clyde’s “Whippet” Browning Auto 5 shotgun. Its barrel had been sawn off to about 16 inches long, and its buttstock shortened as much as possible, too. The Auto 5 has a recoil spring inside the buttstock, so Bonnie and Clyde could not convert it to a pistol grip only configuration. A famous photograph of the pair shows Bonnie playfully “robbing” Clyde with this cut down 10-gauge monster. Shooting the “Whippet” must have been a painful experience, but in the end all their firepower was in vain. A posse of officers from Texas and Louisiana were taking no chances, since Bonnie and Clyde had already killed nine policemen. They set an ambush on a lonely road and sprayed the couple’s car with 167 bullets. Bonnie and Clyde died without firing a single shot.
6.5mm Carcano 91/38
According to official accounts, Lee Harvey Oswald used this rifle to fire three shots at President John F. Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building on November 22, 1963. Two out of three shots hit the President, the last shot striking his head and killing him. Oswald purchased the Carcano as a “6.5 Italian Carbine” from a mail order catalog for $19.95, complete with a 4x scope. Oswald had used it in April to shoot at retired Army General Edwin Walker, but had hit the frame of the window Walker was sitting behind. This particular configuration of Carcano was an odd choice of rifle, having been manufactured in limited numbers in 1940 to use an outdated cartridge that the Italian army happened to have a good stockpile of. It is not particularly accurate, powerful, or smooth to operate. All indications are that Oswald chose it simply because it was cheap. Despite the fact that Oswald had violated existing laws by purchasing the rifle under a false name, outrage from his purchase of the gun via mail order led to a political push for gun control. A few years later Congress passed the 1968 Gun Control Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, who had been Kennedy’s Vice President and was sworn into office on Air Force One the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The difficulty of making the shots on a moving target from the sixth floor with such a cheap, obsolete rifle has fueled the fires of assassination conspiracy theorists for nearly fifty years now.