There are two points of view on J Edgar Hoover. Viewpoint One goes like this: he was the greatest American ever, the scourge of organized crime and hostile espionage, defender of the Constitution, and the model of the incorruptible servant leader; in short, a brilliant and upright stalwart who was a bulwark of society.
And Viewpoint Two: he was a worthless bum, no better than the gangsters his G-Men used to lock up (or shoot up), corrupt as any Latin caudillo, hostile to civil liberties, and recognizing no law but his own self-interest; in short, a crooked, waspish queen who took long vacations with his “right-hand-man” in which they’d roll each other in melted butter and lick it off, or something.
If you haven’t swung between those viewpoints, you probably haven’t read much on Hoover; the real truth of the man is probably somewhere in between, but everyone who writes about the long-dead prototype of the Beltway Insider seems to swing to one extreme or the other.
Well, let’s try an experiment and see who we can swing to Viewpoint Two today. Did you know Hoover was a Gun Banner? In fact, the evidence for that is a lot stronger than the evidence for his cross-dressing or even homosexuality (and the evidence for those is probably strong enough to convict).
Hoover and the NFA
The National Firearms Act of 1934 was largely Hoover-promoted legislation. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the registry and ridiculous series of steps that we must jump through to own and enjoy what were scary weapons around the time FDR inherited Hoover and his blackmail files from Herbert Hoover (no relation).
Hoover considered civil liberties of all kinds to be a sort of Original Sin or fundamental flaw in the Constitution, and so he just didn’t see them as constraining him and the FBI. He was especially keen on ending the right to keep and bear arms, except as he would forbear to further narrow it, and the NFA was designed not to limit but to eliminate firearms J Edgar didn’t like, through the workings of what economists call a Pigovian tax — a tax set at such a confiscatory rate it changes the behavior of the taxed. The $200 tax of 1934 was from 20 times the least expensive NFA gun to match the cost (and essentially double it) of a premium firearm like a Thompson M1928 or a Colt Monitor, and one result was, not surprisingly, a collapse in the sales and the value of those firearms (which were now widely acquired by police forces at a fraction of the pre-Act prices, as police forces were exempt from the act). But that’s far from the only way to look at it: $200 was a serious fraction of the median household income in 1934-36, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics(.pdf).
But what Hoover wanted from the bill is not what he got. He wanted the bill to ban machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, destructive devices, and handguns. He thought that only people like he and his catamite1 and their merry men should be able to be trusted with them. He lost on that; he didn’t share enough compromised rent boys with enough Senators and Congressmen to keep that from being amended out.
The original text of the relevant definition in the draft Act reads (emphasis ours):
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That for the purposes of this act the term “firearm” means a pistol, revolver, shotgun having a barrel less than sixteen inches in length, or any other firearm capable of being concealed on the person, a muffler or silencer therefor, or a machine gun.2
Before the law was passed, the bolded terms had been taken out, and short-barreled rifles had been added in.
Now, frankly, if a guy wants to dress up like Lady Astor and take long vacations with his “assistant,” well, it probably wasn’t the first time the taxpayers paid for that, and probably wasn’t the latest, either. (Come to think of it, there was that ATF executive in New Orleans….) But when a guy wants to ban pistols, his swinging fist just hit our nose. Fight’s on, Miss Thing.
That wasn’t all the odious stuff that got peeled out in the sausage-making of the NFA, either. There was also an absolute import ban, unless the gun was, “…of… a type which cannot be obtained within the United States….”3 The purpose of that was as an enticement to split pro-gun and pro-liberty legislators, with those from gun-making states subject to influence by rent-seeking gunmakers.
But J. Edgar wasn’t done yet.
Hoover and the .357
In the NFA, Hoover didn’t get everything he wanted, but by destroying the then-economics of automatic weapons, he did his bit for police militarization before that was a phrase anyone would recognize. He still recognized, as police always have, that despite whatever press and activists might call criminal’s “weapons of choice” at any given point, what a criminal wanted was usually something compact and concealable, to wit, a handgun.
Having had his ass handed to him (something he might have enjoyed, if it hadn’t been figurative) on the pistol ban, he regrouped and tried again. When Smith & Wesson demonstrated their .357 Magnum, Hoover didn’t react like most cops of the day (“Want!”). Instead, he saw a Deadly Threat.
Hoover, it is widely known, received Registered Magnum #1 from Smith & Wesson on April 8, 19354. The Registered Magnum was built with a stronger frame and a longer cylinder, so that rounds could be loaded to velocities and pressures that would have been unsafe in Smith’s bread-and-butter .38 S&W Special revolvers. Smith saw it as a custom-shop rarity, for discerning pistoleros. (At that time, many police forces still carried .32 S&W or .32 Colt revolvers). The customer paid a record-setting $60 (the equivalent of over $1,000 today, in a much poorer, mostly agrarian nation) and got to specify many of the features of his firearm.5
“Registered” guns came with a certificate, and a matching number inside. Smith made 5,500 of them before making the .357 a more regular product; they discontinued it because of the demands of war production, and only resumed in 1948. The pistol had no model number until 1957, when it became the Model 27.
But if Smith thought they’d bought Hoover off with the pistol “REG. 1″, they were very mistaken. The FBI acquired some of the revolvers and parceled them out to HQ and field offices, but they weren’t standard. In fact, FBI standardized on the Model 10-6 in .38 Special 6.
Nope, Hoover got right to the Attorney General suggesting… what else? A ban. His first letter has yet to surface, but David Codrea posted an insightful article about a second, in which Hoover spread some apocalyptic fear of the coming of Magnum Doom to one and all. We have OCRd the letter and post it here.
Hoover .357 ban letter[.pdf]
Here are a few excerpts (edited at the ends and where ellipses show to trim some of Hoover’s characteristically ill-educated and insecure verbosity):
I advised you that I anticipated that the qualities of the Magnum cartridge and the zinc bullet would eventually be combined, thereby again increasing the velocity and penetrative ability of sidearms and their ammunition.
…[E]xperimentation is at the present time in progress, whereby the combination of the zinc bullet and the Magnum cartridge will soon be perfected. Also, that the Magnum cartridge will soon be manufactured with a metal jacket, which will again, increase its penetrative force.
So… we haven’t yet got to where he asks for a ban, but let’s note that he wanted the AG to work with him in secrecy to develop the ban:
[T]he above information is of a confidential nature and if divulged to the public, would seriously jeopardize the possibility of obtaining additional information.
It’s all about Officer Safety, you see:
[E]ach advance in velocity and penetration renders hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment now in use by law enforcement agencies useless and obsolete. …[T]hese developments will eventually be of much greater assistance to the criminal element than to the law enforcement agencies or to the law abiding citizens.
He then has a whole section on ballistics that is almost completely wrong:
[T]he most effective pistol bullet … is the one exerting the greatest amount of shock. This [comes from] combining a heavy bullet with low velocity, … remaining in the body … thus causing the recipient to absorb the entire energy of the bullet.
He belabors the point at great length… we’ll spare you… and concludes:
The foregoing description of shock is [itended to show] that the recent developments in pistol and revolver cartridges are not of any particular advantage, other than for their penetrative force, which the higher velocities are rapidly increasing.
He noted that the Bureau’s bullet-proof shields and vests wouldn’t stop a Magnum round, a zinc bullet, let alone the two in combination. He then tells the AG, don’t sweat it, because the gun-club guys don’t care if we ban these.
It is not believed that members of the various shooting clubs and organizations would concern themselves over a curtailment of highly-powered sidearms. Additional penetration is of no value to target shooting, and i t is logical to assume that organizations promoting this sport would be in hearty accord with legislation curtailing high velocity bullets in an attempt to insure their members the continued use of target pistols.
Remember, he’d just tried and failed to ban those target pistols with the NFA. This is one of the earliest illustrations of the way a ban enthusiast is never telling the truth when he says he wants only an inch. He wants only an inch, now.
Then, there’s the curious fact that the NRA did testify in favor of the National Firearms Act, even when it was a pistol ban. Best guess? Hoover had a line on the NRA guy’s rent boys.
Finally, Hoover flounces out with some inflammatory language, and a promise to generate some scientific-sounding bushwah that will accomplish the desired ban.
As the menacing developments of these guns depend wholly upon the breach [sic] pressure and velocity, it would not be difficult to definitely define a limitation on these two items which would permanently control the rapid advances now being made. I f you so desire, technicians of thisBureau will offer specific suggestions….7
Yes, J Edgar Hoover was trying, in shameful secret, to ban the very firearm that would spend the 1980s and 90s as synonymous with FBI, the .357 Magnum.
But then, he always was simply fabulous at “shameful secret,” wasn’t he?
- In fact, nobody knows if Hoover was Tolson’s catamite, or Tolson Hoover’s. Does it matter? The two corrupt old lovers are buried together.
- From Keep and Bear Arms.com, which has the text as part of their html page, but also preserves the .pdf of the proposed bill as originally published.
- Same link as 2 above.
- The Hoover #1, serial no. 45768, is currently believed to exist but its whereabouts are not known. (Hoover was known to give firearms away; the FBI does not claim title to this pistol). Retired agent Larry Wack is seeking information, and has tracked a lot of other Hoover and Tolson guns.
- Most of the general early-Magnum facts are from Campbell, Dave. The History of the .357 Magum. The American Rifleman, 23 November 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.americanrifleman.org/articles/2010/11/23/the-history-of-the-357-magnum/
- The Bureau and the Handgun. The Investigator (FBI in-house magazine), May 1982.
- The damning Hoover letter is housed in the Papers of Homer S. Cummings, MSS 9973, Box 103, Folder “Attorney General Personal File – Firearms and National Firearms Act 1935 May-1938 September.” Cummings was the Attorney General who received, but may not have acted on, Hoover’s ban attempt. Via David Codrea. FBI’s Hoover tried to curtail ‘highly-powered’ handgun development. Examiner.com, 3. April 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.examiner.com/article/fbi-s-hoover-tried-to-curtail-highly-powered-handgun-development