Alcohol is highly regulated in the United States today, but did you know it was once illegal? The period of time known as Prohibition began when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol nationwide in 1920 and ended when that law was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933.
The idea of banning alcohol in the United States was nothing new in 1920. During the 1800s and early 1900s, many groups achieving various degrees of political clout sprang up, and in many ways the movement was led by women. Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union fought to abolish slavery, ban alcohol, and give women the right to vote. They were some of the more influential groups, and by the 1920s, all three of these goals were met.
Before the 18th Amendment banned the production and sale of alcohol across the nation, many states and counties had listened to the temperance movements and banned booze locally. Eventually, Congress was convinced that a great deal of the crime – especially domestic violence against women and children – was caused by drunkenness. They decided that outlawing alcoholic drink would surely cut down on the crime. They were wrong, and even though the 18th Amendment was eventually repealed, we still suffer the side effects of Prohibition today.
Prohibition Just Didn’t Work
While the statistics show that fewer people drank, a lot of folks simply ignored the laws. To make matters worse, Prohibition gave rise to illegal, hidden bars called speakeasies, which served alcohol to customers in secret. Bootleggers were people who made and transported alcohol during Prohibition. They brought booze into towns to sell at speakeasies.
Since it was illegal anyway, many bootleggers weren’t concerned with maintaining a good reputation, and their alcohol was disgusting at best, dangerous at worst. Thousands of people died from drinking bad alcohol during Prohibition.
The Rise of Organized Crime
Since producing and selling alcohol was a crime, large scale operations required large criminal organizations – especially if producers hoped to protect their goods. Prohibition saw the rise of organized crime in the United States as thousands of gangs sprang up across the nation. In Chicago alone, it is estimated there were 1,300 gangs by the mid-1920s.
By the 1930s, bootlegging was everywhere. Rival gangs fought each other – and the police – in the streets with fully automatic weapons. The .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun, or Tommy Gun, was a favorite amongst Prohibition era gangsters and federal agents alike. In fact, the Tommy Gun was used by the FBI until the 1970s, long after the National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA) taxed the weapons to the point few civilians could afford them.
A Government “Solution” to a Government-Created Problem
The NFA, passed in hopes of ending or at least reducing the gang violence created by Prohibition, set the precedent for national gun control. Before that, the Second Amendment protected the right to bear arms from any federal infringement. While the NFA was the first national gun law, it certainly wasn’t the last.
Prohibition only lasted 13 years, officially, but in practice it never fully went away. Even today it is a federal crime to distill any amount of alcohol for human consumption without a distribution license, even if only for personal use. Guns are heavily regulated, compared to before the 1920s, and federal police agencies – like the ATF, which only exists because of those early alcohol and firearm laws – have grown to massive size. Ten states still have dry counties, in which the sale of alcohol is illegal. Nationally, brewing wine and beer at home didn’t become legal again until the Jimmy Carter presidency. Gangs and other organized crime problems never went away. And for all this, the number of people who drank during Prohibition only dropped an estimated 30%. All in all, it was a massive failure that we’re still paying for today.