Tommy: The Gun That Changed America

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
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Unbiased "biography" of gun loved by bootleggers, gangsters.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will be introduced to a wide variety of characters -- from politicians (FDR) and lawmen (J. Edgar Hoover) to movie stars (James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson) and notorious criminals (Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, and George "Machine Gun" Kelly) -- who make the history of the '20s and '30s come alive for even the most history-phobic student. A no-sides-taken epilogue discusses the current controversy over automatic weapons; the shootings at Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut; and the ongoing debate about the Second Amendment.

Positive Messages

Details the history of -- but does not glorify -- a gun that killed untold numbers of people.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Law enforcement aims to bring the gangsters and bank robbers to justice. Legislators work to protect citizens and police.

Violence

The first chapter begins with bullets flying and a mail truck driver being shot dead by a Thompson submachine gun. Not unexpectedly, acts of violence permeate the book but are never described in grisly detail. Victims are "mowed down" or die in a "hailstorm of bullets," and one shooting is described as "so gory that it turned the pavement red." There are several unsettling crime-scene photos, including one of the corpses from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. 

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Though sections of the book take place during Prohibition, a character having a drink is mentioned in passing.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Karen Blumenthal’s Tommy: The Gun That Changed America is the “biography” of the Thompson submachine gun, from its creation as a fast-firing military weapon designed to give an edge to American troops through its unexpected adaption as the weapon of choice for legendary 1920s and '30s gangsters John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Baby Face Nelson. Blumenthal uses the gun (and the controversy about it) to introduce a lively social history of one of the most tumultuous periods in America life -- the Depression, Prohibition, labor strikes, the rise to power of the FBI, and the first battle over the registration of guns. A no-sides-taken epilogue discusses the current controversy over automatic weapons; the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut; and the ongoing debate about the Second Amendment. Acts of violence permeate the book but are never described in grisly detail. There are several unsettling crime-scene photos, including one of the corpses from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The author’s two previous books, Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Differently and Bootleg, were finalists for the American Library Association's Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

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What's the story?

When John Taliaferro Thompson (a retired brigadier general in the Army ordnance department) envisioned the future for the rapid-firing, handheld machine gun that bore his name, it was as a military weapon. A veteran of the Spanish American War and World War I, Thompson thought it would give a battlefield advantage to American troops. When the military (winding down after World War I) didn't purchase the gun, Thompson's company began marketing to local police departments and selling through sporting goods and hardware stores. It wasn't long before bootleggers and bank robbers adopted the gun, leaving Thompson "racked with concern" about the use of his gun. The title, TOMMY: THE GUN THAT CHANGED AMERICA, is apt: The hunt for Tommy-gun-toting gangsters brought J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to prominence, made his G-men into folk heroes, and prompted Congress to pass an interstate crime law. Talks of banning the gun initiated the first battles between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Department of Justice and led to the National Firearms Act of 1934, which mandated the taxing and registration of automatic weapons.

Is it any good?

Karen Blumenthal's lively and accessible story takes a remarkably unbiased look at the history and still unfolding legacy of the Thompson submachine gun. The gun itself takes a starring role alongside the bootleggers, gangsters, and bank robbers of the 1920s and '30s, the police and FBI in hot pursuit, and the legislators determined to take it off the market.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how violence changed America in the 1920s and '30s. Do you think Prohibition would have been as violent if a gun like a Thompson had not been available to bootleggers and gangsters?

  • Do you think there's too much gun violence in the movies and on TV, or does it accurately reflect what's happening today in America?

  • How does a free society address the problem of powerful weapons such as the Tommy gun getting into the wrong hands?

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