HUGH WILLIAMSON: Knock, knock – peephole opens in door – ‘Joe sent me’


    In 1919, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, known as The Volstead Act, more commonly called Prohibition. Fourteen years later, in 1933, this amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment – and many million Americans happily began legally drinking again.
    The 18th Amendment has the distinction of being the only amendment ever to be repealed. It was admitted to be a mistake and a national joke.
    In that 14-year period, we went through much violence and a great deal of bloodshed, all of which could have been avoided.  The notorious Al Capone in Chicago became the country’s best known bootlegger, but he had hundreds of “wannabes” in most of our other cities and towns.
    Well-to-do Americans found ways to “import” whiskey that was legally made in Britain, Europe, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. At least this whiskey was reasonably safe to drink. Most of it came through Canada. Others bought whiskey made here illegally. Much of it was made by moonshiners in the backwoods or by families at home who called it bathtub gin. Some of it was deadly. Some moonshiners said they put a little automobile battery acid in it to make it taste stronger.
    Prohibition has been romanticized by legends of other famous bootleggers and hidden dance halls where “cool” people partied and drank and enjoyed the excitement of waiting for the knock on the door of government agents like Elliott Ness and his “untouchables.” That’s where the title of this column comes from.  
    These supposedly hidden drinking houses were called speakeasies. The popular image of them was a place where people “in the know” knocked softly on the door, a small peephole opened, the person outside whispered “Joe sent me” and was admitted to the fun. It is also considered to have been the beginning of NASCAR.  All of this contributed to the romantic image of the 1920s and early 1930s.
    Actually, all Prohibition did, in addition to providing a relatively few people with overpriced alcohol that was sometimes poisonous, was to turn millions of Americans into law-breaking criminals. Bootlegging was very profitable. It enabled the bootleggers to bribe thousands of law enforcement officers and politicians to “look the other way” and become criminals themselves.
    President Warren Harding was commonly thought to keep a large supply of high quality liquor in the White House for himself and his friends. All of this contributed to a great deal of humorous contempt for law enforcement in general.
    Prohibition ended 86 years ago. Why am I writing a column about it today?  
    Because we may be about to repeat the same sad experience today. I don’t think we’re going to do this with liquor again, but we may do it with guns. One lesson some historians draw from Prohibition is if many millions of Americans are strongly determined to do something, it will be almost impossible to stop them.
    Many millions of us own many different types of firearms and are determined to keep them. Almost all of them were bought by law abiding citizens when it was entirely legal to do so. Today it still is. Article One, Section Nine, of the U.S. Constitution contains what is known as the ex post facto clause. Ex post facto is Latin for “after the fact.” Broadly speaking this means that if something was legal at the time it was done it cannot be declared to be illegal and punished later. It is one of our vital liberties.
    If I bought a semi-automatic rifle or handgun in the past or earlier today, I acted legally and it cannot be confiscated and taken away from me in the future.  At least that’s the theory.  Many laws have tried to chip away at it as much as possible. Some of these laws have been permitted by courts, others have not. I consider all such laws to be violations of the intention and spirit of ex post facto.
    In addition to theoretical legal concerns about the private ownership of semi-automatic weapons, there are many practical problems. Some politicians are proposing what they call mandatory buy-back schemes. The great majority of gun owners will simply ignore them. They will consider them to be unconstitutional violations of the ex post facto clause.
    Some counties in various states have already declared themselves to be gun ownership sanctuaries and announced they will refuse to cooperate with any type of confiscation. Many sheriffs and other law enforcement officers have said they will not cooperate with any confiscation efforts.
    Cherokee County did this a few years ago. Any effort to take American’s guns away from them will do exactly what Prohibition did – turn many millions of us into “criminals” and accomplish almost nothing. Let’s learn from the folly of Prohibition – not repeat it.
    Dr. Hugh Williamson is a resident of Bellview and a retired University of Wisconsin-Stout business administration program director. His column runs every other week. Email him at