Gun control laws are just as old or older than the Second Amendment (ratified in 1791). Some examples of gun control throughout colonial America included criminalizing the transfer of guns to Catholics, enslaved people, indentured servants, and Native Americans; regulating the storage of gun powder in homes; banning loaded guns in Boston houses; and mandating participation in formal gathering of troops and door-to-door surveys about guns owned.
Guns were common in the American Colonies, first for hunting and general self-protection and later as weapons in the American Revolutionary War. Several colonies’ gun laws required that heads of households (including women) own guns and that all able-bodied men enroll in the militia and carry personal firearms.
Some laws, including in Connecticut (1643) and at least five other colonies, required “at least one adult man in every house to carry a gun to church or other public meetings” in order to protect against attacks by Native Americans; prevent theft of firearms from unattended homes; and, as a 1743 South Carolina law stated, safeguard against “insurrections and other wicked attempts of Negroes and other Slaves.” Other laws required immigrants to own guns in order to immigrate or own land.
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791. The notes from the Constitutional Convention do not mention an individual right to a gun for self-defense. Some historians suggest that the idea of an individual versus a collective right would not have occurred to the Founding Fathers because the two were intertwined and inseparable: there was an individual right in order to fulfill the collective right of serving in the militia.
Although guns were common in colonial and revolutionary America, so were gun restrictions. Laws included banning the sale of guns to Native Americans (though colonists frequently traded guns with Native Americans for goods such as corn and fur); banning indentured servants (mainly the Irish) and enslaved people from owning guns; and exempting a variety of professions from owning guns (including doctors, school masters, lawyers, and millers).
A 1792 federal law required that every man eligible for militia service own a gun and ammunition suitable for military service, report for frequent inspection of their guns, and register his gun ownership on public records. Many Americans owned hunting rifles or pistols instead of proper military guns, and even though the penalty fines were high (over $9,000 in 2014 dollars), they were levied inconsistently and the public largely ignored the law.
State Gun Laws: “Slave Codes” and the “Wild West”
From the 1700s through the 1800s, so-called “slave codes” and, after slavery was abolished in 1865, “black codes” (and, still later, Jim Crow laws) prohibited Black people from owning guns and laws allowing the ownership of guns frequently specified “free white men.” For example, an 1833 Georgia law stated, “it shall not be lawful for any free person of colour in this state, to own, use, or carry fire arms of any description whatever… that the free person of colour, so detected in owning, using, or carrying fire arms, shall receive upon his bare back, thirty-nine lashes, and that the fire arm so found in the possession of said free person of colour, shall be exposed for public sale.”
Despite images of the Wild West from movies, cities in the frontier often required visitors to check their guns with the sheriff before entering the town. In Oct. 1876, Deadwood, Dakota Territory passed a law stating that no one could fire a gun without the mayor’s consent. A sign in Dodge City, Kansas in 1879 read, “The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited.” The first law passed in Dodge City was a gun control law that read “any person or persons found carrying concealed weapons in the city of Dodge or violating the laws of the State shall be dealt with according to law.”
Federal Gun Laws in the 1900s
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on Feb. 14, 1929 in Chicago resulted in the deaths of seven gangsters associated with “Bugs” Moran (an enemy of Al Capone) and set off a series of debates and laws to ban machine guns. Originally enacted in 1934 in response to mafia crimes, the National Firearms Act (NFA) imposes a $200 tax and a registration requirement on the making and transfer of certain guns, including shotguns and (“short-barreled”) rifles with barrels shorter than 18 inches, machine guns, firearm mufflers and silencers, and specific firearms labeled as “any other weapons” by the NFA. Most guns are excluded from the Act.
The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 made it illegal to sell guns to certain people (including convicted felons) and required federal firearms licensees (FFLs; people who are licensed by the federal government to sell firearms) to maintain customer records. This Act was overturned by the 1968 Gun Control Act.
In 1968 the National Firearms Act was revised to address constitutionality concerns brought up by Haynes v. US (1968), namely that unregistered firearms already in possession of the owner do not have to be registered, and information obtained from NFA applications and registrations cannot be used as evidence in a criminal trial when the crime occurred before or during the filing of the paperwork.
On Oct. 22, 1968, prompted by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (1968), as well as the 1966 University of Texas mass shooting, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) into law. The GCA regulates interstate gun commerce, prohibiting interstate transfer unless completed among licensed manufacturers, importers, and dealers, and restricts gun ownership.
The Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) revised prior legislation once again. The Act, among other revisions to prior laws, allowed gun dealers to sell guns away from the address listed on their license; limited the number of inspections the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) could perform without a warrant; prevented the federal government from maintaining a database of gun dealer records; and removed the requirement that gun dealers keep track of ammunition sales.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (also called the Brady Act) was signed into law on Nov. 30, 1993 and required a five-day waiting period for a licensed seller to hand over a gun to an unlicensed person in states without an alternate background check system. The five-day waiting period has since been replaced by an instant background check system that can take up to three days if there is an inconsistency or more information is needed to complete the sale. Gun owners who have a federal firearms license or a state-issued permit are exempt from the waiting period.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act), part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Sep. 13, 1994. The ban outlawed 19 models of semi-automatic assault weapons by name and others by “military features,” as well as large-capacity magazines manufactured after the law’s enactment. The ban expired on Sep. 13, 2004 and was not renewed due in part to NRA lobbying efforts.
Federal and State Gun Laws in the 2000s
Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act and Child Safety Lock Act of 2005 was enacted on Oct. 26 by President George W. Bush and gives broad civil liability immunity to firearms manufacturers so they cannot be sued by a gun death victim’s family. The Child Safety Lock Act requires that all handguns be sold with a “secure gun storage or safety device.”
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 was enacted as a condition of the Brady Act and provides incentives to states (including grants from the Attorney General) for them to provide information to NICS including information on people who are prohibited from purchasing firearms. The NICS was implemented on Nov. 30, 1998 and later amended on Jan. 8, 2008 in response to the Apr. 16, 2007 Virginia Tech University shooting so that the Attorney General could more easily acquire information pertinent to background checks such as disqualifying mental conditions.
On Jan. 5, 2016, President Obama announced new executive actions on gun control. His measures take effect immediately and include: an update and expansion of background checks (closing the “gun show loophole”); the addition of 200 ATF agents; increased mental health care funding; $4 million and personnel to enhance the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (used to link crimes in one jurisdiction to ballistics evidence in another); creating an Internet Investigations Center to track illegal online gun trafficking; a new Department of Health and Human Services rule saying that it is not a HIPAA violation to report mental health information to the background check system; a new requirement to report gun thefts; new research funding for gun safety technologies; and more funding to train law enforcement officers on preventing gun casualties in domestic violence cases.
In addition to federal gun laws, each state has its own set of gun laws ranging from California with the most restrictive gun laws in the country to Arizona with the most lenient, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign’s “2013 State Scorecard.” 43 of 50 states have a “right to bear arms” clause in their state constitutions.
The most common state gun control laws include background checks, waiting periods, and registration requirements to purchase or sell guns. Most states prevent carrying guns, including people with a concealed carry permit, on K-12 school grounds and many states prevent carrying on college campuses. Some states ban assault weapons.
Gun rights laws include concealed and open carry permits, as well as allowing gun carry in usually restricted areas (such as bars, K-12 schools, state parks, and parking areas). Many states have “shoot first” (also called “stand your ground”) laws. Open carry of handguns is generally allowed in most states (though a permit may be required).
Collective v. Individual Right: Guns and the Supreme Court
Until 2008, the Supreme Court repeatedly upheld a collective right (that the right to own guns is for the purpose of maintaining a militia) view of the Second Amendment, concluding that the states may form militias and regulate guns.
The first time the Court upheld an individual rights interpretation (that individuals have a Constitutional right to own a gun regardless of militia service) of the Second Amendment was the June 26, 2008 US Supreme Court ruling in DC v. Heller. The Court stated that the right could be limited: “There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms. Of course the right was not unlimited… Thus we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.”
The US Supreme Court ruled on June 28, 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago that the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically the Due Process Clause, includes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and, thus, the Second Amendment applies to the states as well as the federal government, effectively extending the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment to the states.
On June 27, 2016, in Voisine v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled (6-2) that someone convicted of “recklessly” committing a violent domestic assault can be disqualified from owning a gun under the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act. Associate Justice Elena Kagan writing the majority opinion, stated: “Congress enacted §922(g)(9) [the Lautenberg Amendment] in 1996 to bar those domestic abusers convicted of garden-variety assault or battery misdemeanors–just like those convicted of felonies–from owning guns.”
On Feb. 20, 2018, the US Supreme Court indicated it would not hear an appeal to California’s 10-day waiting period for gun buyers, thus leaving the waiting period in place. Justice Clarence Thomas said the Court should have heard the challenge, stating “The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this Court’s constitutional orphan,” in reference to the Court not hearing a major Second Amendment case since 2010.
On Apr. 27, 2020, the US Supreme Court indicated it would not rule on New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. et al., v. City of New York. The case revolved around a New York City regulation that prevented residents with “premises licenses” to take their guns to second homes and shooting ranges outside of New York City. The city repealed the regulation when the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The ruling would have been the first on the scope of the Second Amendment in almost a decade.
On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court declined to hear almost a dozen cases appealing gun control laws, leaving the laws in place. In question were laws in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey that require residents to meet specific criteria to obtain a permit to carry outside of their homes. Also in question was a Massachusetts law banning certain semiautomatic guns and high-capacity magazines and a California law requiring microstamping technology and design features. Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh dissented, arguing that some of the cases should have been heard by the Supreme Court.
2020 COVID-19 Pandemic
The 2020 COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic caused gun sales to rise, and resulted in a conflict between the NRA and several states when gun and ammo shops were not included as essential businesses during stay-at-home orders. A significant portion of schools in the US were temporarily closed in Mar. 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). That month was the first March to pass without a school shooting since 2002, the year most 2020 high school seniors were born.
The FBI conducted over 3.7 million gun background checks in Mar. 2020 for the sale of 1.9 million guns in the US, the second highest number of gun sales in one month after Jan. 2013, which saw gun sales reach 2 million following President Obama’s reelection and the Dec. 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The FBI conducted over 2.9 million background checks in Apr. 2020, over 3.1 million in May 2020, over 3.9 million in June 2020 (an all-time high), and over 3.6 million in July 2020 as the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic continued.
The FBI conducted more background checks in 2020 than in any other year since 1998 when the agency began collecting data. The FBI reported 39,695,315 background checks completed in 2020, up from 2019 in which 28,369,750 million checks were performed.
June 2022 US Supreme Court Ruling & Federal Actions
In the first major gun control ruling in over a decade, on June 23, 2022, the US Supreme Court ruled that New York’s concealed carry law, which required applicants to show “proper cause” for the concealed carry permit, was unconstitutional in the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen ruling. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 6-3 majority, stated, “[b]ecause the State of New York issues public-carry licenses only when an applicant demonstrates a special need for self-defense, we conclude that the State’s licensing regime violates the Constitution.” Justice Samuel Alito, in a concurring opinion, cautioned, “Our holding decides nothing about who may lawfully possess a firearm or the requirements that must be met to buy a gun. Nor does it decide anything about the kinds of weapons that people may possess.”
Concurrently, the US House and Senate compromised to pass the first major gun legislation package in almost three decades. The bill, signed by President Joe Biden on June 25, 2022, came together in the month after the Uvalde, Texas elementary school mass shooting that left 19 children and two adults dead, just after a Buffalo, New York grocery store shooting left 10 adults dead.
According to Emily Cochrane and Zolan Kanno-Youngs of the New York Times, “The gun legislation will expand the background check system for prospective gun buyers under the age of 21, giving authorities up to 10 business days to examine juvenile and mental health records. It sets aside millions of dollars so states can fund intervention programs, such as mental health and drug courts, and carry out so-called red flag laws that allow authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from any person found by a judge to be too dangerous to possess them. It pours more federal money into mental health resources in communities and schools across the country, and it sets aside millions for school safety. The legislation also toughens laws against the trafficking of guns and straw purchasing, the practice of buying a gun on behalf of someone barred from purchasing one. And for the first time, it includes serious or recent dating partners in a ban on domestic abusers buying firearms, tightening what is known as the boyfriend loophole.”
On Sep. 19, 2022, US District Judge David Counts ruled that a federal law banning people under felony indictments from purchasing a firearm is unconstitutional based on the June 23, 2022 US Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. Counts noted “this case’s real-world consequences – certainly valid public policy and safety concerns exist,” but countered, “the Government must prove that laws regulating conduct covered by the Second Amendment’s plain text align with this Nation’s historical tradition. The Government does not meet that burden.”
On Mar. 14, 2023, President Joe Biden issued an executive order: “Executive Order on Reducing Gun Violence and Making Our Communities Safer.” Among other actions, the order directs U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland “to ensure that licensed gun dealers are aware and conduct the required background checks before purchases” in compliance with the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (signed into law in June 2022). The Biden administration indicated that the new requirements would bring the U.S. as close to universal background checks as possible without congressional action.
The National Rifle Association (NRA)
The National Rifle Association calls itself “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.” Granted charter on Nov. 17, 1871 in New York, Civil War Union veterans Colonel William C. Church and General George Wingate founded the NRA to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis” to improve the marksmanship of Union troops. General Ambrose Burnside, governor of Rhode Island (1866 to 1869) and US Senator (Mar. 4, 1875 to Sep. 13, 1881), was the first president.
Over 100 years later, in 1977, in what is known as the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” new leadership changed the bylaws to make the protection of the Second Amendment right to bear arms the primary focus (ousting the focus on sportsmanship). The group lobbied to disassemble the Gun Control Act of 1968 (the NRA alleged the Act gave power to the ATF that was abused), which they accomplished in 1986 with the Firearms Owners Protection Act.
In 1993 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) funded a study completed by Arthur Kellerman and colleagues, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor in the Home,” which found that keeping a gun at home increased the risk of homicide. The NRA accused the CDC of “promoting the idea that gun ownership was a disease that needed to be eradicated,” and argued that government funding should not be available to politically motivated studies. The NRA notched a victory when Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which deducted $2.6 billion from the CDC’s budget, the exact amount of its gun research program, and restricted CDC (and, later, NIH) gun research. The amendment stated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The admonition effectively stopped all federal gun research because, as Kellerman stated, “[p]recisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.” Jay Dickey (R-AR), now retired from Congress, was the author of the Dickey Amendment and has since stated that he no longer supports the amendment: “I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time… I have regrets.”
As of Jan. 2013, the NRA had approximately 3 million members, though estimates have varied from 2.6 million to 5 million members. In 2013 the NRA spending budget was $290.6 million. The NRA-ILA actively lobbies against universal checks and registration, “large” magazine and “assault weapons” bans, requiring smart gun features, ballistic fingerprinting, firearm traces, and prohibiting people on the terrorist watchlist from owning guns; and in favor of self-defense (stand your ground) laws. In 2014 the NRA and NRA-ILA spent $3.36 million on lobbying activity aimed primarily at Congress but also the US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Forest Service.
On Aug. 6, 2020, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit arguing for the dissolution of the NRA and the removal of CEO Wayne LaPierre. James has jurisdiction over the NRA because the organization has been registered as a non-profit in New York for 148 years. The lawsuit argues that the NRA has displayed corruption, including ill-gotten funds, and misspending, including inflated salaries that diverted $64 million from the NRA’s charitable mission to fund extravagant lifestyles. James also requested that LaPierre and three top executives repay NRA members. The lawsuit accuses LaPierre of arranging contracts for himself with the NRA worth $17 million without NRA board approval and of not reporting hundreds of thousands in income to the IRS.
Also on Aug. 6, 2020, DC District Attorney General Karl A. Racine filed a separate lawsuit against the NRA Foundation, alleging that it is not operating independently of the NRA as required by law, but instead the NRA Foundation regularly loaned money to the NRA to address deficits. The NRA stated it would countersue New York Attorney General James for “an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the NRA.”
On Jan. 15, 2021, the NRA filed for bankruptcy, and announced plans to leave New York and move to Texas where the organization will reincorporate. New York Attorney General Letitia James called the move a “tactic to evade accountability and my office’s oversight.” NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre stated, “The NRA is pursuing reincorporating in a state that values the contributions of the NRA, celebrates our law-abiding members, and will join us as a partner in upholding constitutional freedom.” On May 11, 2021, a federal judge dismissed the bankruptcy filing, allowing legal proceedings against the NRA to proceed in New York.
Wayne LaPierre announced his resignation on Jan. 5, 2024 (effective Jan. 31, 2024). LaPierre stated his resignation was due to health issues. The civil trial in New York against LaPierre that alleges his misuse of funds began on Jan. 8, 2024.
The Gun Control Lobby
The start of the modern gun control movement is largely attributed to Mark Borinsky, who founded the National Center to Control Handguns (NCCH) in 1974. After being the victim of an armed robbery, Borinsky looked for a gun control group to join but found none, founded NCCH, and worked to grow the organization with Edward O. Welles, a retired CIA officer, and N.T. “Pete” Shields, a Du Pont executive whose son was shot and killed in 1975.
In 2001, after a few name changes, the National Center to Control Handguns (NCCH) was renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and its sister organization, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, was renamed the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, though they are often referred to collectively as the Brady Campaign. The groups were named for Jim Brady, a press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who was shot and permanently disabled on Mar. 30, 1981 during an assassination attempt on the President.
The 2014 gun control lobby was composed of Everytown for Gun Safety, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Sandy Hook Promise, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and Violence Policy Center.Department of Justice, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.Collectively, these groups spent $1.94 million in 2014, primarily aimed at Congress but also the Executive Office of the President, the Vice President, the White House,
The most-recently available total annual spending budgets for gun control groups were $13.7 million collectively (4.7% of the NRA’s 2013 budget): including Everytown for Gun Safety ($4.7 million in 2012); the Brady Campaign ($2.7 million in 2012); the Brady Center ($3.1 million in 2010); Coalition to Stop Gun Violence ($308,761 in 2011); Sandy Hook Promise ($2.2 million in 2013); and the Violence Policy Center ($750,311 in 2012).
The Current Gun Control Debate
Largely, the current public gun control debate in the United States occurs after a major mass shooting. There were at least 126 mass shootings between Jan. 2000 and July 2014. Proponents of more gun control often want more laws to try to prevent the mass shootings and call for smart gun laws, background checks, and more protections against the mentally ill buying guns. Opponents of more gun laws accuse proponents of using a tragedy to further a lost cause, stating that more laws would not have prevented the shootings. A Dec. 10, 2014 Pew Research Center survey found 52% of Americans believe the right to own guns should be protected while 46% believe gun ownership should be controlled, a switch from 1993 when 34% wanted gun rights protected and 57% wanted gun ownership controlled. According to a Feb. 20, 2018 Quinnipiac Poll taken shortly after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 66% of American voters support stricter gun control laws.
On Dec. 18, 2018, the US Justice Department announced a new rule banning bump stocks, a gun attachment that allows a semi-automatic gun to fire rapidly like an automatic weapon. As of Mar. 26, 2019, the new rule classifies bump stocks as machine guns, which bans them nationwide under existing gun control laws. On Jan. 6, 2023, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the bump stock ban in a 13-3 decision.
On Apr. 8, 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland outlined five actions to be taken by the Biden Administration to curb gun violence:
- “Measure the problem of criminal gun trafficking in a data-driven way
- Close a regulatory loophole that has contributed to the proliferation of so-called ‘ghost guns’
- Make clear that statutory restrictions on short-barreled rifles apply when certain stabilizing braces are added to high-powered pistols
- Publish model ‘red flag’ legislation for states
- Empower communities to combat and prevent gun violence, making more than $1 billion in funding available through over a dozen grant programs.”
A May 2019 Quinnipiac poll found that, while 61% of Americans are in favor of stricter gun laws, there were differences in support between political parties: 91% of democrats, 59% of independents, and 32% of republicans supported more gun laws. An Oct. 2023 Gallup poll showed opinion and partisan divide remained largely the same with slight drops: 56% of all Americans support stricter gun laws, with 88% of democrats, 56% of independents, and 26% of republicans in favor.
On Aug. 4, 2021, the Mexican government sued US gun manufacturers in US federal court. The Mexican government accused the manufacturers, including Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc.; Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, Inc.; Beretta U.S.A. Corp.; Colt’s Manufacturing Company LLC, and Glock Inc, of “actively facilitating the unlawful trafficking of their guns to drug cartels and other criminals in Mexico.” The Foreign Affairs Ministry estimates 70% of guns trafficked in Mexico came from the United States, contributing to 17,000 homicides in 2019 alone. In Feb. 2022, the attorneys general of 13 states filed a brief in federal court supporting the Mexican government’s lawsuit.
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