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Home Gun Control Laws

Last Updated: December 17, 2012

Gun Control Laws: Should U.S. gun control laws be strengthened?

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Introduction

SUPPORTERS ARGUE

The widespread availability of firearms has made it easier for criminals to get firearms. Access to guns must be made more difficult if shooting deaths are to be reduced; gun violence will continue to be a problem if gun ownership is not controlled. The government can regulate the sale of firearms without violating the Second Amendment.

OPPONENTS ARGUE

The vast majority of people in the United States who use or buy guns are law-abiding citizens. They buy guns for sport or for protection. Curtailing Americans' rights to bear arms is a violation of the Second Amendment. Placing strict regulations on gun ownership will only benefit criminals by disarming those who are potential victims.

Issues and Controversies: Gun Show in Iowa

John Schultz/ZUMA Press/Newscom

A man browses at a gun show at the Mississippi Valley Fair Grounds in Davenport, Iowa, in March 2012.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted on December 15, 1791. It states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The right to bear arms, however, has been fiercely debated, especially over the last century. While opponents typically cite gun control measures as an infringement on the right to bear arms, supporters maintain that the Second Amendment does not limit the government from regulating the proliferation of firearms in the United States and from preventing potentially dangerous and unstable people from accessing powerful weapons. 

Calls for stricter gun control measures typically grow louder following any high-profile shootings, such as the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan (R, 1981–89) in 1981; the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic and State University (known as Virginia Tech) in 2007; the attack on a political gathering in Tucson, Arizona, at which Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D, Arizona) was badly wounded and six people were killed in 2011; and the February 2012 killing in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was initially released from police custody without charge because he asserted his right to kill Martin under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force in self-defense.

2012 has seen a rash of gun–related tragedies. Just after midnight on July 20, 2012, a gunman walked into a sold-out movie theater prior to a showing of the highly anticipated film The Dark Knight Rises and opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58. Police arrested the alleged shooter, 24-year-old James Holmes, outside the theater in possession of an assault rifle, shotgun, and handgun, all of which they said were likely used in the attack. For many observers, the incident recalled the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which also took place in Colorado, in which two students opened fire at the school, killing 12 students and one teacher.

And on December 14, 2012, 26 people were shot and killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, including 20 children under the age of 10. The alleged gunman had reportedly killed his mother at her house earlier in the day, and killed himself following the shootings. The scope of the tragedy, considered unthinkable by many, was expected to prompt the passage of new gun control laws.

Indeed, following such incidents, the ease of attaining weapons in the United States is typically scrutinized, and stricter regulation of gun ownership tends to be more vocally debated. Usually these debates center on the tightening of restrictions on guns, but in more recent years, the discussions have also included calls to reinstate the national ban on assault weapons, which had been in place from 1994 until Congress allowed it to expire in 2004.

Should access to guns be regulated more strictly by the government? Are the relaxed gun policies of certain states to blame for the ease with which troubled people can gain access to firearms? Could stricter gun laws really prevent mass killings, or would those inclined to commit murder find a way to do so regardless?

Supporters of gun control argue that the current laws are too lax, allowing dangerous people to acquire deadly weapons with little or no hindrance. Past gun control laws have been allowed to expire, they note, thereby increasing the threat of gun violence. Indeed, supporters insist, if stricter gun laws had been in place, many infamous acts of violence might never have taken place. Allowing people to carry concealed weapons, advocates of gun control argue, does not help them defend themselves from attacks.

Opponents of gun control insist that the Second Amendment irrefutably protects the right to bear arms. They assert that gun control activists merely seize upon violent episodes to scare people and promote their own personal agendas. Opponents also point to lower crime rates in some states where residents are allowed to carry concealed weapons as proof that gun violence is caused by more than just people's ability to possess firearms.

The History of Gun Control in the United States

One of the first pieces of gun control legislation in the United States was the Sullivan Act, passed in New York State in 1911. The law required a permit to carry or own a weapon small enough to be concealed, a rule that still remains in effect in New York. The Sullivan Act was passed after the high-profile shooting in 1911 of novelist David Graham Phillips in what the New York Times described as "a brazen early afternoon attack." The shooting spurred public sentiment for some manner of gun control. Supporters of instating the law found a champion in Timothy Sullivan, a corrupt politician and member of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political organization that controlled much of New York City at the time. Some historians have argued that Sullivan supported gun control because he and other politicians had close ties to violent street gangs and wanted to make it easier to control them. As Sullivan biographer Richard Welch has noted, "Hoodlums who forgot who really ran things in the city could easily be arrested if found with a gun—or if one was slipped into their pocket."

The first national gun control laws were passed in the 1930s after a spate of high-profile crimes involving the use of fully automatic weapons. The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 imposed a tax on the manufacture and sale of certain firearms, including machine guns, shotguns, and some rifles. The law, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), was "designed to make it difficult to obtain types of firearms perceived to be especially lethal or to be the chosen weapons of 'gangsters,' most notably machine guns and short-barreled long guns." Still in effect, the law "taxes all aspects of the manufacture and distribution of such weapons, and," the CRS states, "compels the disclosure…of the production and distribution system from manufacturer to buyer." 

In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Firearms Act, which focused on the sale of firearms across state lines or overseas. The law required firearms dealers obtain a Federal Firearms License and to keep records on everyone to whom they sold weapons. The Federal Firearms Act also prohibited the sale of weapons to people who had been convicted of a crime.

In the 1960s, a series of political assassinations led to another change in U.S. gun policy. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy (D, 1961–63) was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, who used a rifle he had purchased through the mail. Five years later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and New York senator Robert F. Kennedy (brother of President Kennedy) were both shot and killed.

Those assassinations galvanized the movement to control guns. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson (D, 1963–69) signed the Gun Control Act into law. The act heavily regulated firearms in the United States, placed more stringent restrictions on gun sales, and required gun dealers to keep more detailed records. The law also forbade gun sales across state lines, except by licensed manufacturers, dealers, and importers, and prohibited rifles and shotguns from being sold via the U.S. mail. Prior to the act's passage, people seeking to buy guns through the mail only had to sign a statement that said they were over the age of 21. Title II of the Gun Control Act amended the NFA to add regulations on "destructive devices," such as hand grenades, bombs, and rocket launchers.

In 1975, the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization founded in 1871 dedicated to promoting the rights of gun owners, created the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), a lobbying group that sought to increase the NRA's influence with the government. The ILA celebrated its first victory later that year when it mustered enough support in Congress to defeat an effort by Senator Edward Kennedy (D, Massachusetts)—brother of John and Robert Kennedy—to have handgun ammunition deemed a "hazardous substance" and summarily banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington, D.C. Reagan survived without permanent injuries, but White House Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head and left disabled. His injury prompted another wave of anti-gun protests. The most vocal proponent of stricter gun legislation was Brady's wife, Sarah. In 1987, she introduced to Congress the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, often known as the Brady Bill.

Six years later, President Bill Clinton (D, 1993–2001) signed the Brady Bill into law on November 30, 1993. The law imposed a mandatory five-day waiting period on the purchase of a firearm and required local law enforcement to carry out a thorough background check on anyone attempting to buy a weapon. The background checks were intended to prevent criminals from accessing weapons. In 1997, however, in the case Printz v. United States (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. government had exceeded its authority by requiring local law enforcement to conduct federally mandated background checks. The checks, the Court ruled, were unconstitutional under the Tenth Amendment, which states that the federal government cannot exert authority over states unless a particular power is specifically granted it by the Constitution.

Despite this ruling, other aspects of the Brady Bill remained in force. In 1994, President Clinton signed a second gun control law, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This comprehensive law included the Assault Weapons Ban, which for 10 years prohibited the manufacture and sale, for civilian use, of semiautomatic weapons with magazines (the cartridges in weapons that hold the ammunition) capable of holding 10 rounds or more of ammunition. The Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004, and Congress did not renew it.

In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a college student at Virginia Tech with a history of mental and emotional problems, used a gun to kill 32 people and wound several others in two separate attacks on the college campus in Blacksburg. In response, Congress passed legislation, the NCIS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, authorizing up to $1.3 billion in federal grants for dramatic improvements to states' abilities to search and track individuals looking to purchase a gun.

The law applied only to sales at licensed gun stores; sales at gun shows by unlicensed vendors did not require background checks. Despite this loophole, many considered the "gun-buyer database" law successful; it has prevented hundreds of thousands of people with disqualifying mental illness records from purchasing weapons since its passage.

The issue of weapon sales at gun shows remains controversial. Shortly after the shooting of Representative Giffords in Tucson, Arizona on January 8, 2011, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) sent a team of undercover agents to a gun show in Phoenix, Arizona. The investigators, wielding hidden cameras, were able to purchase several high-capacity handguns from private vendors just by presenting identification. In one instance, an investigator told the seller that he probably could not pass a background check, a revelation that did not stop the sale from taking place. According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group, gun show sales such as that one account for 40 percent of the firearm purchases in the United States.

New Gun Control Steps Proposed in Recent Years

The Giffords shooting in 2011 spurred renewed interest in gun control. Observers argued that as a result of the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004 the alleged Tucson assassin was legally able to carry a handgun capable of firing 33 rounds without reloading during his shooting spree. Lawmakers soon proposed new legislation to address the ease of obtaining firearms and ammunition. On January 18, 2011, Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D, New York)—a long-time gun control advocate whose husband had been killed by a crazed gunman on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993—introduced a bill to outlaw high-capacity magazines.

A week later, New Jersey senators Frank Lautenberg (D) and Robert Menendez (D) introduced two pieces of gun control legislation—one, called the Gun Show Background Check Act, would require gun show vendors to perform background checks on their customers. The other, the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Criminals Act, sought to prevent individuals on terrorist watch lists from buying guns or explosives; from 2004 to 2010, according to the Government Accountability Office, people on terrorist watch lists bought weapons or explosives 1,119 times.

These bills went nowhere. Conservative lawmakers, in fact, urged loosening gun control restrictions. Indeed, even in light of recent gun violence, few new gun control laws have gained much momentum.

The gun control debate, meanwhile, has expanded to include not only the sale of guns, but their use as well. The 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin drew attention to "Stand Your Ground" laws, the first of which was passed in Florida in 2005, across the United States. Indeed, Zimmerman had not been initially charged with killing Martin because he claimed he had acted in self defense under Florida law. Many gun control supporters have recently called for the repeal of "Stand Your Ground" laws.

Mayor Bloomberg has also joined the debate, getting involved in a campaign called "Second Chance on Shoot First" that seeks to have "Stand Your Ground" laws repealed. Eliminating these laws, supporters like Bloomberg argue, would not infringe on Americans' Second Amendment rights. [See Self Defense Laws]

In Florida, meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott (R) has appointed a task force to study the state's law, which many lawmakers say is too broad. "You have prostitutes shooting their johns and availing themselves to this law," State Senator Chris Smith (D, Florida) said, as quoted by the Huffington Post. "You have gang members having shootouts and availing themselves of this law. You have people chasing someone a block down the street stabbing someone to death and availing themselves of this law. I think those points need to be clarified."

Issues and Controversies: States with

Gun Control Supporters Argue Current Gun Laws Are Too Lax

Advocates of tighter gun control laws argue that lax regulations play a major role in such shootings as the ones that victimized Giffords in Tucson and led to the death of Martin in Florida. In his speech launching the "Second Chance on Shoot First" program, Bloomberg argued that "Florida should never have allowed [Martin's] shooter, George Zimmerman, to legally carry a gun in the first place. This was a man with a history of violence—including arrests for assaulting a police officer and for domestic violence."

Many supporters of toughening gun control laws point to the huge firepower of some weapons available for purchase. If such weapons, with their high-capacity magazines, had been banned, gun control supporters contend, the Tucson shooting would not have taken place. Representative McCarthy, in support of her bill aimed at reinstating the ban on the sale of magazines containing more than 10 rounds of ammunition, wrote, "The only purpose for the existence of these devices is to be able to shoot as many people as possible as quickly as possible. There is no reason that these devices should be available to the general public."

Gun control reform advocates take issue with the argument, made by opponents of gun control, that the more citizens who have guns the safer society will be. Journalist Timothy Egan, writing in the New York Times, pointed out that, during the shooting in Tucson, some of those present were, indeed, carrying weapons, yet no one was able to prevent the massacre that ensued. In fact, Egan noted, one person present almost shot a bystander who was trying to disarm the gunman. "It defies logic, as this case shows once again, that an average citizen with a gun is going to disarm a crazed killer," Egan wrote. "For one thing, these kinds of shootings happen far too suddenly for even the quickest marksman to get a draw. For another, your typical gun hobbyist lacks training in how to react in a violent scrum."

Gun control supporters point to the stricter regulations in other countries as examples the United States could follow. In Great Britain, for example, people convicted of a criminal offense cannot own a gun, and the laws do not consider self-defense a valid reason for ownership. "The killings in Tucson," writes Michael Kryzanek in the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Massachusetts, "should spark a greater commitment on the part of public officials to examine how other countries, other civilized countries, around the world pass sane and reasonable gun laws."

Supporters of gun control dispute the argument, often made by opponents, that the broadening of gun ownership has led to a decrease in crime. Statistics, they point out, show that in most areas, gun restrictions have led to a decrease in violent crime. "Where it's easier to get guns, you have higher rates of lethal violence," Harvard University professor Matthew Miller tells the New York Times. "That's clear."

Proponents of gun control lament the fact that, even in the aftermath of violent attacks such as the one at the Colorado movie theatre, lawmakers have been unwilling to limit access to deadly weapons. A New York Times editorial states that anyone with a computer or a credit card can order ammunition on the Internet "with the ease of downloading a song." The editorial states, "Even after a young man in Colorado buys 6,000 rounds by mail order and uses them to commit mass murder, it is the rare politician who proposes to make the tools of terror slightly harder to obtain."

Guns Not Responsible for Violence, Opponents Argue

Opponents of gun control argue that gun owners have a constitutional right to bear arms, according to the Second Amendment. They point out that in 2008, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to bear arms and to use a firearm for lawful purposes, including self-defense. The Court's ruling led to the lifting of a ban on handguns in Washington, D.C., that had existed for 32 years (though new laws were quickly passed in the city that restricted gun ownership but that accommodated the Court's ruling). In a 2011 interview with the Washington Post, lawyer Alan Gura, who argued the case, noted that there had been "all sorts of predictions that there would be blood on the streets and carnage and all kinds of Wild West stuff if people in the District of Columbia were allowed to legally own guns. Obviously, that has not come to pass." [See Supreme Court Ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (sidebar)]

Critics argue that lawmakers should not rush to implement more restrictive gun control measures in the wake of high-profile shootings. Legislators use such tragedies, they claim, to play on people's anxieties about the seemingly irrational acts of gun violence committed by disturbed people to push through new regulations. "[T]here are those who, for political purposes, want to use fear…to restrict what we do," Representative Reid Ribble (R, Wisconsin) told Fox News. "If they can cause us to do that, then in fact they've been successful."

Opponents argue that laws restricting access to guns would probably not prevent violent incidents like the Colorado shooting in 2012, where the gunman was likely deeply psychologically disturbed. "Rampage killers tend to be meticulous planners," New York Times columnist David Brooks asserts. "If they can't find an easy way to get a new gun, they'll surely find a way to get one of the 200 million guns that already exist in this country. Or they'll use a bomb or find another way."

Gun control critics insist that broadening gun ownership in the United States has actually decreased violent crime. "Forty states have Right-to-Carry [laws that allow people to carry concealed firearms], and 48 states prohibit cities from imposing gun laws more restrictive than state law," a 2010 article published by the NRA and the ILA notes. "And, since 1991, the total violent crime rate has declined over 40% to a 35-year low, and the murder rate has declined by half to a 45-year low."

Opponents of gun control also note that it is not realistic for the public to rely on law enforcement for its protection. "Eyewitness reports indicate it took police as much as 20 minutes to arrive on the scene that day!" Representative Ron Paul (R, Texas), discussing the shooting in Tucson, remarked. "Since police cannot be everywhere all of the time, a large part of our personal safety depends on our ability to defend ourselves."

Critics of stricter gun control also oppose the reinstatement of the Assault Weapons Ban, arguing that many semiautomatic weapons, such as the M1 Garand, once popular with the U.S. Army and Marines, are used recreationally. "These types of firearms, which are erroneously called assault weapons, are used by millions of Americans for hunting, sporting, and personal defense purposes," Steve Sanetti of the National Shooting Sports Foundation told the Los Angeles Times.

Controversy over Gun Ownership Likely to Continue

The debate over the Second Amendment will likely not subside anytime soon. Whether legislation is passed either strengthening or weakening the present gun laws, debate over gun control has become a feature of American political life.

Some observers predict that a substantial amount of new legislation will be proposed and fiercer activism will continue to arise after shootings that capture the public's attention. Still, they caution lawmakers about hastily passing any new laws. "Anytime in the immediate aftermath of something, there's usually not a silver bullet," Connecticut representative John Larson (D) has said. "The more you listen, the more you synthesize, perhaps you come up with some common sense ideas."

Bibliography

Babington, Charles, and Donna Cassata. "Protecting Lawmakers: Arm Them? Install Shields?" Associated Press, January 11, 2011, www.ap.org.

Bacon, Perry, Jr. "Bloomberg Challenges Obama on Gun Control." Washington Post, February 2, 2011, www.washingtonpost.com.

Bendery, Jennifer. "Trayvon Martin Killing Prompts Petition from Gun Control Group." Huffington Post, April 2, 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com.

Demby, Gene. "'Stand Your Ground' Panel Meets, Jennifer Carroll, Florida Lieutenant Governor, Promises Fair Investigation." Huffington Post, May 2, 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com.

Egan, Timothy. "Myth of the Hero Gunslinger." New York Times, January 20, 2011, www.nytimes.com.

Grimaldi, James, and Fredrick Kunkle. "Gun Used in Tucson Was Purchased Legally." Washington Post, January 9, 2011, www.washingtonpost.com.

Gross, Terry. "Arizona Gun Laws Among Most Lenient in U.S." NPR.org, January 10, 2011, www.npr.org.

Halloran, Liz. "Obama Pushed to Address Gun Control." National Public Radio, January 31, 2011, www.npr.org.

Hansen, Ronald. "Arizona's Gun-Death Rate Among the Worst in U.S." Arizona Republic, January 27, 2011, www.azcentral.com.

Hohmann, James. "Trayvon Martin Shooting Doesn't Spark Calls for Gun Control." Politico, April 13, 2012, www.politico.com.

Horwitz, Josh. "Don't Care About Guns? You're Still in the NRA's Sights." Huffington Post, June 13, 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com.

Horwitz, Sari. "Gun Show Attendees Say Firearms Limits Would Be Wrong Response to Tucson." Washington Post, January 20, 2011, www.washingtonpost.com.

"Hot Guns: Ring of Fire." Frontline, June 1997, www.washingtonpost.com.

Klarevas, Louis, "Closing the Gap." New Republic, January 13, 2011, www.tnr.com.

Kryzanek, Michael. "U.S. Could Learn from Other Nation's [sic] Gun Policies." Patriot Ledger, February 5, 2011, www.patriotledger.com.

Kurtzleben, Danielle. "New Gun Control Laws Face an Uphill Battle." U.S. News and World Report, January 21, 2011, www.usnews.com.

Paul, Ron. "On Gun Control and Violence." Hillsboro (Ohio) Times-Gazette, January 21, 2011, www.timesgazette.com.

"Petition for the Freedom to Buy Skittles Without Getting Shot." Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. www.bradynetwork.org.

"Sheriff in Giffords Case Lashes out About Politics." Associated Press, January 10, 2011, www.ap.org.

Slack, James. "Culture of Violence." Daily Mail, October 27, 2009, www.dailymail.co.uk.

Stein, Sam. "Trayvon Martin Shooting Unlikely to Change Gun Debate, Lawmakers Concede." Huffington Post, April 9, 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com.

Toeplitz, Shira. "Carolyn McCarthy Unveils Gun-Control Bill." Politico.com, January 13, 2011, www.politico.com.

"While Some Lawmakers Talk Gun Control, Others Pack Heat." FoxNews.com, January 11, 2011, www.foxnews.com.

Wides-Munoz, Laura. "Trayvon Martin Case: After Zimmerman Arrest, Activists Look to 'Stand Your Ground' Laws." Huffington Post, April 13, 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com.

Wright, David, and Kevin Dolak. "Gabrielle Giffords Tucson Shooting Puts Arizona's Gun Culture in Spotlight." ABC News, January 10, 2011, abcnews.go.com.

Additional Sources

Additional information about gun control can be found in the following sources:

Henigan, Dennis. Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2009.

Lott, John. More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Contact Information

Information on how to contact organizations that either are mentioned in the discussion of gun control or can provide additional information on the subject is listed below:

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
1225 Eye St. N.W., Suite 1100
Washington, D.C. 20005
Telephone: (202) 898-0792
Internet: www.bradycenter.org

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Office of Public and Governmental Affairs
99 New York Ave. NE, Room 5S 144
Washington, D.C. 20226
Telephone: (800)-800-3855
Internet: www.atf.gov

National Rifle Association of America
11250 Waples Mill Rd.
Fairfax, Va. 22030
Telephone: (800) 672-3888
Internet: www.nra.org

Keywords

For further information about the ongoing debate over gun control, search for the following words and terms in electronic databases and other publications:

Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
Federal Assault Weapons Ban
National Rifle Association
Second Amendment
"Stand Your Ground" laws

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