Gun control refers to legislation and regulations that limit the ownership of firearms, restrict certain types of firearms, or determine where they may be carried. In the United States, gun control is a highly controversial topic that engenders debate surrounding public safety, state and federal government oversight, and individual rights. Supporters of gun control seek tighter restrictions on the sale and circulation of firearms to decrease the high incidence of gun-related violence and deaths in the United States. Opponents argue Americans have a constitutional right to own and bear firearms.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent research group providing near-real-time data on gun violence, there were more than thirty-nine thousand firearm-related deaths in the United States from January to November 2023. Among these, 56 percent were suicides, and 44 percent were homicides. More firearm-related violence incidents in 2023 were unintentional (1,388) and defensive (1,045) than aggressive (583).
Many Americans support the right to bear arms but also believe the government has the right to regulate firearms in the interest of public safety. Though there are differences along party lines, a 2023 Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans believe gun control laws should be stricter, and 12 percent believe they should be less strict. Gun rights groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), aim to prevent new gun control legislation and, if possible, roll back existing regulations. Since the late twentieth century, the NRA has wielded significant political influence at the national and state levels, especially among conservative politicians. In response, gun control organizations such as Brady, Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety have lobbied for legislation that better regulates gun ownership, such as requiring waiting periods, background checks, gun permits, gun safety training, and restrictions on the possession of assault weapons.
PROS AND CONS OF BANNING ASSAULT WEAPONS
- Self-defense and hunting needs do not require the efficiency and firepower of automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Assault weapons are known to be capable of injuring and killing large groups of people in mass shootings.
- Most Americans support a federal ban on military-style assault weapons. For politicians in many jurisdictions, supporting such legislation would reflect the will of the people.
- While the accidental discharge of a firearm always carries the risk of injury, the accidental discharge of an automatic weapon can result in much greater damage.
- Banning any type of firearm can be interpreted as a violation of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.
- All assault weapons sold legally in the United States are manufactured domestically, helping local economies and encouraging innovation.
- A federal assault weapons ban would have minimal impact on gun deaths, as the majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted and do not involve automatic weapons.
THE SECOND AMENDMENT
The right to keep and bear arms is included as the Second Amendment to the US Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights ratified 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 precise meaning and purpose of the Second Amendment have been subjects of frequent debate in the early twenty-first century. At the time it was enacted, each state maintained a militia composed of ordinary citizens who served as part-time soldiers to protect settlers on land contested by Native Americans and defend against any attacks by foreign entities, some of which still held territories later claimed by the United States. In addition, some of the authors of the Second Amendment feared the federal government would use its standing army to force its will on the states and intended to protect the state militias' right to take up arms against the federal government.
Opponents of gun control interpret the Second Amendment as guaranteeing individual citizens a right to keep and bear arms, often with little or no limitations. They assert the amendment protects the rights of the general population because colonial law required every household to possess arms and every white male of military age to be ready for self-defense and military emergencies. Therefore, by guaranteeing arms for the militia, the amendment simultaneously guaranteed arms for every citizen. Opponents of gun control further maintain the term "right of the people" in the Second Amendment holds the same meaning as it does in the First Amendment, which guarantees such individual liberties as the freedom of religion and freedom of assembly.
Proponents of gun control debate some of these interpretations and argue that much has changed since the amendment was written. Some gun control supporters argue the amendment was meant to protect only a state's right to arm citizens for the common defense, not private citizens' rights to possess and carry any firearm in any space. They also argue that, according to the amendment, such militias were "well regulated," meaning they were subject to state requirements concerning training, firearms, and periodic military exercises.
MAJOR LEGISLATION AND COURT CASES IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The US Congress has created laws regarding gun regulations and the Supreme Court has ruled on several cases. The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 was the country's first major federal gun control legislation. The law required the registration of certain firearms, imposed taxes on the sale and manufacture of firearms, and restricted the sale and ownership of high-risk weapons such as machine guns. The Federal Firearms Act (FFA) of 1938 provided additional regulations, requiring federal licenses for firearm manufacturers and dealers, and prohibiting certain people from buying firearms. The Supreme Court's ruling in United States v. Miller (1939) upheld the NFA and set a precedent that the right to bear arms applied to citizens in active, controlled state guard or militia units.
The next major piece of federal firearms legislation was the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968, passed in the wake of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The GCA expanded both the NFA and the FFA. The law ended mail-order sales of all firearms and ammunition and banned the sale of guns to minors, felons, fugitives from justice, people who use illegal drugs, persons with mental illness, and those dishonorably discharged from the armed forces. The Supreme Court bolstered controls when it upheld New Jersey's strict gun control law in Burton v. Sills (1969) and the federal ban on possession of firearms by felons in Lewis v. United States (1980).
The Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA), however, eased many GCA restrictions. Opponents of gun control lauded FOPA for expanding where firearms could be sold and who could sell them but continued to object to prohibitions on the manufacture and possession of machine guns for civilian use. In 1989 the administration of President George H. W. Bush announced a permanent ban on importing assault rifles. With passage of the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994 (also called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban), Congress banned the manufacture and sale of specific assault weapons. The ban expired in 2004.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 passed as an amendment to the GCA. The Brady Act addressed several key concerns of gun control proponents by requiring a five-day waiting period for all handgun sales, during which a background check would be run on all prospective purchasers. This provision expired in 1998 and was replaced by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a database used to verify the eligibility of a buyer to possess a firearm.
LEGISLATION AND COURT CASES IN THE EARLY TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
After several victims and families of victims of gun violence and others sued gun manufacturers and dealers whose weapons were used to commit a crime, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) and the Child Safety Lock Act of 2005. The first act limited the liability of gun manufacturers and dealers when their firearms were used in crimes. The second act required anyone licensed to transfer or sell firearms to provide gun storage or safety devices. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Joe Biden supported repeal of the PLCAA. Congress enacted the NICS Improvement Amendments Act in 2007. It was meant to improve failures in the NICS system which had allowed a shooter to acquire a gun despite a disqualifying mental health status that had not been submitted to NICS by the state of Virginia. The shooter killed thirty-two people and himself on a Virginia college campus.
Gun rights proponents have used legislation and the federal courts to challenge gun restrictions. The US Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that the Second Amendment prohibits the federal government from making it illegal for private individuals to keep loaded handguns in their homes. It was the first Supreme Court decision to explicitly rule that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right. The decision in McDonald v. Chicago (2009) clarified that state and local authorities cannot prohibit private individuals from keeping loaded handguns in their homes. However, both decisions affirmed that the Second Amendment allows for limits on the types of arms that can be kept and how they are used. Together, the Heller and McDonald decisions have been used as the basis for several city, county, and state bans on assault weapons and specific arms such as the AR-15 rifle.
Following a 2022 mass shooting during a Fourth of July parade in Chicago that killed six and injured dozens of people, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker signed into law the Protect Illinois Communities Act in January 2023. The law prohibits anyone from selling or distributing assault weapons throughout the state. The law immediately faced legal challenges from gun advocates, but it was upheld twice by the Illinois Supreme Court in August 2023 and by a federal appeals court in November 2023. Ten other states, including California, New Jersey, New York, and Washington have a similar active ban as of late 2023.
State and local laws regarding licensing, registration, and possession of firearms vary widely. For instance, in some states, a permit to carry a concealed weapon in public is only issued if the applicant demonstrates a need or meets safety and training requirements. In other states, a concealed carry permit is guaranteed to any citizen legally allowed to own a weapon. Several courts have used the Heller and McDonald decisions as a basis to allow concealed carry of firearms. As of September 2023, twenty-eight states allowed concealed carry without a permit.
The Supreme Court's rulings in Heller and McDonald also provided precedents for its ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. (NYSRPA) v. Bruen (2022). In its decision, the court deemed a 1911 New York state law that required applicants for concealed handgun permits to show "proper cause," or a special need for self-defense rather than a general desire to protect oneself, unconstitutional. The ruling was handed down in June 2022, less than two months after ten people were killed in a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, drawing harsh criticism from the state's governor and Immediate action by its legislature. In July 2022 Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Concealed Carry Improvement Act into law. Drafted in response to the court's decision, the new law retained certain requirements for concealed carry permit holders, strengthened background checks, and increased safety and training requirements. The law also identified several "sensitive locations" as gun-free zones, including schools, polling places, theaters, places of worship, government buildings, and medical and health care facilities.
LOOPHOLES IN LEGISLATION
Gaps in legislation can enable people to obtain guns who may not otherwise meet the legal requirements for purchase. The background check requirement, for example, can be avoided by purchasing firearms from an unlicensed seller who does not perform these checks. While referred to as the "gun show loophole," such sales can take place elsewhere, including online. Temporary loans of firearms are typically allowed, as are transfers of weapons that are inherited or given as gifts. While unlicensed gun transfers are acceptable within one's own state, interstate sales are prohibited.
Federal law and some states allow juveniles to purchase long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, from an unlicensed firearms dealer. Child safety advocates have long campaigned for federal legislation that would raise the minimum age to own any type of firearm and have also called for regulations aimed at preventing children from accessing guns in the home. In October 2023, a study published in the journal Pediatrics named firearm-related injuries as the leading cause of death among US children.
An amendment passed in 1996 known as the Lautenberg Amendment prevents people who have been convicted of domestic abuse or are the subject of a protective order prohibiting contact from owning guns. However, abusers who are not a parent, guardian, or legal spouse to their victims face no such restrictions. A provision intended to narrow this gap, known as the "boyfriend loophole," was included in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law by President Biden in June 2022.
Underreporting and underfunding of NICS have contributed to lapses in data that resulted in multiple instances of weapons sales to unauthorized persons who then used the weapons to commit crimes. For example, following an incident in which a former member of the US Air Force killed twenty-six people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the Air Force acknowledged they had failed to report the shooter's military court-martial conviction for domestic violence to civilian authorities. In response, Congress passed the Fix NICS Act of 2017 to penalize federal agencies that do not meet NICS reporting requirements.
In 2015, a gunman shot and killed nine Black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Authorities later discovered the perpetrator had purchased the murder weapon while his background check was still pending because firearms sales are allowed to proceed by default if the check takes more than three days. The House of Representatives passed a bill in 2021 to extend background checks from three days to ten days, allowing more time for a full check to be completed. Known as the "Charleston loophole" bill, as of November 2023, the Senate had not voted on the legislation.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTIONS
- Do you interpret the Second Amendment as recognizing an individual or a collective right to own weapons? Explain your reasoning.
- Under what circumstances, if any, do you think gun control measures could be implemented without violating the Second Amendment? Why or why not?
- In your opinion, are existing gun control regulations sufficient to ensure public safety? What other types of measures, if any, do you think are needed? Explain your answer.
TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY APPROACHES TO GUN CONTROL
Several mass shootings occurred during the presidency of Barack Obama, including the murders of twenty-seven children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and forty-nine people at a Florida nightclub in 2016. Congressional inaction led Obama to issue executive orders that expanded background checks to cover firearms sold at gun shows and online, sought more federal agents to process background checks, advocated greater use of smart-gun technology, and required states to provide more information on people disqualified from purchasing guns. The subsequent Donald Trump administration rescinded the last order.
The largest mass shooting in US history, in which sixty people were killed in Las Vegas in 2017, and the February 2018 shooting of fourteen students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, renewed debate over access to assault weapons. Student survivors of the massacre joined other gun control advocates in calling for reform. In March 2018 the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was signed into law in Florida. The law placed some limits on gun sales while expanding resources for law enforcement and safety personnel. Later the same month, a group of survivors and student activists organized a nationwide school walkout alongside the March for Our Lives to voice their demands for gun control legislative reform. An estimated one to two million people participated.
Leading up to the 2020 elections, lobbying organizations and political groups again invested substantial amounts of money in political campaigns to elect candidates favorable to their stance on gun control. For example, the NRA gun rights lobbying group alone spent approximately $28.5 million to back the political campaigns of Republican candidates during the 2020 election cycle. Gun control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords collectively spent about $21.6 million in support of Democratic candidates in 2020.
In 2021 and 2022, with congressional action on gun control unlikely, President Joe Biden also issued a series of executive orders. Biden's orders focused on regulating specific types of firearms and gun modifications, funding research on firearms trafficking in the United States, and encouraging states to pass "red flag" laws. Red flag laws allow for the temporary removal of firearms from a person identified as a potential danger by law enforcement or family members, who can petition for a court order. Biden's executive orders also affirmed the federal government's jurisdiction in regulating the sale of firearm-building kits bought through private sellers online and assembled at home. Referred to as "ghost guns," these firearms do not have serial numbers and are untraceable. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) issued revised rules clarifying that ghost guns must comply with all federal laws related to firearm sales. In October 2023, the Supreme Court blocked a lower court ruling that would have prevented ATF from enforcing the new rules.
Following back-to-back mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022 that killed a total of thirty-one people, citizens' criticism of federal inaction on gun control once again intensified, leading to the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022. President Biden signed the bill—the first major gun control legislation in nearly thirty years—into law two days after the Supreme Court's decision in NYSRPA v. Bruen was released.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act does not go as far as instituting universal background checks or banning assault weapons, but it contains multiple provisions intended to strengthen the background check system. For instance, the law takes steps to close the boyfriend loophole and institutes a more thorough background check process for buyers under age twenty-one. In addition, the new law requires all people who earn a profit from selling guns to register as licensed dealers, while previous regulations required licensing only for people who sold guns as their principal means of income. Bringing internet and gun show sellers under federal licensure will require they run background checks through NICS and may be a significant step toward closing the gun show loophole.
In September 2023, President Biden announced the creation of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which aims to execute and build upon important legislation and government initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence in the United States. In October, however, the United States experienced the thirty-sixth and worst mass shooting of the year, when a gunman killed at least eighteen people and injured at least thirteen in two towns in Maine.