Gun control refers to legislation and regulations that place controls on 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, while opponents argue they have a constitutional right to own and bear firearms.
Data from 2020 showed there were 45,222 firearm-related deaths in the United States, as reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among firearm-related deaths in the United States in 2020, about 54 percent were suicides and about 43 percent were homicides. Firearm-related injuries rank in the top five causes of death for United States citizens up to age sixty-four.
Assault by firearm accounts for 70 percent of nonfatal firearm-related injuries, while unintentional injury accounts for twenty percent. The vast majority of victims (86 percent) are male.
Many Americans support the right to bear arms but also believe that the government has the right to regulate firearms in the interest of public safety. Though there are differences along party lines, a 2021 Pew Research poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe gun control laws should be more strict, and 14 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 legislation. In the late twentieth century, the NRA began to wield significant political influence at the national and state levels, especially among conservative politicians. In response, gun control advocacy organizations such as Brady, Giffords, and Everytown for Gun Safety have worked to enact legislation designed to better regulate 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
Though many gun rights proponents state guns are necessary for self defense and hunting, such activities 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 would be interpreted by some as a violation of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. Because federal law forbids the importation of foreign-made assault weapons, all such weapons sold legally are manufactured domestically, thus helping local economies and encouraging further 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' right to keep and bear arms. 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 twenty first-century gun control supporters argue the amendment was meant to protect only a state's right to arm citizens for the common defense, not private citizen's 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 mailorder 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 campaign for president, 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 that allowed a shooter to acquire a gun despite a disqualifying mental health status which was not submitted to NICS by the state of Virginia. He killed thirty-two people and himself on a Virginia college campus.
Gun rights proponents have used legislation as well as 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 Court's decision also clarified that the Second Amendment allows for limits on the types of arms that can be kept and how they are used. The Heller decision has been used as the basis for several city, county, and state bans on assault weapons and specific arms such as the AR-15 rifle.
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 and is found to have the capacity to safely and responsibly handle firearms. In other states a concealed carry permit is guaranteed to any citizen legally allowed to own a weapon. As of January 2022, twenty-one states allowed concealed carry without a permit. Several courts have used the Heller decision as a basis to allow concealed carry of firearms.
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.
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. This gap has become known as the "boyfriend loophole."
Underreporting and underfunding have contributed to the NICS database lacking substantial data in many categories. Lapses in NICS reporting resulted in multiple instances of sales of weapons to unauthorized persons who then used the weapons to commit crimes. For example, a former member of the US Air Force legally purchased a firearm and killed twenty-six people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Following the shooting, the Air Force acknowledged that they failed to report the shooter's military courtmartial 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 still undergoing a background check. Sellers are allowed to give a buyer the weapon 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 January 2022 the Senate had not voted on the legislation.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Do you interpret the text of the Second Amendment to allow for an individual or a collective right to own weapons? Explain your reasoning.
- Do you agree with Supreme Court rulings establishing that the Second Amendment allows for certain gun control measures? 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, and why?
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 last order was rescinded by the subsequent Donald Trump administration.
The largest mass shooting in US history, in which sixty people were killed in Las Vegas in 2017, and the February 14, 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. On March 9, 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. On March 24, 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 large amounts of money in political campaigns aimed at electing candidates favorable to their stance on gun control. For example, the NRA gun rights lobbying group alone spent approximately $28.5 million dollars 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, 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 sought to ban sales of firearms bought through private sellers online and assembled at home. Referred to as "ghost guns," these firearms do not have serial numbers and are untraceable.
Gun control advocates were heartened by Biden's nomination of David Chipman to head the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Chipman's nomination was withdrawn, however, following political opposition from gun rights organizations over Chipman's past work with gun control organizations Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords.
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Source Citation (MLA 9th Edition)
"Gun Control." Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2022. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints,
link.gale.com/apps/doc/PC3010999212/OVIC?u=gale&sid=bookmark-OVIC&xid=76551779. Accessed 2 June 2022.
Gale Document Number: GALE|PC3010999212