Gun Control Topic Overview
"Gun Control." Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2018.
In the United States, there was a record high number of 39,773 firearm-related deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This number included 23,854 firearm suicides, 14,542 firearm homicides, 553 firearm-related deaths due to legal interventions (such as police shootings) and operations of war, 486 accidental or unintentional firearm-related deaths, and 338 firearm-related deaths in which the motive was undetermined. The 2017 total number was an increase from the more than 38,000 firearm-related homicides in 2016. The firearm-related death rate also showed a steady increase from 2014, rising from 10.5 in 2014 to 12.2 per 100,000 in 2017. These statistics have inspired efforts at the federal and state levels to enact gun control legislation to reduce crime and violence.
Supporters of gun control seek tighter restrictions on the sale and circulation of firearms. They note the high incidence of gun-related deaths in the United States compared to other countries, as illustrated in a 2016 study conducted by The American Journal of Medicine, which showed that the United States has more firearm-related homicides and suicides than any other high-income country, with Americans ten times more likely to die by a firearm-related death than people in 22 other developed countries.
On the other side of the debate, citizen groups and firearms manufacturers argue that gun control laws threaten their constitutional right to own and bear firearms. Gun rights groups aim to prevent new legislation and, if possible, roll back existing legislation. The National Rifle Association (NRA)—which provides firearm training and safety resources, lobbies on behalf of firearms manufacturers and gun owners, and contributes financially to political campaigns combating gun control—has attracted significant controversy for the political influence it wields. Gun control advocates have accused lawmakers of prioritizing campaign contributions over the safety of their constituents when they accept money from the NRA.
Following the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Florida, in which seventeen people were killed and at least seventeen others were injured, student survivors launched the student gun control organization Never Again MSD and lobbied for state and federal lawmakers to pass effective gun control legislation. Many in the media credited the young student activists with reinvigorating gun control advocates and renewing the debate over access to assault weapons, particularly among young adults and those who have exhibited violent behavior. A number of high-profile corporations also responded to the shooting, announcing that they would be severing their ties to the NRA.
The Second Amendment
The right to keep and bear arms was added to the United States Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights, which was ratified on December 15, 1791. The precise meaning and purpose of the Second Amendment has been a subject of frequent debate. Gun control advocates argue that when the newly founded country adopted the Second Amendment in 1791, each state maintained a militia composed of ordinary citizens who served as part-time soldiers. According to the amendment, these militias were “well regulated”—subject to state requirements concerning training, firearms, and periodic military exercises. Fearing that the federal government would use its standing army to force its will on the states, the authors of the Second Amendment intended to protect the state militias’ right to bear arms. According to some gun control supporters, in modern times, the amendment should protect only the states’ right to arm their own military forces, including their National Guard units.
Gun rights advocates interpret the Second Amendment as the guarantee of a personal right to keep and bear arms. They assert that the amendment protects the general population, who were viewed as part of the general militia at the time of the amendment’s drafting, as distinguished from the “select militia,” which would have been controlled by the state. Colonial law required every household to possess arms and every male of military age to be ready for military emergencies, bearing his own arms. Therefore, in guaranteeing the arms of each citizen, the amendment simultaneously guaranteed arms for the militia. Gun rights advocates further maintain that 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.
Notable Court Decisions
The US Supreme Court has heard several cases related to the Second Amendment and laws that attempt to regulate it. In 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA), the country’s first major federal gun control legislation, which was challenged in the Supreme Court within five years of its passing. 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 and sawed-off shotguns.
In United States v. Miller (1939), the court upheld the NFA. The case involved the interstate transportation of an unregistered sawed-off shotgun, a favorite weapon of gangsters during this time. The court concluded that the NFA’s regulations on the interstate sale and transport of certain firearms, such as the sawed-off shotgun in question, did not violate the Second Amendment because such firearms do not have a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.” In two other rulings, the Supreme Court upheld New Jersey’s strict gun control law in Burton v. Sills (1969) and supported the federal ban on possession of firearms by felons in Lewis v. United States (1980). The Miller ruling set a precedent for the court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. Through the remainder of the twentieth century, lower circuit courts cited the Miller decision in most cases, maintaining that the right to bear arms related to individuals in active, controlled state guard or militia units.
The Supreme Court reversed course in 2008, however, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. In this case, the court ruled 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 Second Amendment protects an individual, personal right to keep and bear arms. The case signified a major development in firearms legislation but left many questions unanswered. For example, proponents of an assault rifle ban argue that the decision only applies to handguns, while gun rights advocates contend that the Constitution extends the individual right to all firearms.
Gun rights advocates have also used federal courts to challenge state restrictions, such as requirements for issuing permits to carry concealed weapons in public. In 2014, a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that California’s requirements for receiving such a permit were unconstitutional under the Second Amendment in Peruta v. San Diego. The case was argued a second time, however, in front of a larger panel of judges. The same court reversed its decision in 2016 and ruled that the Constitution did not prohibit such restrictions. Conflicting rulings have led to confusion over the law, which, gun rights advocates argue, requires the Supreme Court to make a definitive ruling. In January 2017, the plaintiffs filed a petition for the case to advance accordingly. The Supreme Court, however, announced in June 2017 that it would not hear the case, allowing California to keep its restrictions in place.
Gun Control Laws
The National Firearms Act of 1934 was bolstered by additional regulations provided by the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. The next major piece of firearms legislation came in 1968 when Congress passed the Gun Control Act in response to the assassinations of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The law ended mail-order sales of all firearms and ammunition and banned the sale of guns to felons, fugitives from justice, illegal drug users, the mentally ill, and those dishonorably discharged from the armed forces.
Although the Gun Control Act established a foundation for subsequent gun control legislation, inconsistent licensing practices and lax enforcement of the law’s provisions revealed the legislation’s limited effectiveness. The law proved to be more effective at punishing ineligible individuals who had acquired a firearm rather than preventing them from obtaining one. Additionally, in the case of an illegal exchange, the law placed more accountability on the gun purchaser than the gun seller. The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) eased many restrictions of the Gun Control Act. Gun rights supporters lauded the law for undoing restrictions regarding where firearms could be sold and who could sell them, but they continued to object to an amendment to the law that forbade the continued manufacture of machine guns for civilian use.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which Congress passed as an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, was named in honor of James Brady, the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who suffered a near-fatal wound during an assassination attempt on the president in 1981. The Brady Act addressed several key concerns of gun control advocates by requiring a five-day waiting period for all handgun sales, during which a background check was to be made on all prospective purchasers. This provision expired in 1998 and was replaced by the National Instant Check System (NICS), a database available for sellers to verify the eligibility of a buyer to possess a firearm. Within the first three years of the passage of the Brady Act, the FBI reported significant declines in homicides, robberies, and aggravated assaults involving guns. By 2013, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reported that the law had prevented over two million firearms sales to ineligible individuals. Moreover, between 1993, when the law’s background checks were implemented, and 2006, gun-related homicides fell by 32 percent.
President George H. W. Bush supported a major landmark in gun control in 1989 when his administration announced a permanent ban on importing assault rifles. Restrictions on assault weapons went further in 1994 when the federal government placed a ban on the manufacture and sale of specific models of assault weapons and various duplicates. The 1994 ban expired in 2004 when Congress failed to renew or replace it. The relatively low use of assault weapons before the ban and unreliable police reporting have made it difficult to determine the effect of the ban.
Lack of agreement on gun control has led to a wide variety of state and local laws regarding licensing and registration of firearms. In California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, for instance, a permit or license is required to purchase a gun. Laws restricting an individual’s ability to carry a concealed firearm also vary from state to state. In Illinois and Utah, for example, a licensed individual may carry a concealed handgun in public, while several states, including Alaska and Vermont, allow individuals to do so without a license. Concealed carry permits are issued in New Jersey at the discretion of the state, which requires gun owners to demonstrate an urgent need when applying for a permit. Many gun rights advocates, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie, have criticized the state’s gun laws as too restrictive. In most states, a person who has not been convicted of a felony can receive a permit to carry a loaded and concealed handgun. Representative Richard Hudson, Republican from North Carolina, introduced the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act to the House of Representatives in 2015 and again in 2017, at which time it passed the House and was introduced in the Senate. The bill dictates that permission to carry concealed firearms, in any state that allows the practice, would be extended beyond residents to nonresidents as well. The bill has faced significant opposition from gun control advocates.
Loopholes in Legislation
Although legislative regulations have had some measurable effect on reducing gun violence in the United States, critics have identified certain loopholes and inadequacies within these laws that jeopardize public health and enable many people to obtain guns who may not otherwise meet the legal requirements to do so. For example, private collectors can elude a requirement of the Brady Law by purchasing firearms from an unlicensed seller who does not perform background checks. This provision is often referred to as the “gun show loophole,” although these sales can take place elsewhere, including over the Internet. A study of gun owners conducted by researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University in 2015 found that such purchases accounted for about one-fifth of total gun sales among those surveyed. Federal law and more than twenty states allow juveniles to purchase long guns, which include rifles and shotguns, from an unlicensed firearms dealer. Child safety advocates further note that a federal law to prevent children from accessing guns in the home, such as legislation requiring gun owners to store guns unloaded in a locked location, does not exist.
Additionally, inconsistent reporting and underfunding for NICS has resulted in an insufficient database that lacks substantial data in many categories, especially in non-felony areas such as mental health and domestic violence. In 2007 a college student shot and killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech University before turning his weapon on himself. Although the shooter had previously been ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment by a Virginia judge, under state law he was not disqualified from purchasing the semiautomatic pistols used in the shooting. Federal law, however, would have required the judge’s ruling to be entered into NICS. In a 2014 shooting at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Washington, a fifteen-year old student killed four students and wounded another with a handgun that he had taken from his father, who had obtained it from a licensed dealer. A domestic violence protection order prohibited the father from purchasing a gun, but the restriction did not appear in the background check because the information had not been entered into the database. The issue of inconsistent reporting emerged again in 2017, after a former member of the US Air Force used a legally purchased firearm to kill twenty-six people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Following the shooting, the Air Force acknowledged that they had failed to report the shooter’s previous military court-martial conviction for domestic violence to civilian authorities.
Efforts under the Obama Administration
Violent events sensationalized in the media, such as a mass shooting or assassination attempt, often mobilize calls for more stringent firearm restrictions. President Barack Obama led several attempts to enact gun control legislation following a series of tragedies during his time in his office. In response to the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which twenty first-grade students and six staff members were killed, President Obama introduced a bill that proposed expanding background checks, limiting ammunition capacity, funding gun violence research by the CDC, improving coverage and quality of mental health care, and banning several of the same firearms listed in the assault weapon ban that had expired in 2004. The proposed legislation was defeated in Congress in April 2013, however, on what the president described as “a pretty shameful day for Washington.” Gun rights advocates doubted Obama’s sincerity and accused him of politicizing the tragedy. Members of fringe groups in favor of gun rights, including radio host Alex Jones, promoted offensive conspiracy theories, suggesting that gun control advocates had staged the massacre to advance gun control legislation. Families of victims have reported ongoing harassment, including death threats, from those who believe the false claims.
When a married couple killed fourteen people and injured several more in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, President Obama again expressed his frustration with the legislative process and issued a series of executive orders that tightened existing gun control laws and called for Congress to take further immediate action. The executive orders expanded background checks to cover firearms sold at gun shows and online; required states to provide the federal government with more information on people disqualified from purchasing guns; hired more federal agents to process the background checks; sought $500 million to improve access to mental health care; and pushed for more “smart-gun technology,” which refers to personalized firearms that use technology to prevent a weapon’s unauthorized use.
A year later, on June 12, 2016, an armed gunman shot and killed forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, before being killed by law enforcement. Although the assailant had previously been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his links to terrorist organizations, he was able to purchase the firearms used in the attack legally. The incident spurred action from gun control advocates, with Democratic lawmakers introducing four new proposals to Congress restricting gun sales just days after the shooting, including one aimed at withholding gun sales from individuals on terrorism watch lists. All four proposals were rejected by the majority-Republican Senate. Opponents of the bills argued that they did not provide adequate protections for the rights of gun owners.
Developments under the Trump Administration
President Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, campaigned on dismantling Obama’s executive orders on gun control. Shortly after taking office, President Trump acted upon his promise, signing a resolution into law in February 2017 that removed a provision that required the Social Security Administration to submit mental health information to NICS. Gun rights advocates and policymakers have sought to expand gun rights under the Trump administration. Following the 2016 presidential election, several states advanced legislation to permit the carrying of a firearm without a license and the carrying of firearms on public university campuses.
During President Trump’s first year in office, gun violence once again prompted calls to revisit gun control legislation. In June 2017, for example, House majority whip Steve Scalise, Republican from Louisiana, and three others were injured in an ambush by a single shooter during a congressional baseball practice in Virginia. In addition to condemning the shooting, Democratic lawmakers expressed hope that the event could lead to expanded gun restrictions. Many Republican lawmakers, however, including Scalise, strongly opposed using the incident as a platform for enacting new gun control laws.
In October 2017 a shooter located on the thirty-second floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers below, killing fifty-eight people before killing himself. More than 500 people were injured in the attack, which surpassed the 2016 Orlando shooting as the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. Authorities found twenty-three firearms in the shooter’s hotel room, including twelve rifles equipped with a bump fire stock, an accessory that allows a semi-automatic rifle to rapidly expel ammunition like a fully automatic rifle. Without bump fire stocks, which were obtained legally in the case of the Las Vegas shooting, the shooter would not have been able to fire as many shots as quickly. Prior to the incident, most Americans were not familiar with bump fire stocks and began to question whether they should be legally available. Gun control advocates called for the devices to be banned similarly to fully automatic assault weapons. Critics of such a proposal contended that bump stocks are not difficult to create and could be produced on a 3-D printer.
The 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. The assailant, nineteen-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz, used a legally purchased AR-15 rifle in the attack. Gun control advocates contended that Cruz’s age and history of mental illness should have prevented him from buying the gun. Law enforcement also faced criticism for failing to respond to several indicators that Cruz might instigate an attack, including calls to local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from people who knew him that repeatedly mentioned his history of violence, gun ownership, and the possibility that he might commit a school shooting.
In the immediate wake of the shooting, student survivors of the massacre joined other gun control advocates in calling for reform. Students, parents, and members of the community attended a CNN townhall in Sunrise, Florida, where they posed questions to representatives from the NRA, local law enforcement, and local politicians, including Republican senator Marco Rubio, who defended accepting contributions and support from the NRA and its members. Gun control advocates applauded the students’ willingness to confront adults for failing to provide them with a safe place to learn. Earlier that same day, the students met with President Trump, who made the controversial recommendation of increasing school security by training and arming teachers. Critics of Trump’s recommendation contended that arming teachers would introduce additional safety risks to the school environment. Inspired by the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, student activists around the country joined them in organizing a national school walkout and the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, to voice their demands for legislative reform that spring. An estimated 800,000 people demonstrated in the march in DC, and thousands of others marched in over 800 cities across the United States and around the world.
As it had done following previous mass shootings, the NRA urged lawmakers and activists not to use the tragedy to pursue further gun control legislation. Many companies affiliated with the NRA, however, chose to use the massacre as an opportunity to distance themselves from the gun rights organization. In one high-profile instance, Atlanta-based airline Delta announced it would no longer offer discounts to NRA members, prompting conservative Georgia lawmakers to respond by removing a $50-million tax exemption for the company from a tax relief bill. Additionally, national retailers, including Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, announced that they would no longer sell firearms to individuals under the age of twenty-one. Dick’s Sporting Goods also stated that they would no longer sell assault-style rifles in any of their stores or subsidiaries. Walmart had stopped selling assault-style rifles in 2015, citing low customer demand. Some consumers questioned whether these companies were motivated by a sense of responsibility or simply hopes that such decisions would attract new customers.
On March 9, 2018, Florida governor Rick Scott signed into law the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a move that surprised those on all sides of the gun reform debate, as it marked the first gun control legislation passed in that state in decades. The law raises the minimum age for purchasing a firearm in the state from eighteen to twenty-one, bans the sale or possession of bump stocks, gives law enforcement more latitude to seize weapons from those determined mentally unfit, and provides funding for heightened school security. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act also includes a provision for funding a program that would train and arm some teachers on a voluntary basis. Later that same day, the NRA filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida, arguing that the new age restriction violates both the second and fourteenth amendments.