The subject of gun control has always relevant to the US where many people can afford to purchase and keep guns, and the relatively high crime rate in many areas provides incentives to do so. The function of gun control legislation in the US is to provide coherent guidelines that would limit the use of guns to people who can use their weapons with the minimum threat to the security of those surrounding them. The wide range of acts encompasses the right to carry arms, restrictions on gun usage, and addresses the possession and usage of specific gun types such as armor piercing bullets and assault weapons. This paper will provide an overview of US gun control laws, laying the framework for further exploration of the issue.
Constitution and the Bill of Rights
The subject of gun control in the US is at least as old as the nation itself. The Bill of Rights, specifically the Second Amendment to the US Constitution 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 text of this amendment has proved controversial since the reference of the word “people” is unclear. Some argue that it refers to the whole nation, while others believed that it indicated the right of only the State National Guard Units (Ruoco, 1999). The idea of civilians carrying guns was proposed by James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 46, in which he argued for a militia carrying guns as a way to replace a large army that the then small population of the United States could afford only with great difficulty. Besides, the right to keep and bear arms was seen at the time as a way to empower the citizens of the state, giving them an increased role in self-government and helping them take responsibility for their own protection.
National Firearms Act (1934)
This act was passed as a response to violations in gun use during the surge in gangster activity in the 1930s. The Roosevelt administration introduced this bill in an effort to drive automatic-fire guns from city streets. Other types of weapons included in the act were “short-barreled shotguns and rifles, parts of guns like silencers, as well as other "gadget-type" firearms hidden in canes” (Gettings, n.d.). To suppress gun proliferation, the Act imposed a tax of $200 on each gun sold or manufactured and toughened the requirements for paperwork to be submitted to the Treasury.
Federal Firearms Act (1938)
The act regulated gun trade requiring individuals involved in such commerce to receive a Federal Firearms License from the Secretary of Commerce for an annual fee of $1 (Gettings, n.d.). The sellers were also obligated to keep track of their customers and check whether they are not selling to individuals with convictions for a specified range of crimes.
Gun Control Act (1968)
This act, coming on the heels of JFK assassination strengthened the requirements for traders included in Federal Firearms Act of 1938 and limited trade in guns that went over the state borders. The list of individuals who were defined as improper clients for gun sellers was extended to include those convicted of a large scope of crimes, individuals with mental disorders, and substance abusers. The 1968 law put a stop to mail order sales of weapons that permitted individuals to purchase guns only on the basis of a written statement that they were over 21 years of age.
Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act (1986)
This act forbade the use of armor piercing bullets that could penetrate a bulletproof jacket usually worn by law enforcement officers. The prohibition of bullets known as “cop killers” was aimed at lowering the risk of work in police and other law enforcement bodies.
Crime Control Act (1990)
This law addressed the need to establish zones in schools that would be free from arms usage. The law was also directed against “illegal semiautomatic rifles or shotguns from legally imported parts” (Gettings, n.d.).
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Bill) (1994)
This law introduced a revolutionary change in toughening gun control laws, imposing for a 5-day wait on anyone willing to purchase a gun, giving local authorities time for conducting a background check of the person. These checks were replaced with a nation-wide "instant" felon ID system (Ruoco, 1999). According to the act, all purchases of firearms are subject to such checks. The law proved effective in bringing down the number of violent crimes by 25% in the period from 1994 to 1997 (Ruoco, 1999).
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (“Assault Weapons Ban”) (1994)
This was another important document signed into law in 1994. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act “banned the manufacture, possession, and importation of semiautomatic assault weapons for civilian use”, requiring guns produced after September 14th, 1994 to be provided with indication of the date (Ruoco, 1999). The law contains detailed guidelines as to what kind of semiautomatic weapons are prohibited from public use. The bill includes criteria, such as, for instance, the presence of a detachable magazine in combination with a folding stock, and a grenade launcher, as well as the list with concrete indications of 19 specific guns that are banned.
While the previous discussion involved an overview of federal laws concerning firearms, different states have different regulations on many related issues. CNN, for instance, provides a useful guide to specific states legislatures including issues such as Juvenile Possession Law, Child Access Prevention Law, Juvenile Sale/Transfer Law and others. For instance, Juvenile Possession Law means that in many states juveniles under 18 cannot own handguns, while other states will allow the usage of such guns in hunting or sports (CNN, 1998). A Juvenile Sale/Transfer Law is a regulation that prohibits the sale of certain classes of arms to youngsters under 18. It is enacted in Arkansas, for example, but not in Alabama (CNN, 1998).
A recent Connecticut law that gave rise to heated debate was the Connecticut Gun Seizure Law of 1999. Under this act, the police are allowed to withdraw weapons from a person in case there is a reason to believe that the individual’s possession of the weapon incurs "a risk of imminent personal injury to himself or herself or to other individuals" (Hibbitts, 2004). Some disagreed with one of the strictest laws on gun seizure in the US. Others, on the contrary, pointed out that strengthening local laws will help to save the residents of Connecticut from the repetition of mass murder instances similar to the killing spree by Matthew Beck in 1998 that resulted in the deaths of four people and ended with his suicide in the building of the Connecticut Lottery (Hibbitts, 2004).
Over the centuries, the US has built a complex network of gun control laws that allow the nation to contain the threats that would be posed by unrestricted gun sales and possession. The nation started from giving its citizens an inherent right to possess arms prescribed in the Second Amendment as an effective way to give people more control in the newborn state. The later evolution of the legislation demonstrates the desire to restrict gun usage in an attempt to correct violence that was believed to arise from widespread usage of guns. Today, many activists call for new, tougher laws on gun control to cope with phenomena such as school massacres or other instances of mass murder. The future will show whether Americans will be further restricted in their right to possess, carry and use arms.
CNN. (1998). State by State Look at Gun Laws in the US. Retrieved March 17, 2006, from www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/1998/schools/gun.control/
Getting, J. (n.d.). Milestones in Federal Gun Control Legislation. Retrieved March 17, 2006, from http://www.infoplease.com/spot/guntime1.html
Hibbitts, B. J. (2004). Connecticut Gun Seizure Law [discussion began September 27, 1999]. Retrieved March 17, 2006, from University of Pittsburgh website at: http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/colloq2.htm
Ruoco, J. (2005, December 30). Gun Control. Retrieved March 17, 2006, from Just Facts website at: http://justfacts.com/gun_control.htm