A Brief History of the Evolution of Gun Control in the U.S.

Kimberly Hauge

Kimberly Hauge was previously a Program Officer at AICGS.

Gun control is once again an important topic of conversation in the U.S. after the tragic shooting in Newtown, CT, with calls for further reforms. Past experience has shown that renewed efforts to promote gun control reform tend to occur as a result of an attack, so it is not surprising that lawmakers are investigating ways to avoid further attacks after those in 2012, such as the mass shootings at a movie theater in Colorado on July 20, at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee on August 5, and at a mall in Oregon on December 11.

There have been a number of changes made to the regulation of manufacturing, selling, and transporting firearms in the U.S since 1791. Immediately after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown on December 14, 2012, lawmakers are again working toward achieving reform that would lead to more security. This AGI Spotlight aims to shed light on the history of gun control and what the current federal regulations are.

Gun crime rates are lower in Europe than in the U.S., and this could very well be linked to the availability of guns to civilians. In 2007 it is estimated that there were 88.8 firearms per 100 civilians on average in the U.S. compared to 30.3 in Germany. A significant factor for why the U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the rate of private gun ownership in the world is related to the defense and interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution, as passed by Congress in 1791, declares that “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.” Today the interpretation of this phrase is widely debated. One side argues that the right to own a gun is equivalent to the broader right of self-defense, and that individuals should be allowed to keep them on hand for protection. Another side argues that when this amendment was written, it was with the purpose of creating a standing army, much like Switzerland today. But they argue that since the U.S. has a powerful army to counter outside forces, and a functioning internal police force, the original intent has disappeared and the personal right to bear arms is no longer necessary or even desirable. So far the courts have continually ruled in favor of the first argument.

According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), in 2007, 294 million firearms were in circulation in the U.S.: 106 million handguns, 105 million rifles, and 83 million shotguns. A Gallup poll showed that in 2011, 45 percent of Americans have a gun at home, and 2 percent have a gun elsewhere on their property, such as in a garage, barn, shed, or in their vehicle. The same polling company found that in 2005, of all American adults who personally own a gun, 58 percent own it for hunting, 66 percent for target shooting, and 67 percent for protection against crime.

Modern gun control efforts began in 1968 with the Gun Control Act, which granted the federal, state, and local law enforcement officials increased powers in regulating gun control in the effort to fight crime. It made it illegal to sell or deliver firearms or ammunition to “any individual who the licensee knows or has reasonable cause to believe is less than eighteen years of age, and, if the firearm, or ammunition is other than a shotgun or rifle, or ammunition for a shotgun or rifle, to any individual who the licensee knows or has reasonable cause to believe is less than twenty-one years of age.” There are exceptions to this law related to employment, ranching, farming, target practice, and hunting. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 amended this Act by requiring the purchaser of a firearm from federal firearms licensees to complete a background check. This Act was signed by Clinton in honor of James Brady, Assistant to the President and White House Press Secretary, who was shot and paralyzed during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The would-be assassin was a mentally unstable man who had obtained a revolver from a pawn shop in Dallas, Texas. Today, Section 922 of the U.S. Code limits the following categories of people (who are of age) from shipping, transporting, receiving, or possessing firearms or ammunition:

•persons convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;

• fugitives from justice;

• unlawful users or addicts of any controlled substance as defined in Section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. §802));

• persons adjudicated as “mental defective” or committed to mental institutions;

• unauthorized immigrants and nonimmigrant visitors (with exceptions in the latter case, which have changed—effective July 9, 2012—as described below);

• persons dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces;

• persons who have renounced their U.S. citizenship;

• persons under court-order restraints related to harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner; and

• persons convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was a ten-year ban passed by Congress in 1994 on the manufacture for civilian use of assault weapons, which are certain types of semi-automatic firearms. This ban expired on 2004 and has not been renewed. The gun used at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle, was in this category.

There are laws concerning where firearms may be carried, and the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1995 (as amended after the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990) makes it illegal for someone without a state permit to carry a firearm within one thousand feet of any school in the nation that has classes from Kindergarten through twelfth grade.

The number of mass shootings in 2012 has led many lawmakers to consider further gun control reform. One option would be to reinstate the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which would make it illegal to manufacture assault weapons for civilian use. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is also suggesting required background checks for every gun sold, stronger enforcement of straw sales (discouraging people to buy firearms for somebody who is not allowed to possess one), and a requirement for states to enter criminal and mental health records into the federal background check system.

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, Vice President Joe Biden has been tasked with reforming gun control laws.  The country will likely see change in 2013, but the extent to which the laws will change is still widely debated.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.