One of the most controversial issues in American politics that have been going on for decades is gun control. Gun control refers to the set of laws that govern the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification, and use of firearms by American citizens. In many countries, firearm policies are very restrictive and as such, only a limited number of civilians are allowed to own and use guns. On the contrary, American firearm policies are very flexible and make it easy for civilians to own and use firearms. In the past decade, gun control has been a prominent political issue because of a series of mass killings by gunmen in public places. The mass killing of 20 children in Newton, Connecticut, and the killing of 9 worshipers at a church in Charleston, California prompted gun-control advocates to reawaken the debate. They argued that there was a need for stricter gun laws so as to lower the prevalence of gun violence in the United States.
History of Gun Control
The Second Amendment is part of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights that gives people the right to possess firearms (Miller 718). It states that that the people’s right to have firearms and form a well-regulated militia for the sole purpose of enhancing their security should not be infringed (Carter 54). The amendment originated from the founding fathers’ reasoning that well-regulated militias are more effective at keeping citizens safe than a powerful army. The possession of firearms is included in the Constitution of the United States as a fundamental right that every civilian should enjoy (Miller 718). Firearms are considered a critical component of American culture and history (Carter 54). Federal gun regulations were enacted in the early years of the 20th Century. Gun control in the US is a controversial issue because American gun laws are more flexible and lenient compared to gun laws in other developed countries. In the past, gun control was not an issue. It became an explosive issue in the 1970s. Since then, many efforts have been made to tighten gun access laws to no avail. The efforts have been unsuccessful despite recent cases of the mass shooting in schools, and other public places.
The first gun control law can be traced back to 1934 when the National Firearms Act was enacted (Carter 56). The Act was the first federal gun-control law that was enacted owing to the destructive actions of criminals including Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, and John Dillinger. President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that it was necessary to enact a law that would help curb the high rates of crime that were on the rise (Miller 720). The law imposed a $200 tax on gun manufacturers and sellers for machine guns and shotguns. The law also required the sellers to present their sale records to the national registry (Carter 58). Roosevelt received the approval of the new law in 1938. It required all sellers to get a license from the government, record their sales, and refrain from selling guns to individuals convicted of crimes of violence.
The fight for gun control was revived in 1968 after the fatal shootings of Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. Their assassination prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to push for a new law that would aid in restricting gun possession and use by civilians. In that regard, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act was passed in 1968 (Carter 64). In addition, the Gun Control Act was also passed the same year. The Gun Control Act is the main federal law that regulates the use and possession of firearms. It illegalizes the sale of guns to mentally ill individuals, drug dealers, and convicted felons (Carter 64). In addition, it states that the legal age for an individual to purchase a gun is 21 years. Gun dealers are required to keep detailed and accurate records. In order to enforce the laws, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was established (Carter 65). After the passage of the two laws, complaints emerged that the federal government was abusing its power to enforce the laws. As a result, Congress passed the Firearms Owners Protection Act in 1986 to protect the interests of gun dealers (Cook and Goss 63).
According to the law, it is illegal to inspect gun dealers more than once annually. Further inspections would only be permitted if dealers were found to have committed multiple violations of the law. Congress also passed an amendment that illegalized the purchase of machine guns manufactured after May 19, 1986 (Cook and Goss 64). Civilians were allowed to purchase any gun manufactured before that date only. According to the aforementioned law, it was illegal for the government to keep records of gun ownership by civilians. California was the first state to ban the use of highly powerful weapons. The mass shooting at Stockton Elementary School in 1989 led to the death of five children and prompted the state to restrict the use of high-powered rifles. The state passed a law that banned the use of more than 50 brands of firearms that had a high rate of fire capacity.
In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act was enacted into law (Miller 722). It requires gun dealers to conduct thorough background checks on all buyers in order to ensure that sales are not made to people prohibited under the Gun Control Act of 1968. Background checks would be conducted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS (Carter 72). The system is maintained and updated by the Federal Bureaus of Investigation. Background checks are mandatory for licensed dealers. Private dealers who engage in gun sales but do not own business licenses are not subject to background checks even though certain states have made the checks mandatory to enhance the safety of their civilians.
In 1994, another gun control law was passed. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act imposed a 10-year ban on the manufacture of 19 types of semi-automatic assault weapons (Carter 76). Examples of the banned weapons included the AR-15, the TEC-9, the Uzi, the MAC-10, and certain models of the AK-47. This law was passed after the discovery that the aforementioned weapons were the most preferred by criminals during violent drug crimes. The law, which is still enforced today, also illegalizes the use of large-capacity ammunition magazines (Cook and Goss 66). Civilians are only allowed to use magazines that can hold no more than 10 ammunitions. The law has not been very effective because it does not apply to weapons that were owned before its passage. Therefore, people use that as a loophole to avoid the aforementioned restrictions. In 2003, Congress passed the Tiahrt Amendment that prohibits the release of information regarding the purchase of any firearm. It is illegal for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to release any information from its database that could be used in an investigation involving gun manufacturers and sellers (Carter 76). According to the law, any information released by the ATF is not admissible in civil lawsuits.
The fight for gun control suffered a big blow in 2004 when Congress failed to renew the 10-year ban on the manufacture of assault weapons (Cook and Goss 70). There were repeated efforts by certain members of the congress and gun control activists to renew the ban. However, their efforts failed. In 2005, President George W. Bush signed into law the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA). According to the law, firearms manufacturers and dealers are not liable for crimes committed using guns purchased from their businesses. The law protects the rights of manufacturers and dealers. However, they can be held liable for damages that arise from the use of defective weapons that they sold. In addition, they can be punished for breach of contracts, negligence, and criminal misconduct related to their businesses (Cook and Goss 76). In 2008, the Supreme Court made a ruling that undermined the efforts of gun control activists. The Court ruled that the Second Amendment f the American Constitution allows civilians to possess firearms for purposes of self-defense. Prior to the ruling, the District of Columbia had a law that banned handguns.
McDonald v. City of Chicago
McDonald v. The city of Chicago case involved a landmark ruling made by the Supreme Court in which the right of civilians to own firearms was reiterated. The Court maintained that the Second Amendment of the American Constitution allowed citizens to keep and bear firearms (Cook and Goss 85). Prior to the ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had made a ruling that upheld a ban on handguns and other legislation related to rifles and shotguns (Carter 87). The Court of Appeals cited United States v. Cruikshank, Presser v. Illinois, and Miller v. Texas as the basis of its ruling. In McDonald v. The city of Chicago, a resident of the state Otis McDonald filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago for its legislation that prevented him from owning a handgun. McDonald argued that he needed a handgun for personal home defense. However, the city had a longstanding ban on the possession of handguns. McDonald owned several shotguns as he was a hunter. However, they were not effective in offering personal protection during robberies. McDonald joined forces with three other residents and filed a suit to challenge the city’s ban on possession of handguns. The lawsuit challenged Chicago’s gun registration law that prohibits the registration of handguns, require an annual re-registration of guns at a fee, require the registration of guns prior to their acquisition, and renders any gun’s license non-renewable once it expires (Carter 93). In presenting the ruling, the Supreme Court stated that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution allows citizens to own guns and it applies to state, local, and federal governments (Cook and Goss 87). Therefore, it was unconstitutional for the city of Chicago to bar its residents from possessing handguns.
District of Columbia v. Heller
This was a landmark case that played made significant contributions to the gun control debate that has been going on for several decades. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was applicable to federal property and gives individuals’ the right to possess firearms for legal purposes with their homes (Kevin 54). The ruling was inconclusive because it did not state whether the Second Amendment applies to the states, beyond the jurisdiction of federal enclaves. The Supreme Court ruled against the certain provision of the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 that required gun owners to keep their arms unloaded and disassembled (Kevin 55). Prior to this ruling, the Act also prevented residents from owning handguns with the exception of those who had acquired them before the Act was enacted into law. The Supreme Court made the ruling after conducting a thorough examination of the meaning of the Second Amendment. The Court decided that the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to possess and carry firearms for personal protection and defense. It further argued that the greatest need for personal protection is at home where people have their families and property. Therefore, the constitution gives the individual right to civilians to own firearms to protect their property and homes. This interpretation of the constitution led to a ruling that the District of Columbia’s law banning the possession of handguns at home was a violation of the second amendment, and it was therefore unconstitutional (Kevin 56).
Caetano v. Massachusetts
This was a case in which a woman named Jaime Caetano appealed the Massachusetts court’s ruling that had convicted her for possessing a stun gun (Lott 43). Caetano had obtained a stun gun for personal defense from her friend. She was involved in several abusive altercations s with her boyfriend even though she had obtained a restraining order against him from the state. One night, her ex-boyfriend confronted her, and she used the stun gun to scare him away. However, the state of Massachusetts arrested, tried, and convicted her for possessing a stun gun that was against the laws of the state (Lott 44). The state’s Supreme Judicial Court stated that a stun gun is not included in the types of weapons that civilians can own under the Second Amendment. The Court argued that stun guns were not in regular use at the time the Second Amendment was passed (Lott 44). The Supreme Court of the United States overturned the ruling by stating that the provisions of the Amendment included an acceptable arm that can be used for self-protection (Kevin 67). The Supreme Court referred to rulings made during the District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago cases.
Carter, Gregg. Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Cook, Philip, and Kristin Goss. The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Kevin, Brian. Gun Rights & Responsibilities. ABDO Publishing Company, 2012.
Lott, John. More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Miller, Wilbur. The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America. SAGE, 2012.