One of the most controversial political topics in today’s climate is gun control. The increasing rates of gun violence has lead to an outcry on both ends of the political spectrum, and has necessitated the need for more legislation and clear laws regarding american citizen’s second amendment rights. However, to get the full scope of how these laws have been interpreted over time and how we, as a country, have reached this current crisis, one needs to look towards the legislation surrounding this issue of gun control, and how the events surrounding guns and gun violence has led to laws and regulations this country adheres to today.
The second amendment is very clear in its interpretation on gun ownership, stating 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. This amendment was introduced very early in american history, and left little to interpretation. What the amendment says, in very basic terms, is that american citizens have the inherent right to own and use firearms. However, since the framing of the constitution and the inception of the second amendment, a changing America called for new laws to be put in place. Early versions of gun control arrived out of necessity. Following numerous assassinations such as John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Junior, and other key figures in american society, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, a law that enacted much higher regulations on the purchasing and use of guns. These restrictions included new age restrictions (they owner had to be 21) of the purchase of guns, outright prohibited convicted felons and the mentally ill from purchasing firearms, and made it so all guns manufactured or imported had to be marked with a serial number, making it easier to tell who was the owner of any particular gun at a certain time. These laws continued to gain traction, with the implementation of more legislature in support of gun control, for example, bill H.R.216 in 1973, which made certain felonies committed with a firearm a federal crime and makes the perpetrator accountable in a court of U.S. law. But, like with any political and legislative change, gun control was on a pendulum, and began to shift back towards the protections of gun owners in America.
In 1986, Congress passed the Firearms Protection Act. This act provided protection for gun owners by prohibiting a national registry of gun owners, effectively making it impossible to know who was a gun owner unless they committed a felony, in which case, per earlier legislation, they could be identified by the serial number on their gun. This act also eased restrictions on the sale of firearms in many ways, most notably making the sale of firearms allowed at gun shows, bypassing many of the regulations that were currently in place. This act sparked similar legislation such as bill H.R.3263, or the Gun Safety Act of 1993, which prohibited the Consumer Product Safety Commission from banning firearms as hazardous products. This was a swing toward pro-gun ideals, as it eliminated a major threat toward the ownership of guns and eliminated an important restriction that would have been effective in limiting the amount of guns and gun owners in society.
But once again, the passage of time and new ideas incited yet another pendulum shift, detailed by the passage of the the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which required a background check to be done on anyone buying a handgun from a licensed dealer. Legislation like this made the process of buying a firearm take much longer and made it so less people were capable of buying firearms. This particular law also led to the development of the NICS, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. However, amidst the multitude of passed, successful legislation, there are some some bills and laws that have been replaced or abandoned over time. An example of expired legislature is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Enacted in 1994, this act prohibited the ability to manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon unless the gun owner had the gun before the law was put in place. However, although there were numerous attempts to get this act renewed, it expired in 2004 and has not been reinstated since.
To fully understand the scope of this issue, one needs to look at the inception of the legislature, and why gun control had to become such an important issue. Although its disputed when exactly gun control began to emerge in american politics, its widely agreed that the assassination of president John F. Kennedy raised public interest and awareness to the ease and lack of control regarding gun buying and ownership. This and attacks like it inspired the creation of the ATF, the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The ATF was given such powers as the right to issue and regulate firearms licenses, and make sure that those who are licensed are qualified to possess a firearm. As gun violence has risen over time, laws restricting gun ownership rights have risen as well. An example of this is evident in 1989, when five children were killed on a playground by a semi-automatic assault weapon in Stockton, California. This particular event led to such an outcry against guns, specifically assault weapons, to the point where the state of California banned such weapons entirely, and they remain banned to this day. The next major gun violence event was an attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1993. Although the attempt on Reagan’s life was unsuccessful, press secretary James Brady was critically injured, disabling him for life. This unfortunate event sparked the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, requiring background checks by the government for a person to legally own a firearm. The stipulations included in the Brady Act were eventually put into effect in 1998, permanently making it so any individual gun buyer must must go through a background check in the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check) computer system to be deemed as fit to own a firearm.
Perhaps one of the most notable instances of extreme gun violence happened in 1999. This was the shooting on April 20th where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on Columbine high school using both semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, killing twelve students, a teacher, and wounding twenty-four others before eventually taking their own lives. Before this time, extreme gun violence had pretty much never been seen in such a radical scope in america, and this catastrophic event triggered an extreme renewal regarding the debate on gun control, and raised an outburst for more restrictive gun control laws. Not three months following the tragedy of Columbine, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to ban the Great Western Gun Show from taking place in the Pomona, California fairgrounds. This passage of this vote seemed to be directly influenced by the events of Columbine, as the student criminals had received their guns from a man named Robyn Anderson, who had legally purchased the guns from an unlicensed seller at the Tanner Gun show, skirting the need for a background check to purchase them.
These new restrictions on gun ownership caused an outcry from pro-gun activists, who began to heavily advocate for less restrictive laws surrounding gun control. This came to fruition in 2003 when Todd Tiahrt proposed the Tiahrt Amendment, which made it so data showing where criminals purchased their firearms were hidden from the public eye and only viewable by law enforcement officers and prosecutors. This act made it much harder for an individual to sue a gun retailer or agency, and made it so academic studies and public investigation of firearms was much harder to accomplish, if not virtually impossible. Gun agency and retailers rights were further protected with the addition of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. Signed into place by President George W. Bush in 2005, this act made it so gun manufacturers could not be sued for crimes involving the use of their guns or ammunition, instead putting the criminal who purchased the firearm and used it in an illegal way at complete fault, and absolved the gun manufacturers from any and all criminal involvement, provided the product functioned as designed and intended. This law, however, was not completely without restrictions on guns. The law included an amendment that all new guns being sold in the United States would now include trigger lock mechanisms, a device on firearms which requires a magnet to unlock. This provision was put in place to both prevent the accidental firing of a weapon as well as counter the unauthorized use of firearms by an unlicensed individual.
In recent years, Americans have seen a sharp uptick in fatal shootings throughout the United States. On October first, 2017, a lone gunman shot from his Las Vegas hotel room into a crowded concert, killing forty-eight people and wounding over eight-hundred. This is on record as being the most devastating shooting in recent United States history. One of the most notable occurrences in this particular tragedy was the shooter’s use of a bump-stock attachment. This device, which was legal when the shooting occured, made it so semi-automatic weapons had the ability to shoot at a fully-automatic capacity. This made it much easier for the perpetrator to attain a fully automatic weapon, as bump-stocks and semi-automatic rifles were much easier to acquire than fully automatic rifle. After this shooting, lawmaker Karl Rhoads created new legislation that illegalized bump-stocks, stating that Hunters don’t use them. It’s a mass murder improvement tool. This new legislation was able to be passed in ten states and is on track to expand into others. Another, even more recent fatal mass shooting occurred on February fourteenth 2018 at a school in Parkland, Florida, where a nineteen year old former student shot and killed seventeen people, fourteen students and three staff members. Spurred by the movements made by the students who survived the shooting, state legislatures began to pass new laws that focused on the restriction of gun control. Laws such as the illegalization of bump stocks spread throughout the United States, and as much as fifty new laws that regulated ownership of guns in America.
Although new restrictions in legislation like this looks promising for those who advocate for stringent gun control, the current political climate of a largely republican government has made it so, despite the numerous recent shootings, legislature in support of gun rights are still being passed. Examples of these laws include reinforced stand your ground laws, which protects the right to fatally shoot somebody if the gun owner is threatened or put in danger by an assailant. This, along with guns being allowed in certain schools for protection are two examples of how gun control activists aren’t on track to triumph over organizations like the NRA, (National Rifle Association) like some would believe, but instead will continue the long drawn out battle between pro-gun activists and gun control advocates, with no common ground or resolution in sight.
When it came to the inception of the second amendment, the original lawmakers of American policy were in agreement on the right to bear arms. This is because when this amendment was created, the American people had just gone through a revolutionary war against England. Without the use of guns, the disparaged colonists would not have been able to revolt at all, or at least the revolution would not have been very successful. Realizing this, and understanding that even their own government would have the capability of tyranny, the founding fathers made the second amendment so that if the government was corrupted and deemed too far gone, the citizens could use the guns that they owned to form a militia and rebel against the government. However, since the institution of the second amendment, society and politics have changed.
This transition forced gun laws to adapt to the changing political climate. But changing or creating legislation is, to put it simply, extremely difficult as any change to the constitution will incite opposition on all sides of the political spectrum. An example of this in early legislation can be seen with the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968. Although the outcry for restrictions on the access of guns was spurred by the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, nothing was actually passed until five years later. This was not for lack of trying. In fact, two different bills restricting gun rights had been attempted by Senator Thomas J. Dodd following the assassination. He first introduced Senate Bill 1975 A Bill to Regulate the Interstate Shipment of Firearms in 1963, and later Senate Bill 1592, A Bill to Amend the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 in 1965. Both of these bills encountered extreme resistance on the senate floor, despite the recent tragedy. Although these bills would not be passed, they did mark a clear path to the eventual enacting of the Gun Control Act of 1968. Although Dodd’s legislation did help shape the content of the Gun Control Act, his push for legislation alone was not strong enough to pass this act. The people needed another tragedy. This tragedy came twofold, in the form of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April, 1968 and the shooting of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in June, 1968. This prompted the proposition of the new gun control bill which received an equal number of votes in the house on June 11, 1968, halting the bill for nine days until it was reconsidered, passed to the Senate, halted in the Senate, reconsidered again and finally passed.
Laws involving the restrictions of gun rights were not the only legislation to be hotly contested once proposed. In fact, the Firearms Protection Act took seven years to even be put to vote in the senate, and was met with controversy and even animosity toward the proposed bill. The bill was described as a monstrous idea and a national disgrace by those who opposed the it and would push for more radical restrictions on firearms. Once passed in the senate, the proposed bill was halted in the House of Representatives. The speaker of the house at that time was Representative Thomas O’Neill, who was democratic and extremely against the use of firearms. Many believed that because of this, the bill would never be passed and instead left to stagnate in the House of Representatives indefinitely. Realizing the implications this had on the passage of the bill, pro-gun activist Representative Harold L. Volkmer decided to use a radical strategy to force the passage of the bill through the house. Rep. Volkmer invoked the use of a discharge petition, a petition that, if successful would discharge the committee considering the bill and put it to an immediate vote, effectively bypassing the opposition to the bill in the house and vastly increasing the likelihood of the bill becoming a law. But this was easier said than done. Up until that point only very few discharge petitions had actually proved successful. In fact, only seven of these achieved success in the twenty-five years prior to the proposition of this particular petition. Under the rules regarding discharge petitions of the time, a majority of signatures from representatives in the house was needed for the petition to take effect. That meant that when the petition was proposed in 1986, a whopping two hundred and eighteen signatures was needed for success. Over the course of over four months, Rep. Volkmer was able to collect the necessary signatures to pass this petition, and on April, 9th 1986, the Firearms Protection Act was passed, changing legislation regarding gun ownership that favored gun-rights activists and those who would wish to purchase and own firearms to this day.
Recent laws promoting gun control have received backlash from numerous pro-gun groups, but the most notable and powerful of these groups is the National Rifle Association, or the NRA. An example of one of the laws the NRA vehemently opposes are acts such as California AB 1014, a law that allows Gun Violence Restraining Orders, or GVROs. This law grants a family member or law enforcement officer to request a GVRO on a disturbed individual that they believe to be a threat to themselves or others. What a GVRO does is allow law enforcement to remove guns from said individual and prevent them from purchasing guns for a temporary amount of time, and also allows steps for guns to be permanently removed or given back if the individuals is viewed unstable or fit to own a firearm respectively. Of the many states that have tried to pass GVROs in recent legislature only five have succeeded, these being California, Indiana, Connecticut, Washington, and Oregon. When GVROs and other red flag laws were put to vote in more republican states such Iowa, the legislation was defeated and never passed. The proposition being shot down was largely influenced by the NRA, amongst other groups that support gun-rights. The NRA, which has five million members and over fourteen million supporters, was able to achieve the nullification of this proposed legislature by rallying its supporters to lobby against it. With such a vast number of members and supporters that listen to what the NRA says, it’s clear how they and other interest groups are able to manipulate legislation to achieve less restrictive laws surrounding gun control.