Gun politics in the United States
|Part of the Politics series|
Gun politics is a controversial issue in American politics. For the last several decades, the debate regarding both the restriction and availability of firearms within the United States has been characterized by a stalemate between a right to bear arms found in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the responsibility of government to prevent firearm-related crime.
- 1 Gun culture
- 2 History
- 3 Public opinion
- 4 Types of firearms
- 5 Political arguments
- 6 Courts and the law
- 7 Firearm related violence
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
In his article, "America as a Gun Culture," historian Richard Hofstadter popularized the phrase "gun culture" to describe the long-held affections for firearms within U.S., many citizens embracing and celebrating the association of guns and America's heritage. The right to own a gun and defend oneself is considered by some, especially those in the West and South, as a central tenet of the American identity. This stems in part from the nation's frontier history, where guns were integral to westward expansion, enabling settlers to guard themselves from Native Americans, animals and foreign armies, frontier citizens often assuming responsibility for self-protection. The importance of guns also derives from the role of hunting in American culture, which remains popular as a sport in the country today.
The viewpoint that firearms were an integral part of the settling of the United States has the lowest level of support in urban and industrialized regions, where a cultural tradition of conflating violence and associating gun ownership with the "redneck" stereotype has played a part in promoting the support of gun regulation.
In 1995, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms estimated that the number of firearms available in the US was 223 million. In 2005, almost 18% of U.S. households possessed handguns, compared to almost 3% of households in Canada that possessed handguns. In 2011, the number was increased to 34% of adults in the United States who personally owned a gun; 46% of adult men, and 23% of adult women. In 2011, 47% of the adult U.S. population lived in households with guns. Guns are prominent in contemporary U.S. popular culture as well, appearing frequently in movies, television, music, books, and magazines.
The origins of American controversy over ownership and carrying of arms can be traced back to the American Revolutionary War, hunting/sporting ethos and the militia/frontier ethos that draw from the country's early history, and even further to the rights of freemen under the English Common Law and long-standing rights of the citizens of a republic as described as far back as Plato and Aristotle.
Plato, speaking as Socrates in The Republic, "provided a comprehensive analysis of the social and political consequences of individual ownership of arms versus a state monopoly of arms... individual possession of weapons by sane individuals was ethically acceptable to Socrates." Aristotle's concept of polity included a large middle class in which each citizen fulfillied all three functions of self-legislation, arms bearing, and working." Aristotle criticized the monopolization of arms bearing by a single class in the "Best State" writings of Hippodamus, arguing it would lead to oppression of the "farmers" and the "workers" by the arms-bearing class.
Early English monarchs required that subjects be armed for the defense of the realm. Later kings, especially those best known "for arbitrary absolutism sought to deprive the lower economic classes, various religious groups, and colonized peoples of weapons so as to perpetuate and enhance the economic and political power of the dominant classes." Common law construction came to establish the right of freeman to be armed, both before and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and were further enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights, and through long-standing judicial construction. Despite Parliamentary legislation that routinely attempted to disarm the Irish and Scots throughout the eighteenth century, many Americans believed they were guaranteed the common-law right to keep and carry arms.
Americans who participated in the American Revolution were strongly influenced by the philosophical classics from Greece to Rome to Renaissance writers, and were vigorous in asserting the importance of their common-law rights to both keep and bear arms for individual self-defense, and "to combine into independent militias for defense against the official colonial standing army and militias."
The American hunting/sporting passion comes from a time when the United States was an agrarian, subsistence nation where hunting was a profession for some, an auxiliary source of food for some settlers, and also a deterrence to animal predators. A connection between shooting skills and survival among rural American men was in many cases a necessity and a 'rite of passage' for those entering manhood. Today, hunting survives as a central sentimental component of a gun culture as a way to control animal populations across the country, regardless of modern trends away from subsistence hunting and rural living.
The militia/frontiersman spirit derives from an early American dependence on arms to protect themselves from foreign armies and hostile Native Americans. Survival depended upon everyone being capable of using a weapon. Prior to the American Revolution there was neither budget nor manpower nor government desire to maintain a full-time army. Therefore, the armed citizen-soldier carried the responsibility. Service in militia, including providing one's own ammunition and weapons, was mandatory for all men—just as registering for military service upon turning eighteen is today. Yet, as early as the 1790s, the mandatory universal militia duty gave way to voluntary militia units and a reliance on a regular army. Throughout the 19th century the institution of the civilian militia began to decline.
Closely related to the militia tradition was the frontier tradition with the need for a means of self-protection closely associated with the nineteenth century westward expansion and the American frontier. There remains a powerful central elevation of the gun associated with the hunting/sporting and militia/frontier ethos among the American Gun Culture. Though it has not been a necessary part of daily survival for over a century, generations of Americans have continued to embrace and glorify it as a living inheritance—a permanent element of the nation's style and culture.
The gun has long been a symbol of power and masculinity. In popular literature, frontier adventure was most famously told by James Fenimore Cooper, who is credited by Petri Liukkonen with creating the archetype of an 18th-century frontiersman through such novels as "The Last of the Mohicans" (1826) and "The Deerslayer" (1840).
In the late 19th century, cowboy and "Wild West" imagery entered the collective imagination. The first American female superstar, Annie Oakley, was a sharpshooter who toured the country starting in 1885, performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The cowboy archetype of individualist hero was established largely by Owen Wister in stories and novels, most notably The Virginian (1902), following close on the heels of Theodore Roosevelt's The Winning of the West (1889–1895), a history of the early frontier. Cowboys were also popularized in turn of the 20th century cinema, notably through such early classics as The Great Train Robbery (1903) and A California Hold Up (1906) -- the most commercially successful film of the pre-nickelodeon era.
Gangster films began appearing as early as 1910, but became popular only with the advent of sound in film in the 1930s. The genre was boosted by the events of the prohibition era, such as bootlegging and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929, the existence of real-life gangsters (e.g., Al Capone) and the rise of contemporary organized crime and escalation of urban violence. These movies flaunted the archetypal exploits of "swaggering, cruel, wily, tough, and law-defying bootleggers and urban gangsters."
With the arrival of World War II, Hollywood produced many morale boosting movies, patriotic rallying cries that affirmed a sense of national purpose. The image of the lone cowboy was replaced in these combat films by stories that emphasized group efforts and the value of individual sacrifices for a larger cause, often featuring a group of men from diverse ethnic backgrounds who were thrown together, tested on the battlefield, and molded into a dedicated fighting unit.
Guns frequently accompanied famous heroes and villains in late 20th-century American films, from the outlaws of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972), to the fictitious law and order avengers like Dirty Harry (1971) and RoboCop (1987). In the 1970s, films portrayed fictitious and exaggerated characters, madmen ostensibly produced by the Vietnam War in films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Apocalypse Now (1979), while other films told stories of fictitious veterans who were supposedly victims of the war and in need of rehabilitation (Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, both 1978). Many action films continue to celebrate the gun toting hero in fantastical settings. At the same time, the negative role of the gun in fictionalized modern urban violence has been explored in films like Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace 2 Society (1993).
In the years prior to the Revolutionary War, the British, in response to the colonists' unhappiness over increasingly direct control and taxation of the colonies, imposed a powder embargo on the colonies in an attempt to lessen the ability of the colonists to resist British encroachments into what the colonies regarded as local matters. Two direct attempts to disarm the colonial militias fanned what had been a smoldering resentment of British interference into the fires of war.
These two incidents were the attempt to confiscate the cannon of the Concord and Lexington militias, leading to the Battles of Lexington and Concord of April 19, 1775, and the attempt, on April 20, to confiscate militia powder stores in the armory of Williamsburg, Virginia, which led to the Gunpowder Incident and a face off between Patrick Henry and hundreds of militia members on one side and the Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, and British seamen on the other. The Gunpowder Incident was eventually settled by paying the colonists for the powder.
Minutemen were members of teams of select men from the American colonial militia during the American Revolutionary War who vowed to be ready for battle against the British within one minute of receiving notice. On the night of April 18/April 19, 1775, minuteman Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott spread the news that "the Regulars are coming out!" Paul Revere was captured before completing his mission when the British marched towards the armory in Lexington and Concord to seize the Massachusetts militia's gunpowder magazine which had been hidden there. Only Dr. Prescott was able to complete the journey to Concord. The right to a militia was thus an issue in the United States from the very beginning.
States passed some of the first gun control laws. There was opposition and, as a result, the Individual Right interpretation of the Second Amendment began and grew in direct response to these early gun control laws, in keeping with this new "pervasive spirit of individualism." As noted by Cornell, "Ironically, the first gun control movement helped give birth to the first self-conscious gun rights ideology built around a constitutional right of individual self-defense."
The Individual Right interpretation of the Second Amendment first arose in Bliss v. Commonwealth (1822, KY), which evaluated the right to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state pursuant to Section 28 of the Second Constitution of Kentucky (1799). The right to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state was interpreted as an individual right, for the case of a concealed sword cane. This case has been described as about "a statute prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons [that] was violative of the Second Amendment".
The first relevant state court decision was Bliss v. Commonwealth. The Kentucky court held that "the right of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State must be preserved entire.... This holding was unique because it stated that the right to bear arms is absolute and unqualified."
Also during the Jacksonian Era, the first Collective Right interpretation of the Second Amendment arose. In State v. Buzzard (1842, Ark), the Arkansas high court adopted a militia-based, political right, reading of the right to bear arms under state law, and upheld the 21st section of the second article of the Arkansas Constitution that declared, "that the free white men of this State shall have a right to keep and bear arms for their common defense", while rejecting a challenge to a statute prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons.
The Arkansas high court declared "That the words 'a well regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free State', and the words 'common defense' clearly show the true intent and meaning of these Constitutions [i.e., Arkansas and U.S.] and prove that it is a political and not an individual right, and, of course, that the State, in her legislative capacity, has the right to regulate and control it: This being the case, then the people, neither individually nor collectively, have the right to keep and bear arms." Joel Prentiss Bishop's influential Commentaries on the Law of Statutory Crimes (1873) took Buzzard's militia-based interpretation, a view that Bishop characterized as the "Arkansas doctrine", as the orthodox view of the right to bear arms in American law.
The two early state court cases, Bliss and Buzzard, set the fundamental dichotomy in interpreting the Second Amendment, i.e., whether it secured an Individual Right versus a Collective Right. A debate about how to interpret the Second Amendment evolved through the decades and remained unresolved until the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The Dred Scott decision of 1857 was one of the polarizing decisions that led to the civil war. One minor issue was whether blacks had the citizenship right to bear arms. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856) the Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote for the majority: "It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union... the full liberty... to keep and carry arms wherever they went."
With the Civil War ending, the question of the rights of freed slaves to carry arms and to belong to militia came to the attention of the Federal courts. In response to the problems freed slaves faced in the Southern states, the Fourteenth Amendment was drafted.
When the Fourteenth Amendment was drafted, Representative John A. Bingham of Ohio used the Court's own phrase "privileges and immunities of citizens" to include the first Eight Amendments of the Bill of Rights under its protection and guard these rights against state legislation.
The debate in the Congress on the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War also concentrated on what the Southern States were doing to harm the newly freed slaves. One particular concern was the disarming of former slaves.
The Second Amendment attracted serious judicial attention with the Reconstruction era case of United States v. Cruikshank which ruled that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not cause the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, to limit the powers of the State governments, stating that the Second Amendment "has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government."
Akhil Reed Amar notes in the Yale Law Journal, the basis of Common Law for the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which would include the Second Amendment, "following John Randolph Tucker's famous oral argument in the 1887 Chicago anarchist Haymarket Riot case, Spies v. Illinois":
Though originally the first ten Amendments were adopted as limitations on Federal power, yet in so far as they secure and recognize fundamental rights—common law rights—of the man, they make them privileges and immunities of the man as citizen of the United States...
A famous and widely publicized case where fully automatic weapons were used in crime in the United States was during the Saint Valentine's Day massacre during the winter of 1929; this Prohibition-era gangster sub-machine gun mass murder led directly to the National Firearms Act of 1934, which was passed over a year after Prohibition had ended. Since 1934, fully automatic weapons fall under the regulation and jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Other crimes involving fully automatic weapons in the United States have not been as widely publicized. However, the lesser known 1997 North Hollywood shootout involved two men carrying semi-automatic rifles that were illegally modified to fire in a fully automatic fashion.
A milestone in gun control legislation was the Gun Control Act of 1968, the first post World war II federal gun control law passed by Congress. In the latter decades of the 20th Century, groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Gun Owners of America (GOA) organized voters and campaign volunteers to focus citizen communication and interest when anti-gun rights legislation was under consideration, both at federal and state levels.
The United States was generally seen as having the least stringent anti-gun rights laws in the developed world, with the possible exception of Switzerland, in part due to the strength of the gun lobby, particularly the NRA. The NRA has traditionally supported gun laws intended to prevent criminals from obtaining firearms, while opposing new restrictions that affected law-abiding citizens.
An important electoral showdown over gun control came in 1970, when Senator Joseph Tydings (D, MD), who had highlighted crime in the District of Columbia and sponsored the Firearms Registration and Licensing Act, was defeated for reelection.
The GOA organization originated from dissatisfaction with the NRA. The group has historically rejected any gun laws that infringed the rights of law-abiding citizens, putting it at odds with the NRA on many legislative issues.
Besides the GOA, other national gun rights groups often took a stronger stance than the NRA. These groups criticize the NRA's history of support for some gun control legislation, such as the Gun Control Act of 1968. Some of these groups are the Second Amendment Sisters, Second Amendment Foundation, and Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. These groups, like the GOA, believe any compromise leads to incrementally greater restrictions.
Handgun Control Inc. (HCI), founded in 1974 by businessman Pete Shields, formed a partnership with the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH), also founded in 1974. Soon parting ways, the NCBH was renamed the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in 1990, and while smaller than HCI, generally took a tougher stand on gun regulation than HCI.
HCI saw an increase of interest and fund raising in the wake of the 1980 murder of John Lennon. By 1981 membership exceeded 100,000. Measured in dollars contributed to congressional campaigns, HCI contributed $75,000. Following the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, and the resultant injury of James Brady, Sarah Brady joined the board of HCI in 1985. HCI was renamed in 2001 to Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
In the 1990s, gun politics took a turn to the right in response to two high profile ATF incidents, Ruby Ridge and Waco, that led to mobilization of modern militia groups. These incidents combined with the passage of the Brady Act in 1993 and the Assault Weapons Ban a year later increased the fears of those who felt the Federal Government would confiscate their firearms. The Brady Bill, passed in 1994, requires dealers to conduct background checks and thus provides an enforcement mechanism for restricting purchases by prohibited persons.The Militia Movement expanded throughout the 1990s.
One of the first major victories for gun rights advocates at the federal level came in 2004, when the Assault Weapons Ban was scheduled to expire by its own terms. Efforts by gun control advocates to extend the ban at the federal level failed; two later attempts to reestablish the ban also failed.
The NRA opposed bans on handguns in Washington D.C. and San Francisco, while also supporting the 2007 The School Safety And Law Enforcement Improvement Act (known as the NICS Improvement Amendments Act (H.R. 2640)), which strengthened requirements for background checks for firearm purchases.
The GOA especially took issue with the NRA over a portion of the 2007 School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act, which they termed the "Veterans' Disarmament Act."
Besides the GOA, other national gun rights groups continue to take a stronger stance than the NRA. Including groups such as The Second Amendment Sisters, Second Amendment Foundation, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and the Pink Pistols. New groups have also arisen, such as the Students for Concealed Carry, which grew largely out of safety-issues resulting from the creation of 'Gun-free' zones that were legislatively mandated amidst a response to widely publicized school shootings. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pitched in, with an extensive study on gun control which found "Evidence was insufficient to determine the effectiveness of any of these laws." A similar survey of firearms research by the United States National Academy of Sciences arrived at nearly identical conclusions in 2004.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, No. 07-290, the United States Supreme Court held that Americans have an individual right described in the Second Amendment to possess firearms "for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home." It is an appeal from Parker v. District of Columbia, 478 F.3d 370 (D.C. Cir. 2007), a decision in which the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit became the first federal appeals court in the United States to rule that a firearm ban infringes the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the second to expressly interpret the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to possess firearms for private use. The first federal case that interpreted the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right was United States v. Emerson, 270 F.3d 203 (5th Cir. 2001).
According to the Center for Responsive Politics gun rights advocates outspent gun control advocates by approximately $17 million to $1.7 million for records going back to 1989. On gun rights the top donor is the National Rifle Association while for gun control the top donor is the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
An open source group emerged in the US in 2012 that is attempting to design a firearm that may be downloaded from the internet and "printed" on a 3-D printer. Calling itself Defense Distributed, the group wants to facilitate "a working plastic gun that could be downloaded and reproduced by anybody with a 3D printer."
Proposals by Obama Administration
On January 16, 2013, in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and other national tragedies, President Barack Obama announced a plan for imposing stricter gun control in the United States, and providing greater access to mental health services. The plan included proposals for new laws to be passed by Congress, and a series of executive actions not requiring Congressional approval.
The proposed congressional actions included:
- Require background checks for all gun sales, including those by private individuals
- Pass a new ban on assault weapons
- Limit magazines to 10 rounds
- Ban the possession of armor-piercing bullets.
- Provide financing for improved mental health coverage, particularly for young people
- Provide funding for schools to develop emergency response plans
The executive actions included:
- Improve the data used for the background check system for gun sales
- Direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence
- Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers
- Give law enforcement additional tools to prevent and prosecute gun crime
On January 31, 2013, the Newtown school board voted unanimously to ask for police officer presence in all of its elementary schools; previously other schools in the district had such protection, but Sandy Hook had not been one of those.
Huffington Post reported in September 2013 that 48% of Americans said gun laws should be made more strict, while 16% said they should be made less strict and 29% said there should be no change. Similarly, a Gallup poll found that support for stricter gun laws has fallen from 58% after the Newtown shooting, to 49% in September 2013. Both the Huffington Post poll and the Gallup poll were conducted after the Navy Yard shooting. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post poll found that 40% of Americans believe stricter gun laws would prevent future mass shootings, while 52% said changing things wouldn't make a difference. The same poll also found that 57% of Americans think better mental health care is more likely to prevent future mass shootings than stricter gun laws, while 29% said the opposite.
- 90.7% of members favor "Reforming our mental health laws to help keep firearms out of the hands of people with mental illness." A strong majority of 86.4% of members believe that strengthening laws concerning mental health records to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining firearms would be more effective at preventing mass murders than banning semi-automatic rifles.
- 92% of NRA members oppose gun confiscation via mandatory buy-back laws.
- 89% oppose banning semi-automatic firearms, firearms that shoot one bullet per trigger pull.
- 93% oppose a law requiring gun owners to register with the federal government.
- 92% oppose a federal law banning the sale of firearms between private citizens.
- 82.3% of members are in favor of a program that would place armed security professionals in every school.
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) gun research and gun control
In 1996, Congress added language to the relevant appropriations bill which required "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control." This language was added to prevent the funding of research by the CDC that gun rights supporters considered politically motivated and intended to bring about further gun control legislation. In particular, the NRA and other gun rights proponents objected to work supported by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, then run by Mark Rosenberg, including research authored by Arthur Kellermann.
The language has been carried forward and appears in the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill, and also in the draft for the fiscal year 2013 appropriations bill. However, the Obama administration's legal analysis, "concludes such research is not prohibited by any appropriations language."
Though gun control is not strictly a partisan issue, there is generally more support for gun control legislation in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. The Libertarian Party, whose campaign platforms favor limited government, is outspokenly against gun control.
Types of firearms
Political scientist Earl Kruschke has described how, in the gun control debate, firearms have been viewed in only three general classes by gun control advocates: 1) long guns 2) hand guns and 3) automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The first category has generally been associated with sporting and hunting uses; the second category, handguns, describe weapons which can be held with one hand such as pistols and revolvers; and the third general category has been most commonly associated in public political perception with military uses. Notably the AR-15 and AK-47 style firearms have contributed to this perception.
If sometimes confused in public debate, the two firearm types in the third general category are functionally and legally distinct. Fully automatic firearms of any kind (including military assault rifles) have been subject to requirements for registration by owners and licensing of dealers since the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934. Further import restrictions were part of the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the transfer of newly manufactured machine-guns to private citizens was banned with passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act in 1986.
New machine-guns in the US are still legal for purchase by the military and by governmental agencies, including civilian law enforcement; pre-1986 registered machine-guns are available to private citizens with federal registration (where permitted by state law), and have reached high market prices, eagerly sought by collectors because of their relative scarcity. An expansion has occurred in the number of states where such automatic weapons may legally be owned; for example, automatic-weapons were legalized in Kansas in 2008, subject to federal NFA regulations.
Many semi-automatic versions of fully automatic military assault rifles—and the larger 20- or 30-round magazines they typically use—ceased to be prohibited for purchase by private citizens by US federal law after the "sunsetting" of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban on September 14, 2004. Some continue to be banned due to a 1989 amendment of the Gun Control Act which made importing of some foreign-made firearms illegal, but similar US-made firearms are not forbidden.
In general terms, gun control advocates have paid little concern to the long guns used for sporting purpose as long guns are generally not viewed as associated with violent crime or suicide. For example, in 2011, 72% of the 8,583 homicides committed using firearms in the United States were committed using handguns, compared to 4% with rifles, 4% with shotguns, 1% with other guns, and 18% with type of firearm not specified. Non-criminal (i.e., acts of self-defense) and criminal homicides were not distinguished.
Kruschke describes incidents where public political perceptions have been shaped by a few high profile violent crimes associated with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, resulting in a relatively small percentage of the crime in absolute numbers, nonetheless have brought public focus on that type of weapon.
Kruschke states, however, regarding the fully automatic firearms owned by private citizens in the United States, that "approximately 175,000 automatic firearms have been licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (the federal agency responsible for administration of the law) and evidence suggests that none of these licensed weapons has ever been used to commit a violent crime."
Likewise, Kruschke states that automatic weapons are different than common semi-automatic hunting weapons, as the "most common examples [of automatic weapons] are machine guns, submachine guns, and certain types of military and police rifles." This recognizes that there are semi-automatic household guns that are in widespread use like the .22 caliber Marlin Model 60 hunting rifle. Similarly, although Kruschke claims long guns are not being used in suicide, there are in fact instances of long guns that are used for suicides.
Pro-gun groups claim that confusing voters about different types of guns continues to be a strategy of gun-control groups, who in turn claim that certain types of firearms are either particularly unsafe, particularly likely to be used in crime, or particularly unsuited for "sporting purposes," and therefore should be banned. The types of guns so designated has included: any small, inexpensive handgun ("junk gun" or "Saturday night special"), any handgun weighing more than 50 ounces (1.4 kg), any handgun not incorporating either new "smart-gun" or "micro-stamping" abilities, all handguns, semi-automatic "assault weapons" (using either the 1994 definition or a more expansive definition), and .50 caliber rifles.
The proposal in the early twentyfirst century to ban .50 caliber rifles such as the Barrett M82 nationally shows the typical issues that arise in campaigns to ban certain firearm types. Pro-ban groups have used the phrase "Sniper Rifle Ban" to promote the proposal, in recognition of the sniper role of the M82, with effective range of 1,800 m. However, the M82 is also used as an "anti-matériel" weapon due to its large caliber; and many rifles of long range and high accuracy, but lower caliber, are used as sniper (but not anti-matériel) weapons. Pro-gun groups see the attempts to ban .50-cal rifles as the first step toward banning a "sniper gun" or "high-powered rifle" category. The Los Angeles Police Department was criticised by Barrett for deceiving the public when, according to Barrett, it showed a police-owned Barrett M82 at a press conference supporting a ban on ownership in Los Angeles of .50 caliber weapons, and implied that it could at the time be bought in Los Angeles, without clarifying that sale of the rifle was banned by existing California state law.
The sides of the debate are described as "gun control" versus "gun rights" activists. Political arguments of gun politics in the United States center on disagreements that range from the practical to the constitutional to the ethical.
Political arguments about gun rights fall under two basic questions:
- Does the government have the authority to regulate guns?
- If it does, is it effective public policy to regulate guns?
The first category, collectively known as rights-based arguments, consist of Second Amendment arguments, state constitution arguments, right of self-defense arguments, and security against tyranny and invasion arguments. Public policy arguments, the second category of arguments, revolve around the importance of a militia, the reduction of gun violence and firearm deaths, and also can include arguments regarding security against foreign invasions.
Courts and the law
Supreme Court decisions
Since the late 19th century, with three key cases from the pre-incorporation era, the Supreme Court consistently ruled that the Second Amendment (and the Bill of Rights) restricts only the federal Congress, and not the States, in the regulation of guns. Scholars predicted that the Court's incorporation of other rights suggests that they may incorporate the Second, should a suitable case come before them.
"Americans also have a right to defend their homes, and we need not challenge that. Nor does anyone seriously question that the Constitution protects the right of hunters to own and keep sporting guns for hunting game any more than anyone would challenge the right to own and keep fishing rods and other equipment for fishing – or to own automobiles. To "keep and bear arms" for hunting today is essentially a recreational activity and not an imperative of survival, as it was 200 years ago. "Saturday night specials" and machine guns are not recreational weapons and surely are as much in need of regulation as motor vehicles." — Ex-Chief Justice Warren Burger, 1990.
Until recently, there had been only one modern Supreme Court case that dealt directly with the Second Amendment, United States v. Miller. In that case, the Supreme Court did not address the incorporation issue, but the case instead hinged on whether a sawed-off shotgun "has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia." In quashing the indictment against Miller, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas stated that the National Firearms Act of 1934, "offend[ed] the inhibition of the Second Amendment to the Constitution." The federal government then appealed directly to the US Supreme Court. On appeal the federal government did not object to Miller's release since he had died by then, seeking only to have the trial judge's ruling on the unconstitutionality of the federal law overturned. Under these circumstances, neither Miller nor his attorney appeared before the US Supreme Court to argue the case. The Court only heard argument from the federal prosecutor. In its ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the trial court and upheld the law.
District of Columbia v. Heller
On June 26, 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the United States Supreme Court affirmed, by a 5-4 vote, the decision of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. This decision struck down the D.C. gun law. It also clarifies the scope of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, stating that it stipulates an individual right irrespective of membership in a militia. The dissenting justices considered the majority had broken established precedent on the Second Amendment and reiterated the opinion that it refers to the right to maintain a militia, not an individual right. However the majority opinion allowed that, like other rights, the right to bear arms is not "unlimited".
"2. Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."
McDonald v. Chicago
June 28, 2010, Chicago gun control law struck down 5 to 4. Ruling that "The Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms fully applicable to the States." which incorporated the Second Amendment against the states.
Gun control laws and regulations exist at all levels of government, with the vast majority being local codes which vary between jurisdictions. The NRA reports 20,000 gun laws nationwide. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes 300 federal and state laws regarding the manufacture, design, sale, purchase, or possession of guns.
At the federal level, fully automatic weapons, short barrel shotguns, and short barrel rifles have been taxed and mandated to be registered since 1934 with the National Firearms Act. The Gun Control Act of 1968 adds prohibition of mail-order sales and prohibits transfers to minors. The 1968 Act requires that guns carry serial numbers and implemented a tracking system to determine the purchaser of a gun whose make, model, and serial number are known. It also prohibited gun ownership by convicted felons and certain other individuals. The Act was updated in the 1990s with the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, mainly to add a mechanism for the criminal history of gun purchasers to be checked at the point of sale, and in 1996 with the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban to prohibit ownership and use of guns by individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act enacted the now-defunct Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which banned the purchase, sale, or transfer of any weapon specifically named in the act, other weapons with a certain number of "defining features", and detachable magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, that had been manufactured after the beginning date of the ban. The Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004, but H.R. 6257 introduced June 12, 2008 sought to re-instate the ban indefinitely and to expand the list of banned weapons. The bill died in committee. New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, and New Jersey and several municipalities have codified some provisions of the expired Federal ban into State and local laws.
Gun Free School Zones Act of 1995
The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 severely limited where a person may legally carry a firearm, although this was voided by United States v. Lopez as exceeding Congress' Commerce Clause authority. The act was passed again in its current form in 1995. The act makes it generally unlawful for an armed citizen to travel on any public sidewalk, road, or highway, that passes within one thousand (1000) feet of the property line of any K-12 school in the nation. Only if one has a state permit to carry a firearm are they exempt from the one-thousand foot rule. In which case, depending on the laws of the individual states, full access to the schools is lawful under the Act. "(B) Subparagraph (A) does not apply to the possession of a firearm— ...(ii) if the individual possessing the firearm is licensed to do so by the State in which the school zone is located"
The United States has about five percent of the total world population but residents of the United States own about 42 percent of all the world's civilian-owned firearms. In 2009, according to the UNODC, 60% of homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm
U.S. homicides by firearm vary widely from state to state. In 2010, the lowest homicide by firearm rates were in Vermont (.3) and New Hampshire (.4) and the highest were in the District of Columbia (16.0) and Louisiana (7.8).
- Brady Campaign
- Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
- Concealed carry in the United States
- Firearm case law in the United States
- Gun law in the United States
- Gun laws in the United States by state
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- Gun politics
- Gun violence in the United States
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- National Rifle Association
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