About 80 million Americans, representing half of U.S. homes, own more than 223 million guns. And yet, 60% of Democrats and 30% of Republicans favor stronger gun ownership laws.
Historically, states have regulated laws governing individual ownership and use of guns. State gun laws vary widely from loose regulations in many southern, western and rural states to restrictive laws in the largest cities. In the 1980s, though, the National Rifle Association increased pressure on Congress to loosen gun control laws and restrictions.
In June 2010, however, the Supreme Court struck down Chicago's restrictive gun-control laws, declaring that "that Americans in all 50 states have a constitutional right to possess firearms for self-defense."
Gun Rights and the Second Amendment
Gun rights are granted by the Second Amendment, which reads: "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."
All political viewpoints agree that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of the government to maintain an armed militia to protect the nation. But disagreement historically existed as to whether or not it guarantees the right of all persons to own/use guns any place and at any time…
Collective Rights vs. Individual Rights
Until the mid-20th century, liberal constitutional scholars held a Collective Rights position, that the Second Amendment only protects the collective right of the states to maintain armed militias.
Conservative scholars held an Individual Rights position that the Second Amendment also grants an individual's right to own guns as private property, and that most restrictions on buying and carrying guns impede individual rights.
Gun Control and the World
The U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership and of gun homicide in the developed world, per a 1999 Harvard School of Public Health study.
In 1997, Great Britain banned private ownership of almost all handguns. And in Australia, Prime Minister John Howard commented after a 1996 mass killings in that country that "we took action to limit the availability of funs, and we showed a national resolved that the gun culture that is such a negative in the U.S. would never become a negative in our country."
Wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne in 2007, "Our country is a laughingstock on the rest of the planet because of our devotion to unlimited gun rights."
District of Columbia vs. Heller
Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), effectively struck down or nullified restrictive gun ownership and use laws for individuals.
In 2003, six Washington D.C. residents filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the constitutionality of Washington D.C.'s Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, considered among the most restrictive in the U.S.
Enacted in response to a horrifically high crime and gun violence rate, the D.C. law outlawed ownership of handguns, except for police officers and certain others. The D.C. law also specified that shotguns and rifles must be kept unloaded or dissembled, and with the trigger locked. (Read more about D.C. gun laws.)
The federal District Court dismissed the lawsuit.
The six litigants, led by Dick Heller, a Federal Judicial Center guard who wanted to keep a gun at home, appealed the dismissal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C.
On March 9, 2007, the federal Appeals court voted 2 to 1 to strike down the dismissal of the Heller suit. Wrote the majority: "To summarize, we conclude that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms… That is not to suggest that the government is absolutely barred from regulating the use and ownership of pistols. "
The NRA called the ruling a "significant victory for individual… rights."
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence called it "judicial activism at its worst."
Supreme Court Review of District of Columbia vs. Heller
Both litigants and defendants appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear this landmark gun rights case. On March 18, 2008, the Court heard oral arguments from both sides.
On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn the restrictive gun laws of Washington D.C., as depriving individuals of their right to own and use a gun in their own home and in federal "enclaves," as guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
McDonald v. City of Chicago
On June 28, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved anmiguities created by its District of Columbia vs. Heller decision as to whether or not individual gun rights apply to all states, as well.
Briefly, in striking down Chicago's strict handgun laws, the Court established, by vote of 5 to 4, that ""the right to keep and bear arms is a privilege of American citizenship that applies to the States."
Political focus on U.S. gun control laws has increased since 1968 passage of the Gun Control Act, enacted after the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Between 1985 and 1996, 28 states eased restrictions on concealed weapon carrying. As of 2000, 22 states allowed concealed guns to be carried almost anywhere, including places of worship.
The following are the federal laws enacted to control/tax guns held by individuals:
- 1934 - National Firearms Act imposed a tax on the sale of machine guns and short-barrel firearms, in reaction public rage over gangster activity.
- 1938 - Federal Firearms Act required licensing of gun dealers.
- 1968 - Gun Control Act expanded licensing and record-keeping; banned felons and the mentally ill from buying guns; banned the mail order sale of guns.
- 1972 - The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was created to oversee federal regulation of guns.
- 1986 - Firearms Owners Protection Act eased some gun sale restrictions, reflecting the growing influence of the NRA under President Reagan.
- 1993 - Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requires gun dealers to run background checks on purchasers. Establishes national database of prohibited gun owners.
- 1994 - Violent Crime Control Act banned the sale of new assault weapons for ten years. The Act was sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY). the Republican-led Congress allowed the law expire in 2004.
- 2003 - Tiahrt Amendment protects gun dealers and manufacturers from certain lawsuits.
- 2007 - via the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, Congress closes loopholes in the national database after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech University.
(For more info from 1791 to 1999, see A Brief History of Firearms Regulation in America by Robert Longley, About.com Gov't Info Guide.)
For More Restrictive Gun Laws
Arguments in favor of more restrictive gun laws are:
- Societal needs for reasonable gun control laws
- High rate of gun-related violence and death
- Second Amendment does not provide for individual gun rights
Societal Needs for Reasonable Gun Control
The federal, state and local governments enact laws to protect and defend the people and property of the U.S.
Proponents of more restrictive gun ownership laws contend that under-regulation puts U.S. residents at unreasonable risk.
A 1999 Harvard School of Public Health study revealed that "Americans feel less safe as more people in their community being to carry guns," and that 90% believe that "regular" citizens should be prohibited from bringing guns into most public places, including stadiums, restaurants, hospitals, college campuses and places of worship.
U.S. residents have a right to reasonable protection from dangers, including danger from guns. Examples cited include the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting deaths of 32 students and teachers and the 1999 killings at Colorado's Columbine High School of 13 students and teachers.
High Rate of Gun-Related Crime
Americans favoring more restrictive gun ownership/use laws believe that such measures will reduce gun-related crime, homicide and suicide in the U.S.
About 80 million Americans, representing 50% of U.S homes, own 223 million guns , easily the highest private gun ownership rate of any country in the world.
Gun use in the United States is associated with the majority of homicides and over half the suicide, per Wikipedia.
More than 30,000 U.S. men, women and children die each year from gunshot wounds, the highest homicide rate from guns in the world. Of those 30,000 deaths, only about 1,500 are due to accidental shootings.
Per the Harvard 1999 study, most Americans believe that U.S. gun violence and homicide would decrease by reducing the private ownership and use of guns.
Constitution Does Not Provide for Individual Gun Rights
"… nine federal appeals courts around the nation have adopted the collective rights view, opposing the notion that the amendment protects individual gun rights. The only exceptions are the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, and the District of Columbia Circuit," per the New York Times.
For hundreds of years, the prevailing opinion of Constitutional scholars has been that the Second Amendment does not address private gun ownership rights, but only guarantees the collective right of states to maintain militias.
For Less Restrictive Gun Laws
Arguments in favor of less restrictive gun laws include:
- Individual resistance to tyranny is a civil right guaranteed by the Second Amendment
- Self defense
- Recreational use of guns
Individual Resistance to Tyranny Is a Constitutional Right
No one disputes that the intended purpose of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is to empower U.S. residents to resist governmental tyranny. The controversy is whether that empowerment is intended to be on a individual or collective basis.
Holders of the Individual Rights position, which is considered the conservative stance, believe that the Second Amendment gives private gun ownership and use to individuals as a basic civil right to protection from government tyranny, such as the tyranny faced by the founders of the United States.
Per the New York Times on May 6, 2007: "There used to be an almost complete scholarly and judicial consensus that the Second Amendment protects only a collective right of the states to maintain militias.
"That consensus no longer exists - thanks largely to the work over the last 20 years of several leading liberal law professors, who have come to embrace the view that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own guns."
Self-Defense in Response to Crime and Violence
Holders of the Individual Rights position believe that allowing increased private ownership and use of guns as self-protection is the effective response to controlling gun violence and homicide.
The argument is if gun ownership is legally restricted, then all and only law-abiding Americans will be unarmed, and therefore would be the easy prey of criminals and law-breakers.
Proponents of less restrictive gun laws cite a number of instances in which stringent new laws resulted in a dramatic increase, not decrease, in gun-related crimes and violence.
Recreational Use of Guns
In many states, majority of citizens contend that restrictive gun ownership/use laws impede safe hunting and shooting, which to them are important cultural traditions and popular recreational pursuits.
"'For us, guns and hunting is a way of life,' said Mr. Helms, the manager of Marstiller's Gun Shop (in Morgantown, West Virginia)" per the New York Times on March 8, 2008.
In fact, a bill was recently passed in the West Virginia legislature to allow hunting education classes in all schools where twenty or more students express interest.
Where It Stands
Gun control laws are difficult to pass in Congress because gun rights groups and lobbyists wield enormous influence on Capitol Hill via campaign contributions, and have had great success in defeating pro-gun control candidates.
Explained the Center for Responsive Politics in 2007: "Gun rights groups have given more than $17 million in… contributions to federal candidates and party committees since 1989. Nearly $15 million, or 85 percent of the total, has gone to Republicans. The National Rifle Association is by far the gun rights lobby's biggest donor, having contributed more than $14 million over the past 15 years.
"Gun control advocates… contribute far less money than their rivals -- a total of nearly $1.7 million since 1989, of which 94 percent went to Democrats."
Per the Washington Post, in the 2006 elections: "Republicans received 166 times as much money from pro-gun groups as from anti-gun groups. Democrats received three times as much from pro-gun as anti-gun groups."
Congressional Democrats and Gun Laws
A sizeable minority of Congressional Democrats are gun rights advocates, especially among those newly elected to office in 2006. Freshman senators who strongly favor gun rights include Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA), and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).
Per the NRA, House members newly elected in 2006 include 24 pro-gun rights advocates: 11 Democrats and 13 Republicans.
Presidential Politics and Gun Laws
Statistically, Americans most likely to own guns are men, whites and southerners… not by coincidence, the demographics of the so-called swing vote that often decides the victors of presidential and other national elections.
Former President Barack Obama believes "that the country must do 'whatever it takes' to eradicate gun violence… but he believes in an individual's right to bear arms." A full transcript of his 2013 remarks on gun violence are provided by ABC News…
In contrast, U.S. Senator John McCain, reaffirmed his unequivocal support of unfettered gun laws, saying on the day of the Virginia Tech massacre: "I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has, in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to carry a weapon."
Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and subsequent student-led protests in 2018, President Donald Trump tweeted on March 28: "THE SECOND AMENDMENT WILL NEVER BE REPEALED!"