Gun politics in the United States

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US Firearms Legal Topics:
Assault weapons ban
Brady Handgun Act
BATFE (law enforcement)
Firearm case law
Gun Control Act of 1968
Gun politics in the US
Gun Control (in USA by state)
National Firearms Act
2nd Amendment
Straw purchase
Sullivan Act (New York)
Violent Crime Control Act

The degree to which firearms can or should be regulated has long been debated in the United States, although no federal gun control of any form existed for the first 158 years of the country's history. Disagreements range from the practical (does gun ownership cause or prevent crime?) to the constitutional (how should one interpret the second amendment?).

Contents

Constitutional issues

The private ownership of guns is an especially contentious political topic in the United States, where the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states (this text is disputed):

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.

The meaning of this text remains fiercely debated, with some saying that the amendment only refers to official bodies under government control (such as the National Guard) and others saying that the amendment always guaranteed the right of independent individuals to possess and carry firearms. The first side argues that only "well regulated militia" have the right to keep and bear Arms, with debates over what, exactly 'the militia' is. Others say the phrase "the people" uncontroversially applies to individuals, as recent court rulings assert, rather than an organized collective. See Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Judicial rulings

The US Supreme Court has never directly ruled on the actual meaning of the Second Amendment, despite having had a variety of opportunities to do so. Gun rights advocates point out that the court has made statements that refer to this right as an individual right, although these statements are found in cases unrelated to the Second Amendment. Gun control advocates point out that the US Supreme Court has never taken a Second Amendment case and used it to strike down any gun control law. Federal circuit courts currently have conflicting rulings on the subject. For some of the opinions from the US Supreme Court which mention the right to keep and bear arms as an individual right of citizens, see cases: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), U.S. v. Cruikshank, Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992), Poe v. Ullman, Konigsberg v. State Bar, Duncan v. Louisiana, Laird v. Tatum, Spencer v. Kemna (1998), Albright v. Oliver, United States v. Lopez and U.S. v. Verdugo-Urquidez. For a comprehensive related list, see firearm court cases.

Executive branch positions

The de facto position of the Executive Branch from 1934 until 2002 was that the Second Amendment protects a collective right, based on an interpretation of US v. Miller. In 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Solicitor General Theodore Olson announced their interpretation that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, including a different interpretation of US v Miller to support their arguments.

Practical Questions

Gun control advocates and opponents disagree on more practical questions as well. There is an ongoing debate over the role that guns play in crime. Gun-rights groups claim that a well-armed citizenry prevents crime, while gun control organizations claim that increased gun ownership leads to higher levels of crime, suicide, and other negative outcomes. Questions of regulatory policy include:

  • Types of firearm –Should some types of firearms be regulated differently than others?
  • Criteria of eligibility – Are there criteria that disqualify a person from owning firearms? (Possible criteria include age, mental competence, firearm training, and felony conviction)
  • Background checks – Should there be background checks made to verify eligibility to own a firearm? Who should make them, and should there be a waiting period before a firearm can be sold?
  • Registration – Should all firearms and firearm owners be registered? If so, how may the registration information be used, and who should have access to it?
  • Concealed weapons – Should carry of a concealed weapon be regulated? If so, should concealed carry be regulated separately from ownership, and if so, how?
  • Enforcement –Once firearms policy is decided, will it be official policy to enforce these laws and how can they be enforced? (refer to Janet Reno's published statements regarding the near zero enforcement of firearms laws against known criminals as not being a priority)

People on both sides claim that the gun rights lobby is among the most effective and organized single-issue political groups in the United States. However, in-spite of that common perception and the best efforts of the gun rights lobby, the gun control/gun ban lobby has still managed to enact many gun control laws.

Self-defense

Both sides actively debate the relevance of self-defense in modern society. Some scholars, such as John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, claim to have discovered a positive correlation between gun control legislation and crimes in which criminals victimize law-abiding citizens. Lott asserts that criminals ignore gun control laws, and are effectively deterred by armed intended victims.

Advocates of gun control, however, assert that because criminals obtain guns by stealing them from law-abiding gun owners, restricting their availability would decrease supply to the criminal element. They also assert that higher rates of gun ownership increase the number of crimes of passion.

Non-defensive uses of guns, such as hunting, varmint control and the sport of target shooting, are often lost in the debate despite being the most common reasons for private gun ownership. This is perhaps because focusing on defense allows for the broadest coverage of firearms, and some say the most in tune with the intent of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution

The numbers of lives saved or lost by gun ownership are hotly debated. Problems include the difficulty of accounting accurately for confrontations in which no shots are fired, and jurisdictional differences in the definition of "crime". For example, some have argued that American statistics tend to over-count violent crimes, while English statistics tend to under-count them.

Proponents of gun control frequently argue that carrying a concealed pistol would be of no practical use for personal self-defense, while gun right advocates argue that individuals with proper firearm training are better able to defend themselves if carrying a handgun. Proponents of gun rights claim that in the US, there are up to 2.5 million incidents per year in which a lawfully-armed citizen averts being victimized by defending him or herself from a would-be attacker. Those who advance these statistics say that the deterrent effect would disproportionately benefit women, who are often targets of violent crime.

Non-crime related use

Gun control advocates argue that high levels of gun ownership lead to higher levels of suicide and accidental deaths; gun ownership advocates dispute these statistics, for example pointing out that Japan, which allows virtually no private gun ownership, has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Security against tyranny and invasion

Another position taken by gun rights advocates is that an armed citizenry is the population's last line of defense against tyranny by their own government, as many believe was one of the main intents of the Second Amendment. They note that many soldiers in the American Revolution were ordinary citizens using their privately owned firearms. Gun control advocates answer that it is unrealistic to suppose that private citizens could oppose a government which controls the full power of the US Armed Forces, were it to become tyrannical. Some gun control advocates also claim that the people's power to replace elected officials by voting is sufficient to keep the government in check.

Invasion by hostile outside forces is another reason gun rights advocates oppose registration. If captured, the associated records would provide invaders with a means of locating and eliminating law-abiding resistance fighters. Location and capture of such records is a standard doctrine taught to military intelligence officers. The risk of the capture of such records is recognized as legitimate; firearms dealers are asked to destroy their records if an invasion is underway. Registration aside, gun rights advocates claim that an armed citizenry is a strong deterrent against a foreign invasion. They frequently cite tyrants who claimed to fear invading countries where the citizenry was heavily armed, or that they needed to disarm their own populace to be effective. However, this claim is highly disputed.

In the 2003 documentary Innocents Betrayed, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership advanced the claim that gun control laws have been a critical part of all genocides in the twentieth century. The documentary referred to laws restricting gun ownership to government officials passed in Nazi Germany, the USSR, and elsewhere.

Political battle

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the largest and best-known gun rights and gun sports advocacy group. Originally formed in 1871, after the American Civil War, to promote marksmanship skills among the general population, the NRA was mainly a shooting-sports association that rose to prominence from its nationwide promotion of firearms safety, training courses and certifications it offered local shooting clubs and their members. It became a powerful lobbying force after the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which made gun control a national issue. Virtually all pro-gun-control groups see the NRA's positions as extremist, especially since Harlon Carter became the de facto policy maker at the NRA, bringing with him a more hard-line stance towards gun rights than the NRA held in the past.

In contrast, the other national gun rights groups generally take a much harder line than the NRA. These groups criticize the NRA's history of support for various gun control legislation such as the Gun Control Act of 1968, the ban on armor-piercing projectiles and the point-of-purchase background checks (NICS). The Second Amendment Sisters, Second Amendment Foundation, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, The Pink Pistols and Gun Owners of America are among the groups in this category.

While gun control is not strictly a partisan issue, there is more support for gun control in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. The only political party which is totally pro-gun is the United States Libertarian Party. Traditionally, regional differences are greater than partisan ones on this issue. Southern and Western states are predominantly pro-gun while coastal states like California, Massachusetts, and New York favor gun control. Other areas, including the Midwest, are mixed, and two, Vermont and Alaska, have absolutely no CCW (Carrying a Concealed Weapon) licensing requirements, gun registrations, or bans, and disallow local government pre-emption.

Prominent organizations and individuals

The field of political research regarding firearms suffers from the same contention as the issue of firearms itself. Almost every prominent researcher has seen their works attacked by those uncomfortable with their conclusions, and some have had their work investigated as academic fraud. Nonetheless, some influential individuals include:

Gary Kleck
Arthur Kellermann
John Lott
David Mustard
Michael Bellesiles
Clayton Cramer

Gun control laws

Fully automatic weapons have been restricted in the United States since the National Firearms Act of 1934. The only available automatic firearms to civilians are those manufactured before May 19, 1986. Private owners must obtain permission from both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF) and the county sheriff or chief of police, pass an extensive background check to include submitting a photograph and finger prints, fully register the firearm, continually update the owner's address and location of the firearm, receive ATF written permission before moving the firearm across state lines, and pay a $200 transfer tax. This process takes approximately 6 months to complete. Additionaly, the firearm can never be handled or transported by any other private individual unless the firearm's registered owner is present. Some states require state permission as well, and some states prohibit any sort of possession under any terms. Otherwise, automatic firearms are available only to police or military personnel.

The Clinton administration BATF study of illegal firearms in the black market estimated that as many as 4 million illegal fully automatic firearms had either been illegally smuggled into the USA or illegally constructed within the USA. No new legal full-autos have been manufactured for the civilian population since 1986, causing the economic rules of supply and demand to drive the prices of existing automatic weapons well above the cost of manufacturing and distributing them, making it impractical for most Americans to afford a legal automatic firearm even if they do legally qualify for it.

In the U.S., the major federal gun control legislation is the 1968 Gun Control Act, passed shortly after the assassinations of Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. The act required 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, mainly to add a mechanism for the criminal history of gun purchasers to be checked at the point of sale.

A patchwork of laws exists at state and local levels, with the state of Illinois, Washington, DC, and the city of New York having among the more restrictive limits; New York's Sullivan Act was passed in 1911. Many states implemented criminal background checks or "waiting periods" for handgun (pistol and revolver) purchasers in response to the gun control lobby in the 1980s. More recent lobbying efforts have resulted in the passage of laws making it a crime to leave guns in locations accessible to children. See also: Gun Control (in USA by state).

Concealed Carry, Licenses, and Open Carry

Recent changes in the political landscape have brought about legislative initiatives to make it legal for common citizens to carry concealed guns with them for defense. Most states have various requirements for training and licensing for concealed carry. The notable exception is Vermont, which has never had any such restrictions in its history. A handful of other states had liberalized concealed carry regulations, allowing almost all law-abiding adult citizens with appropriate training to obtain carry permits. The trend toward liberalizing concealed carry regulations, however, did not begin in earnest until 1987. In that year, Florida became the first major state to liberalize its concealed carry regulation. Many other states have followed, for a total of 37 states having such laws on the books as of April 2004. Notably, no state that has passed a shall-issue law has yet repealed it legislatively. However, Minnesota's shall-issue law was invalidated by a state appeals court in 2005 on grounds that the law was passed in violation of a provision in the state constitution that prohibited multi-issue legislation. The ruling was on appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but became moot in May of that year when a new standalone shall-issue bill was passed by the legislature and signed into law.

Like Vermont, Alaska has no requirement for a license or permit for any lawful gun owner to carry concealed handguns in public. However, unlike Vermont, Alaska has issued such permits to its residents in the past, and continues to issue new permits. There are three main reasons for this policy. First, several other states honor Alaska's permits, while no state (apart from Vermont and now Alaska) recognizes the concealed carry rights of non-residents without permits, even if carry without a permit is allowed in the person's home state. Second, all concealed carry permits in the United States, as long as they require a criminal background check, make their holders exempt from most prosecutions under the much disputed federal Gun Free School Zones Act. Finally, Alaska's permit is one of a small number of state permits that meet the federal criteria to exempt their holders from federal background checks to purchase firearms.

A state's laws regarding open carry cannot generally be inferred from its laws regarding concealed carry. Some states, for instance Arizona and Virginia, allow unlicensed open carry of handguns. Others, for instance Utah and Georgia, allow open carry only with a license; their licenses allow both concealed and open carry. Still other states, for instance Texas and Florida, categorically forbid open carry of handguns, even though they allow licensed concealed carry.

A license to carry a concealed weapon is not necessarily a license to carry one anywere. As an example, in Montana, even holders of concealed weapon licenses cannot carry firearms into banks, schools, Federal government buildings, or any establishment that sells alcoholic beverages.

The status of concealed carry laws in the USA has changed dramatically since 1986, as seen below:

1986 -  8 shall-issue states, 20 may-issue, 21 no-issue, 1 unrestricted.
2004 - 38 shall-issue states, 6 may-issue, 4 no-issue, 2 unrestricted.

Definitions:

  • Shall issue—Authorities are required to issue permits to all individuals who meet the state's issuance criteria. This category is also generally interpreted to include states where authorities have very limited discretion in permit issuance.
  • May issue—Authorities have broad discretion as to whether to issue a permit to a given individual. Some may-issue states are, for all practical purposes, no-issue. Other may-issue states have policies that vary radically from one political subdivision to another, and are considered by some a means for politicians and public officials to elicit campaign contributions and/or bribes. For example, at one time, suspected mafia members made up a significant fraction of the few people in New York City with CCW permits.
  • No-issue—Concealed carry is prohibited to the general public.
  • Unrestricted—No permit required for concealed carry.

See also

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