Historical Brief

Gun Control
Updated:
Mar 22, 2022
Published:
Mar 22, 2022

Introduction

Less than 20 years after the Revolutionary War, Anti-federalist Americans felt that the U.S. Constitution did not provide adequate safeguards for the rights of the people. Soon after, the Bill of Rights was signed in 1791, containing ten amendments to the Constitution. The Second Amendment states, “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.” That clause is the basis of the gun control debate today: should Americans still have the right to keep and bear arms? If so, what qualifies as “arms”?

Part I: Founding Vision

Ratification & the Founder’s Vision for the Second Amendment (1791)

The Founders wrote the Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties that the British monarchy threatened during their colonial rule. The Second Amendment was ratified in 1791 and writes, “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 Amendment ensures that citizens have a means of protecting themselves against a potentially tyrannical federal government. 

Part II: Gun Control Measures and Pushback

The National Firearms Act [NFA] (1934)

Atlantic

The National Firearms Act (NFA), passed in 1934 by the Roosevelt administration, was the first significant piece of federal gun control legislation. In response to growing gun violence related to gangs, the Act authorized higher taxes on firearms production. It required all manufactured firearms to be registered with the Secretary of Treasury. 

National Rifle Association (1934)

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the most well-known lobbying groups in politics. Its influence on gun legislation in D.C. and state legislatures across the nation is perhaps unparalleled. So how did the NRA grow to become one of the most influential organizations in the country? Two Civil War veterans formed the NRA in 1871, but the group did not enter the political world until 1934 when it started mailing members about upcoming gun legislation. The NRA supported two significant pieces of gun control, the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968. However, it did not get significantly involved in political lobbying until the 1970s. In 1975, the organization formed an official lobbying arm, followed by a Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1977. Since then, the group has opposed nearly every piece of meaningful gun control legislation.

Officially, the NRA contributes millions each year to influence gun policy, but it spends much more on independent efforts outside candidates’ campaigns. Its monetary influence aside, the organization has a large politically active membership and grades members of Congress based on their position on gun policy, which can significantly influence its base’s votes. As of late, however, the NRA seems to be losing some of its lobbying power. Its spending has plummeted as estimates show gun control advocates may have outspent it for the first time in 2018. Additionally, it faces legal challenges as in 2020, the New York state attorney general filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, alleging its executives had misused funds. Though the NRA tried to declare bankruptcy and reincorporate in Texas, in May 2021, a judge dismissed that case, forcing them to face the New York lawsuit.

The Federal Firearms Act [FFA] (1938)

The Federal Firearms Act (FFA) followed shortly after the NFA. It established a licensing protocol and outlined who could and could not possess a firearm. The Act required all manufacturers and sellers to be licensed to distribute guns. In addition, the Act barred convicted criminals from owning a firearm. As a result, sellers were required to keep track of all transactions, ensuring that no potentially dangerous person obtained a firearm. The FFA was repealed in 1968 by the Gun Control Act (GCA), which revised, combined, and reenacted some provisions of the FFA. Known as the Firearms License system, the FFA's licensing protocol was the most critical provision to be merged into the GCA. The new and improved licensing protocol tightened the law to specify that only a federally licensed dealer could carry out interstate purchases.

United States v. Miller (1939)

The Supreme Court case of United States v. Miller challenged the constitutionality of the National Firearms Act (NFA). According to court documents, Jack Miller and Frank Layton transported a sawed-off double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun across state lines, and the court accused them of engaging in illegal private interstate commerce. An Arkansas district court dismissed the case and sided with the defendant's argument that the NFA violated the Second Amendment right to bear arms. However, the state government appealed the decision and brought the case before the Supreme Court. The justices unanimously concluded that the transportation of the specific shotgun model had no relation to the preservation of a militia. Therefore, because the Second Amendment did not justify their actions, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s dismissal and upheld the NFA. 

The Gun Control Act of 1968 (1968)

Following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Congress introduced and passed the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968. The Act revised the Federal Firearms Act of 1938 by implementing a stricter licensing protocol, expanding ownership prohibitions, and broadening the federal definition of a firearm. The GCA redefined firearm offenses to include new categories of gun-related violence. It also restricted various models of imported firearms, though it did not control domestic production of those same models. It is the first Act to explicitly deem it illegal for mentally ill individuals to own a firearm. 

The Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986)

The Firearm Owners' Protection Act (FOPA) modified the Gun Control Act (GCA) without entirely repealing the legislation. Its main goal was to loosen federal control over gun rights. The provisions relaxed restrictions on ammunition production and interstate sales outlined by the GCA and repealed some requirements for licensed sellers and buyers. Additionally, it blocked the federal government from having a national database to monitor sales and purchases and explicitly banned authorities from searching the premises of a seller or manufacturer without a warrant. While the GCA still enforced many regulations, the FOPA emphasized state power over federal control.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993)

After the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan and the shooting of his press secretary, Jim Brady, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was introduced in 1987. Six years later, the Clinton administration signed it into law. The Act created a national criminal background check system to ensure that only legal buyers could obtain a firearm. Initially, the Act only applied to handguns, but lawmakers rewrote it to include shotguns and rifles in 1998. The Act mandated a minimum five-day interim period before selling to unlicensed buyers. Eventually, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System made the entire process more efficient and reduced the interim period to three days.

Part III: The Modern Gun Debate

Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act (1994)

The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, also known as the Assault Weapons Ban, prohibited the manufacture, transfer, and civilian ownership of assault-style rifles, listed manufacturers by name, and magazines that held more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The law was passed by a 52-48 vote in the Senate. The Act included a “sunset provision,” a compromise that meant it would automatically be repealed after a decade unless renewed by the sitting Congress in 2004. 

In 2004, Congress failed to renew the Act. Research shows that while the ban was effective at preventing mass shootings, rates of handgun violence remained essentially unchanged. The original bill also included many loopholes. For example, the provisions did not entirely ban assault weapons; some older models were initially legal under the ban. Once the law expired, the production and distribution of these firearms became legal again.

The Tiahrt Amendment (2003)

A year before the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban, Congress approved the Tiahrt Amendments, a challenge to federal control over gun purchases and similar restrictions. The amendments prohibited the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) from publicizing firearm trace data. It also required all approved gun purchaser data to be deleted within 24 hours of approval and removed the requirement for dealers to submit their inventory information to legal authorities. While the Left found the Act detrimental to gun violence prevention, the Right saw the amendments as necessary relief of undue burdens while attempting to exercise their constitutional right to sell and purchase firearms.

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (2005)

The federal government's gun rights stance did not change following the 2003 Tiahrt Amendments and the failure to renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005 barred civil liability cases from naming manufacturers and sellers of firearms or ammunition as defendants. The Act's purpose was to prevent the unjust liability of gun manufacturers in situations where a third party misuses the weapon. Therefore, the Act prohibited naming gun manufacturers and suppliers in civil cases. 

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

In 2008, a strict D.C. gun law essentially banned handgun possession in the District, with exemptions for law enforcement officers and those with a one-year license from the police chief. Dick Heller, a special police officer in D.C., applied for a permit to keep a handgun at home, but the police chief denied his application. Heller sued the District, asking for an injunction to prevent the law’s enforcement, saying it violated his Second Amendment rights. In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Heller, finding the D.C. law unconstitutional. 

The Court found that the Second Amendment grants an individual the right to possess a firearm, even when unconnected to service in a militia. This 2008 case was the first time the Supreme Court considered a Second Amendment case since United States v. Miller in 1939. The Court rejected the traditional 20th-century interpretation of its Miller decision that the Second Amendment granted a collective rather than individual right. The “collective right” interpretation argues that the right to bear arms extends only to an individual’s service in a militia. The case represented a significant win for the gun lobby, which had advocated for the “individual right” view for many years. In 2019, former Associate Justice John Paul Stephens penned an opinion piece for The Atlantic calling the Heller decision “the Supreme Court’s worst decision of [his] tenure.”

March for Our Lives (2018)

Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, gun control advocates and students pressured lawmakers to take action against the growing gun violence issue in the United States. Survivors of the shooting began the March for Our Lives movement. This nationwide protest garnered massive media and political attention. Since then, student voices have become more prominent and prompted some gun rights and gun control advocates to be more vocal about policy decisions.

3-D Printed Gun Policy (2019)

A recent topic of concern for gun control advocates is the rise in ghost guns and 3D-printed gun parts. In 2019, the 3D Printed Gun Safety Act was introduced in the 116th Congress, though it failed to receive a majority vote. The Act would have made it unlawful to publish instructions online on programming a 3-D printer to create a fully operational firearm. However, the bill was recently reintroduced to garner more support with the Democratic-leaning 117th Congress.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) recently redefined Ghost guns to encompass privately made firearms. In other words, Ghost guns are firearms that cannot be traced by the federal government, allowing prohibited buyers to purchase firearms from private sellers. The law would potentially require makers of privately made firearms to be licensed and register their weapons after production. However, the provisions rely on law-abiding citizens to act responsibly and follow the rules. There is no explicit method for tracking the production of ghost guns.

Part IV: Major Mass Shootings Timeline

While all mass shootings carry significant consequences concerning policymaking, a certain handful of tragedies have created significant political and social responses. 

Content Warning

The following list goes over the basic incident reports from mass shootings.

1966: University of Texas Clock Tower

The University of Texas clock tower shooting was the first mass shooting to be covered in the era of mass media. It was aired repeatedly on major news networks. A student and former marine camped atop the tower and killed 14 individuals after killing his wife and mother. He killed most of his victims within 15 minutes of arriving at the clock tower. Before his rampage, he visited a psychiatrist, where he expressed concern regarding his recent feelings of violent impulses but never returned after that session. It was later revealed that a tumor was potentially pushing against his amygdala, hindering his ability to control his fight-or-flight responses. While little was done to respond to the potential correlation between mental health and mass shootings, the shooting led to new preventive security measures nationwide and across college campuses. These measures included creating more Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and introducing new terminology like “active shooter” to make communication easier for law officials.

1999: Columbine High School

At the time, the Columbine High School shooting was the worst high school shooting ever, adding more fuel to the rising political debate regarding gun control. Two students began their rampage outside the school: After only 16 minutes, the pair had killed 12 students and one teacher, in addition to injuring 20 others. Their original plan was to set off two propane bombs in the school, but they began their shooting spree when the bombs did not detonate. The tragedy had a lasting impact on the gun control debate, as it was the first major mass shooting to happen at a high school. Additionally, people across the nation watched the shooting unfold on national news networks, watching the police search the campus and urgently evacuating students. The shooting felt personal even to those who did not have a direct connection to Columbine.

2007: Virginia Tech

The Virginia Tech shooting is the most deadly school shooting in U.S. history. The shooter used two handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition to take the lives of 32 people, including himself, injuring over a dozen others as well. In the wake of the shooting, universities and colleges took significant steps to ensure the safety of their students, such as enforcing new emergency student response protocols and text messaging alert systems. The shooter had been diagnosed with selective mutism and had seen a counselor prior to the shooting. It rekindled concerns about the potential relationship between mental health and gun violence.

2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School 

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting prompted an especially visceral public response due to the age of the victims. Twenty children (mostly aged 6 and 7) and six adults were killed with two semi-automatic pistols, an AR-15, and a shotgun. The tragedy sparked debate about the relevance of the Second Amendment in the era of high-capacity assault rifles. Many gun control activists drew attention to the type of weapon and the magazines the shooter obtained, which would have been illegal under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that expired in 2004. 

2015: Charleston Church Shooting

In 2015, a white supremacist targeted a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing eight church attendants and the pastor. Before opening fire, he attended the congregation that night, appearing as an average churchgoer. A survivor recalled the shooter saying African Americans were “taking over the country” before shooting, a clear racially-driven motive. The trial unveiled the shooter’s white supremacist beliefs and radicalization, contributing to his death sentence. The shooting was the first mass shooting in recent history that overtly targeted a racial minority and sparked debates surrounding race and the confederate flag, which was featured in photos the shooter published of himself online.

2016: Pulse Nightclub

The Pulse nightclub mass shooting was, at the time, the worst mass shooting in modern United States history. Over three hours, 49 people were killed, and 53 others were injured. Because the shooting took place at a known gay bar during Pride month, it sparked a tremendous response online. It is unclear if the act was rooted in prejudice. Despite the horrific nature of the shooting, the Florida legislature rejected four gun-control measures the day after the massacre. Gun sales increased in the days after the shooting.

2017: Las Vegas Music Festival

During a Las Vegas country music festival, a man began shooting from a hotel room 32 floors above ground towards the large crowd below. He continued for 10 minutes, leaving 58 dead and over 500 people injured. After the shooting, police uncovered 23 firearms in his room and 19 more in his home. It remains the worst mass shooting in American history, prompting heated political debate around the lethality of bump stocks. The addition of a bump stock on his semiautomatic weapon allowed the shooter to fire into the crowd more rapidly than single-fire.

2017: Sutherland Springs Church

Shortly after the Las Vegas music festival shooting, another mass shooting occurred at a rural church in Texas. A young man began shooting outside the church and took the lives of 26 people. During an exchange of gunfire with an armed civilian, and multiple gunshot wounds, he took his own life. An investigation revealed that the shooter had multiple weapons in his car, though Texas officials had previously denied him a right-to-carry permit. Additionally, he was discharged from the Air Force for bad behavior and had two charges of assaulting his spouse and child. With the newly revealed information, debates ensued about the efficacy of the current background checks system. It simultaneously raised the question of what would have happened had the civilian not been armed.

2017: Congressional Baseball Practice

The Congressional Baseball game is a collegial sporting event between Republicans and Democrats where both sides get together at Nationals Park for the public to watch. Weeks prior to the game, a man armed with an SKS rifle and a 9mm handgun opened fire at a baseball practice where 24 Republican members of Congress and over a half-dozen other people had gathered the day before their annual fundraising ballgame against the Democratic team. During an FBI briefing in November 2017, the bureau designated the attack as "suicide by cop," to which several members of Congress protested calling the event an attempted assassination. The shooting left Congressional Whip Steve Scalise hospitalized with several others injured.

2018: Stoneman Douglas High School

Years after the last deadly school shooting, another tragedy occurred on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Florida. An expelled student arrived at Stoneman Douglas High School with a legally purchased AR-15 and proceeded to kill 17 people, injuring 17 others. Following the shooting, concerns surrounded his legal purchase of these weapons and past behavior. The school shooting led to the most profound response from gun control activists yet, initiating student walkouts across the country and creating March for Our Lives, a demonstration led by survivors of the shooting. Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill requiring all buyers to be 21 years of age and a 3-day waiting period for any firearm transaction.

2018: Tree of Life Synagogue

Pittsburgh SWAT apprehends a man screaming that he "wanted all Jews to die" and that he thought the Jewish community was "committing genocide to his people.” The attack on the Synagogue left 11 worshipers dead in a clear anti-Semitic shooting. The shooting became a larger conversation about armed security and the death penalty when President Trump called the incident preventable. He also urged prosecutors to seek the death penalty, which is possible depending on the outcome of the shooter’s 2022 proceedings.

2021: Boulder, Colorado supermarket and Atlanta, Georgia Spa

In one week, the country grieved the victims of two tragic mass shootings. On March 16, 2021, a man went from spa to spa in Atlanta, Georgia, killing anyone he saw. At the end of the rampage, he had killed six women of Asian descent and two others. Prosecutors sought to indict him with hate-crime charges in addition to charges of murder. His defense labeled the act as an aggressive outburst against his sex addiction, for which he had visited the spas for prostitution.

Six days later, on March 22, 2021, another tragedy occurred at a local grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A shooter entered the store with a Ruger AR-556 pistol he legally purchased just a week before the incident, killing 10. While not related to each other, the unlikely proximity of the two shootings in the same week was worrisome for many gun control proponents. The Biden administration subsequently called for stricter gun laws.

2021: Oxford High School

A 15-year-old student opened fire on Tuesday, November 30th, at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan. Four students were killed, and another seven were injured. The gunman used a handgun his father had just bought four days prior, an alleged Christmas gift for his son. Many students decided to stay home on the day of the shooting, as rumors had circulated regarding a possible attack. Administrators had previously spoken out on these rumors, saying they were just speculation. However, the shooter had previously exhibited many warning signs.  Days before the shooting, a teacher caught the suspect searching for ammunition on his phone. On another occasion, a teacher found a drawing that depicted a gun and a figure of a student with gunshot wounds.  School officials met with the parents that day, presenting these concerns and suggesting counseling. However, the parents refused to have their son removed from school that day. Hours later, he began to shoot. 

The gunman was charged with one count of terrorism causing death and four counts of first-degree murder. A few days later, prosecutors charged the parents with involuntary manslaughter, as they bought the semiautomatic handgun used in the shooting as a Christmas gift.

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