Historical Brief

Gun Control
Updated:
October 2, 2021
Published:
September 10, 2021
Introduction
Terms
Policy Development Timeline
Major Mass Shootings Timeline
Why this information is important

This section will help you understand the history that contextualizes the narrative, policy, and contemporary issues debates highlighted later in this topic guide.

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”?

This topic guide will address the historical, partisan, and factual context fueling that debate. By the end of this document, you will have the information to discuss gun control with your students without inadvertently being partisan. You can even pass parts (or all) of this guide to your students.

Terms

  • Open Carry.  Open carry is the act of visibly carrying a firearm in public. These laws vary by state legislation and by the level of openness allowed. There are four variations of open carry laws.
  • Concealed Carry.  Concealed carry is the act of hiding a firearm on one's person for the general purpose of self-defense.
  • Background Check.  Background checks are informational searches that firearm sellers use to ensure buyers are eligible to own a firearm. The  National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) system provides full service in 30 states, five U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. The NICS delivers partial service to seven states. The remaining 13 states perform their checks through the NICS.
  • Mass Shooting.  The definition of a mass shooting varies based on the number of individuals shot, killed, or injured. According to the Gun Violence Archive, if four or more people are shot or killed in a single incident not involving the shooter, that incident is categorized as a mass shooting based purely on that numerical threshold. The Congressional Research Service excludes terrorism or violence with a means to an end (like robbery) from the definition of a mass shooting. In 2013, Congress defined mass killing as a single incident that leaves three or more people dead.  
  • Serial Number.  A serial number is a unique identifier assigned to a particular firearm. Gun serial numbers are used in gun registration and usually link back to an owner who must hold a firearms license.
  • Ghost Guns.  Otherwise known as 3-D printed firearms, ghost guns are privately manufactured, do not contain a serial number, and are untraceable. Private citizens are capable of purchasing a 3-D printer and downloading component instruction files.
  • NRA.  The National Rifle Association is a citizen-funded organization. The NRA labels itself as an organization devoted to promoting safe gun ownership. The NRA has over 125,000 certified instructors who train about 1,000,000 gun owners a year. 
  • GOA.  Gun Owners of America is a non-profit lobbying organization formed in 1976 to preserve the Second Amendment rights of gun owners. GOA sees firearms ownership as a freedom issue.
  • March for Our Lives.  Following the Stoneman Douglas school shooting, March for Our Lives led to a significant event in D.C. calling for increased gun control. March for Our Lives policy priorities can be found here.

Firearm Components

  • Receiver.  The firearm frame or receiver integrates other firearm components by providing housing for internal action components.
  • Assault Weapon. The definition varies among regulating jurisdictions but it usually includes semi-automatic firearms with a detachable magazine, a pistol grip, and sometimes other features such as a vertical forward grip, flash suppressor, or barrel shroud (full gun term glossary linked below).
  • Semi-Automatic.  These firearms are self-reloading and discharge one round for each pull of the trigger.  Automatic weapons keep firing as long as you hold a trigger.
  • Pump Action.  These firearms require physically discharging a used bullet casing from the chamber.
  • Magazine.  A magazine is a device for holding a supply of cartridges to be fed into the chamber of a gun. 
  • Caliber & Gauge.  Caliber refers to the size of the ammunition used in a firearm.  The five most common ammo types are .22LR, 9mm, .308, .223, and 12 gauge. (Parts and Features of Firearms)
  • Glossary of Other Related Gun Terms.
Bryant Archway

Policy Development Timeline

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 government.

The National Firearms Act [NFA] (1934)

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.

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 Junior, 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 and expanding ownership prohibitions. It also broadened the definition of a firearm beyond the scope of the National Firearms Act (NFA) and redefined firearm offenses to be inclusive of 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 that explicitly deemed it illegal for mentally ill individuals to own a firearm. It is the strictest federal legislation to be enforced thus far.

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.

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 and magazines that held more than ten rounds of ammunition. The law passed with an overwhelmingly bipartisan 96-4 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 because of the policy's relative inefficiency. 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 technically legal under the ban. The Act's renewal ultimately did not pass, resuming the production and distribution of previously prohibited firearms.

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)

Before District of Columbia v. Heller, it was illegal to register and own a handgun. Some exceptions were made as police granted short-term licenses to candidates who provided a valid reason.  However, this law was challenged by Respondent Dick Heller after he was forbidden to register a handgun he wished to keep in his home. He argued that the law violated the provisions of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. Even though the district court refused his case, he later challenged the decision in the higher D.C. Circuit. The circuit court sided with Heller. The existing law was deemed unconstitutional, lifting the ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. There was another provision of the existing law that remained unchanged though. It stated that all other firearms, such as rifles and shotguns, had to be disassembled or locked by a trigger lock when not in use.

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 (Present)

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 the term 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 are reliant on law-abiding citizens to act responsibly and follow the rules. There is no explicit method on how to track the production of ghost guns.

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.

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 the majority 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

The Columbine High School shooting was the worst high school shooting to its date and added 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 semiautomatic 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. He attended the congregation that night, appearing as an average churchgoer, before opening fire. 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, which contributed 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 which emphasized the lethality of bump stocks. The addition of a bump stock on his semiautomatic weapon allowed the shooter to continuously fire into the crowd without having to reset his trigger.

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 ended up taking the lives of 26 people. During an exchange of gunfire with an armed civilian, he was killed. An investigation revealed that the shooter had multiple weapons in his car and had previously applied for a right-to-carry permit but was denied. 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 background checks. It simultaneously raised the question of what would have happened had the civilian not been armed.

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.

2019: El Paso, Texas Walmart

A man began opening fire on customers and workers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, 650 miles from his residence in Allen, Texas. Armed with an AK-47, the shooter killed 23 people and injured 23 others. Unlike other mass shootings, authorities strongly considered this a hate crime considering the distance the shooter traveled and the high Hispanic population in El Paso. Additionally, they suspected the shooter of writing an online white nationalist manifesto. Local and state representatives called for greater gun control. However, Attorney General Ken Paxton believed gun control would have done little to prevent the attack.

2021: Boulder, Colorado supermarket and Atlanta, Georgia spa shootings in the same week

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.

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