History of Gun Laws
The right to bear arms has long been engrained in American culture, dating back to the writing of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights in 1791. 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.” This amendment has been interpreted over the years as protecting the right of individuals to own guns, beyond just militias.
Over time, federal and state governments have enacted various gun laws to regulate firearm commerce and possession. Some of the first gun laws on the books were in the late 19th century, when several states began enacting legislation banning the concealed carrying of pistols. In the early 20th century, laws like the National Firearms Act were passed to restrict access to machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. Since then, major federal gun laws have continued to evolve, especially in response to high-profile shootings.
At the state and local level, there has always been significant variation in gun laws. Some states have relatively few restrictions, while others ban certain types of firearms or require permits to purchase guns. The debate over the appropriate level of regulation continues today between advocates for greater restrictions and supporters of the Second Amendment.
Current Federal Gun Laws
Today, federal gun laws are primarily focused on commercial sales, background checks, restrictions on types of firearms, and possession rules. Major federal laws include:
National Firearms Act (NFA)
Enacted in 1934, the NFA imposed regulations around the manufacture, sale, and possession of firearms like machine guns, short-barreled rifles, and suppressors. Individuals must undergo background checks and pay taxes to legally possess NFA firearms.
Gun Control Act (GCA)
The GCA, enacted in 1968, established rules around interstate firearm commerce and prohibited felons, drug users, and people deemed mentally incompetent from purchasing guns. It also raised the minimum age for buying handguns to 21.
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
Passed in 1993, the Brady Act mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers and imposed a 5-day waiting period to allow checks to be completed before sales by licensed dealers.
Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB)
This law, in effect from 1994 to 2004, prohibited manufacturing and transfer of semiautomatic assault weapons and large capacity magazines. Attempts to renew it have failed.
State Gun Laws
While federal laws set a minimum level of gun regulation across the US, state and local governments can enact additional restrictions or requirements around firearms. State laws vary significantly.
Concealed Carry Laws
Most states allow concealed carrying of handguns by permit, while over a dozen exempt concealed carry from any licensing. Some states prohibit concealed carry entirely.
Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground Laws
These laws authorize use of force for self-defense and remove any duty to retreat before using lethal force when under attack. Over 30 states have adopted castle doctrine or stand your ground laws.
Red Flag Laws/Extreme Risk Protection Orders
These laws allow courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others. Over a dozen states have implemented red flag laws.
Assault Weapons Bans
A handful of states, like California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have bans on certain semiautomatic rifles defined as assault weapons.
Magazine Capacity Limits
Some states restrict ammunition magazines to 10 rounds or less, which gun control advocates argue reduces lethality.
Ongoing Gun Law Debates
Key debates around gun laws continue today at both the federal and state levels:
Universal Background Checks
Requiring background checks on all firearm sales, including private transfers, has widespread public support. Attempts at passing federal universal background check legislation have stalled despite multiple attempts.
Banning Assault Weapons Nationwide
Proposals to ban semiautomatic assault rifles periodically arise at the federal level and face significant opposition from gun rights groups like the NRA.
Raising Minimum Age for Gun Purchases
In response to school shootings, proposals have been made to raise the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21. Some states have made this change, but federal action has lagged.
Allowing Concealed Carry Reciprocity
The gun lobby has pushed for federal laws requiring all states to recognize concealed carry permits issued by other states. Opponents argue this would impose the most lenient state laws on those with stronger regulations.
Gun laws in America remain a polarizing and highly complex issue entangled with the nation’s culture and history around firearms. The recurring cycle of tragedy, advocacy, and legislative stagnation around gun violence continues as both sides remain entrenched in their positions. Meaningful reform will require compromise, though a middle ground has remained elusive. With over 300 million guns already in circulation, easy solutions do not exist. Nonetheless, the urgency of reducing gun deaths should compel lawmakers to seek bipartisan progress around areas of agreement, however incremental.