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Updated February 2013  

What are the latest developments in the U.S. gun control controversy?

The gun control controversy has resurfaced in the aftermath of two recent indiscriminate deadly shootings involving automatic weapons. In July 2012 a crazed gunman opened fire in a crowded Colorado movie theatre, killing 12. An even more horrific incident occurred in December 2012 when a mentally ill young man attacked a school in Connecticut, killing 26 people including 20 kindergarten children. In the wake of these incidents there has been a renewed call for an assault weapon ban and restricting access of mentally ill persons to such weaponry.

It remains to be seen whether renewed gun control fervor will continue since gun control has not been a politically popular issue in recent years. Fewer Americans are supportive of gun control in general  and handgun control in particular.    While the issue has dropped in overall public concern, it remains what politicians consider a "wedge issue" as many opponents of gun control are passionate about their right to unfettered gun ownership and may make voting decisions on this issue alone. The percentage of Americans who consider "gun control" as an important issue has been low until it again rose in the aftermath of these shootings..

What is the present level of gun control in the United States?

Like many other aspects of public policy, gun control is a matter of federal, state and even local legislation. There are constitutional limits to gun control as a 2008 Supreme Court decisions determined that the 2nd Amendment protects gun ownership. The ruling does not prevent reasonable efforts at gun control but it does prohibit the kind of outright ban of handguns that has existed in Washington D.C..

  • Federal Gun Control

    The first major gun control initiative was enacted by Congress in 1934 which regulated the sale of fully automatic firearms like machine guns. This legislation was followed in 1938 by a new federal law which required gun sellers to be licensed and which prohibited persons convicted of violent felonies from purchasing guns. No further legislation was passed by Congress until 1968. The Gun Control Act of 1968 regulated imported guns, expanded gun-dealer licensing requirements, and expanded the list of persons not eligible to purchase guns to include persons convicted of any non-business related felony, minors, persons found to be mentally incompetent, and users of illegal drugs. In 1986, federal legislation established mandatory penalties for the use of a gun in the commission of a federal crime. Also prohibited were "cop killer" bullets capable of penetrating bulletproof clothing. In 1990, legislation was passed which banned the manufacturing and importation of semi-automatic assault weapons.

    In 1994, Congress passed what has been regarded as the most comprehensive effort at national gun control. The "Brady Bill" named for the press aide who was seriously injured in the assassination attempt on President Reagan imposed a five day waiting period for purchasers of handguns and required local law enforcement authorities to conduct background checks of all purchasers. The Supreme Court held that the background check provision was unconstitutional because it infringed on state's rights. Presently, the law has been revised so that the background check is instantly accomplished by gun dealers through a national computer system and there is no longer a waiting period. Also in 1994, Congress passed a ban on certain types of assault weapons. This ban expired in 2004. By a narrow margin , the Senate voted to extend the ban but the House did not take action and the ban was allowed to expire. Efforts to revive the ban have been unsuccessful.

  • State and local gun control

    Guns are additionally regulated by state and local legislation and there is little uniformity among the states.  (Click to see map) The major regulatory issues are:

    • Child Access Prevention laws

      Many states have passed legislation making it a crime to leave a loaded weapon within easy access of a minor.

    • Concealed weapon laws

      About seven states prohibit concealed weapons. Many others require an individual to show a need prior to obtaining a license to carry a concealed weapon. In over half the states, all non-felons are able to obtain licenses to carry concealed weapons. Only one state, Vermont, has no licensing or permit requirement.

    • Regulation of private sales to minors

      Under federal law, minors under 18 are prohibited from possessing guns and minor under 21 are prohibited from purchasing guns from dealers. However, unless regulated by state law, minors 18 and over are able to freely purchase weapons through private sales. Currently 21 states either prohibit or substantially regulate this secondary market for minors.

    • Regulating all secondary market sales

      Over twenty states regulate all secondary sales through registration or licensing requirements. In the states that have no such regulation, the secondary market allows minors and criminals to easily obtain weapons. This is the so-called "gun show" loophole.

    • Ban on "assault" weapons

      In 1989, California was the first state to ban certain types of automatic weapons. More extensive bans have been enacted in New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut and Maryland.

    • "One handgun a month" laws

      Many purchasers (felons and minors) have circumvented federal law by purchasing firearms from individuals who have legally made bulk purchases of handguns. Four states (South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and California) have laws that limit legal purchases of handguns to one a month per buyer.

    • Ban on "Saturday Night Specials" and other "junk guns"

      These are small, easily concealed lightweight guns which are unreliable but have appeal to criminals because of their portability. A minority of states have laws which regulate the purchase and use of these weapons. Additionally, local laws in a number of cities outlaw the possession of these weapons.

    • Preemption

      The majority of states have laws which prohibit local authorities from passing local gun control ordinances. These "preemption" laws have been supported by the opponents of gun control. Officials in cities which are able to pass such ordinances, such as New York, credit their existence to a dramatic reduction in violent crime.

    • Waiting periods

      Although background checks are no longer necessary under federal law, about half the states still use state data in addition to federal data to conduct background checks prior to issuing a handgun permit. Eleven of these states impose waiting periods as well.

How many guns are there?

According a 1994 Department of Justice survey, about 35% of American households own 192 million firearms of which handguns constituted 35% of the total.  (Click to see chart)    Polling data shows that the actual household ownership rate is higher.   Gun sales, has evidenced by Brady background check data, have significantly increased in 2008 and there are reports that they have increased further in 2009 based on concerns that a Democratic administration and Congress would bring in a new era of regulation. cbs Slightly less than half of gun owners own both handguns and shotguns or rifles.    The typical gun owner is male, middle class, college educated and lives in a small town or rural area. Gun ownership varies greatly by region and there is a significant correlation between the percentage of handgun ownership and the rate of gun-related homicide.

How effective have gun control efforts been?

It is possible that recent gun control legislation has accomplished some of its goals. Although less than 3% of gun applications have been denied since the enactment of the Brady bill, most of the denials have kept guns from felons.    The total amount deaths due to guns significantly decreased in the 1990's but has the rate of decrease has leveled off in this decade.     Handgun use is the overwhelming cause of such injuries and fatalities.    Because most gun injuries and deaths result from criminal assault and homicide , part of the decrease is certainly due to the overall decrease in the crime rate. The domestic production of handguns decreased in the early years of the 21st century but it has again increased.    The number of approved Brady background checks also indicates a steady rate of firearm ownership.

But gun control activists still believe that it is far to easy for criminals to obtain guns and that an alarming proportion of the population remains armed. Their concern has been fueled by an unprecedented recent rash of school shootings and fatalities. Many experts are blaming this phenomena on violent video games and poor parenting but in each case the youths involved had easy access to the weapons that they used. Gun control advocates support measures which would require trigger locks on all guns and which would apply the provisions of the Brady bill to gun shows. Gun control advocate groups also advocate a federal law authorizing only one handgun purchase per month and raising the age for gun ownership from 18 to 21.

On the other hand, opposition to gun control led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) remains fierce and passionate. These gun owners maintain that an unregulated right to bear arms is guaranteed to citizens by the 2nd amendment and this position received support in a Supreme Court decision issued in 2008 which disallowed a Washington D.C. complete ban on handguns. Opponents of gun control argue that gun owners often use their weapons to deter crime and that handguns are most commonly used for this purpose. Some studies have shown that such defensive use of weapons occurs at a much greater rate than the extent to which weapons are used in criminal activity although the validity of these studies is in dispute. Gun control opponents are generally law abiding citizens who put greater trust in individualism than in the government to protect their safety. They are concerned that each step toward greater gun control will lead to the eventual confiscation of all firearms. Gun control opponent groups spend far more than gun control supporters on campaign contributions.

How do other countries regulate guns?

Almost all major countries have systems for registration of firearms. Most major countries do permit the ownership of handguns. Many countries ban ownership of certain types of weapons although some have no restrictions. No country has anywhere near the rate of gun ownership as in the United States and there is a correspondingly high gun homicide rate. But other countries such as Canada have a significant degree of gun ownership yet a low rate of gun homicide. The Mexican gun homicide rate reflects the drug trafficking problem in that country. Most of the guns involved have been smuggled in from the neighboring United States.

How do Democrats and Republicans differ on gun control?

Although Democrats tend to support gun control proposals and Republicans do not, the relative unimportance of the issue to most Americans has resulted in a paucity of successful gun control leglisation at any level in the past decade. Moreover, the opposition of gun proponents to all forms of gun control has remained fierce. Gun control opponents raise far more money than do gun control advocates.   In 1999 the Senate narrowly voted to regulate gun shows   and more substantially supported a measure for trigger locks   but no action was taken by the House with respect to either proposal. In April 2004, the Senate again voted for handgun locks  but the House did not consider the measure and the issue has not recently been resurrected. Supporters of gun control measures are instead on the defensive as Congressional votes have increased rather than restricted gun rights. For example, continued Amtrak funding was conditioned on a provision allowing guns to be in checked luggage.

More Information on Gun Control:

News Sites:
Current stories and links from Yahoo.com
Wikipedia-Gun Politics

Anti gun control sites:
2nd Amendment Home Page
Firearms Rights
Gun Owners of America
Gun Owners' Action League
National Rifle Association

Pro gun control sites:
Violence Policy Center

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Government Sites:
Firearm Injury and Death from Crime, 1993-97, Department of Justice
Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms

Gun Control Charts
(click to enlarge)

Public Support of Stricter Gun Control 1999-2009

Percentage of Americans Favoring Handgun Ban 1959-2008

Political Funding on Gun Issues

Extension of Assault Weapon Ban

Evaluation of State Gun Control Laws 2008

Gun Ownership in 1994

Households Reporting Gun Ownership 1999-2009

Types of Guns Owned

Rate of Firearm Deaths and Firearm Ownership By State

Reasons for Denial of Gun Purchase Applications By FBI, 1999-2003

Violence-Related Firearm Death Rates per 100,000

Type of Weapon Used in Firearm Deaths in 2003

Cause of Firearm Injury or Death

Handgun Production in the U.S.

Brady Background Check Approvals 1998-2008

International Comparison of Gun Ownership and Gun Homicide Rate

Congressional Vote on the Brady Bill 1993

Senate Vote on Regulating Gun Shows

Senate Vote on Handgun Locks

Permitting Firearms on Checked Amtrak Luggage