Originating with the 2nd Amendment, the federal legislation and regulation of firearms serves to protect the rights of gun owners while placing limitations on gun ownership for the interest of public safety. These regulations are largely enforced by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), a division of the Department of Justice.
Even though the basic right to bear arms is outlined in the Constitution, there have been numerous acts which have been passed—often in response to specific tragedies involving guns—which have altered gun laws in the U.S.
Let us first take a look at the 2nd Amendment and major federal laws before considering the impetus behind some of these changes.
The 2nd Amendment. This Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms. However, it does not rule out the regulation of firearms. Instead, it allows statutes and regulations to be passed on firearms that pose a public safety threat and are not considered necessary to self-defense.
National Firearms Act (NFA). This act dealt primarily with the manufacture or transfer of certain firearms. These included machine guns, short barreled rifles, short barreled shotguns, and suppressors. It imposed a tax on these firearms, as well as the individuals involved with the importing, manufacturing, and dealing of these items, in order to try and decrease the sales of these kinds of firearms.
Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. This act prohibited interstate sale and transfer of handguns. It also increased the minimum age for purchase of handguns to 21.
Gun Control Act of 1968. This act focused on establishing infrastructure for the transfer of firearms across state borders. It prohibited interstate sale and transfer of firearms except by licensed bodies, and imposed punishments on those who worked outside the law.
Firearm Owners Protection Act. The act was primarily meant to revise articles of the Gun Control Act of 1968 according to the 2nd Amendment provisions. The act also reopened interstate sale of firearms as well as transportation of ammunition through the postal system. In addition it created protection for the transportation of firearms through states in which they are illegal. Additionally, the act banned the sale of machine guns.
Undetectable Firearms Act. This act made illegal any firearm that is undetectable by metal detection. It was primarily passed to increase transportation safety standards, especially in airports.
Gun-Free School Zones Act. This act prohibits possession of a firearm in any school zone.
Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act. This act established a background check system for the sale of firearms in the Unites States. Individuals purchasing a firearm must first pass an approval process through the National Instant Criminal Check System. This is intended to prevent criminals, controlled substance users, and those with mental health issues from acquiring firearms.
Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. This act serves to waive the liability of manufacturers and dealers for the use of their products. It was passed because of successful past lawsuits brought against these groups due to customers using their products in a criminal capacity. Dealers and manufactures remain liable for any defective products, criminal misconduct, and breach of contract for which they are directly responsible.
The landscape of gun control legislation has been shaped by major cases and events that prompted new or revised regulation. These cases and events include the following:
Tommy Gun Era. While not a single event, the period of organized crime and firearm violence perpetrated by individuals such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to push for acts such as the NFA.
Assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. These events of major gun violence prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to revive the fight for gun control, leading to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.
Haynes v. United States. This Supreme Court Case essentially gutted the old NFA by ruling that registration of firearms could not be required for those individuals who are not legally allowed to possess firearms in the first place, prompting Congress to rewrite the law as the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan. This event resulted in the major injury of James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, leaving him disabled and sparking a need to control who guns were being sold to. This finally resulted in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act more than 10 years later.
District of Columbia v. Heller. This Supreme Court case overturned the earlier federal court ruling that the Second Amendment only applied to militias. The Court held that the amendment applied to all private possession of firearms and that it continued to protect the rights of individuals to possess and utilize firearms in a lawful fashion, even in the absence of service in a militia.
Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. This was a school shooting during which 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and 6 staff members at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut with an assault rifle and pistol. While no successful legislation has come from the event to date, it has prompted President Barack Obama to speak out and promise change in gun control legislation.
In addition to federal regulations, states have the power to legislate when it comes to gun control as long as they do not come into conflict with the existing federal laws. Gun control laws vary widely by the state, and it is advisable to look more deeply into state laws when possession or purchase is a concern.