In 2017 the United States experienced a record high number of 39,773 firearm-related deaths, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This number included 23,854 firearm suicides, 14,542 firearm homicides, 553 firearm-related deaths due to legal interventions (such as police shootings) and operations of war, 486 accidental or unintentional firearm-related deaths, and 338 firearm-related deaths in which the motive was undetermined. Children and teens accounted for 3,443 deaths, including over one hundred unintentional deaths.
The 2017 total number marked a significant increase from 38,658 firearm-related homicides in 2016. The firearm-related death rate also showed a steady increase from 2014, rising from 10.3 per 100,000 in 2014 to 12.0 per 100,000 in 2017. The gun death rate declined in the 1990s from 15 per 100,000 and remained steady at 10 per 100,000 until 2014. Activists, advocacy groups, and lawmakers have worked toward enacting gun control legislation at the federal and state levels to reduce firearm-related crime and violence.
Supporters of gun control seek tighter restrictions on the sale and circulation of firearms. They note the high incidence of gun-related deaths in the United States compared to other countries, as illustrated in a study published by the American Journal of Medicine in 2016, which showed that the United States has more firearm-related homicides and suicides than any other high-income country, with Americans ten times more likely to die by a firearm-related death than residents of twenty-two other developed countries.
On the other side of the debate, citizen groups and firearms manufacturers argue that gun control laws threaten their constitutional right to own and bear firearms. Gun rights groups aim to prevent new legislation and, if possible, roll back existing legislation. The National Rifle Association (NRA)—which provides firearm training and safety resources, lobbies on behalf of firearms manufacturers and gun owners, and contributes financially to political campaigns combating gun control—has attracted significant controversy for the political influence it wields. Gun control advocates have accused lawmakers of prioritizing campaign contributions over the safety of their constituents when they accept money from the NRA.
Gun control supporters have criticized US lawmakers for their inability to advance effective legislation. These critics often point to the ways in which other countries have responded to acts of mass violence. In March 2019, for example, an Australian terrorist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing fifty-one people and injuring forty-nine. Within one month of the shooting, New Zealand's parliament passed a law banning semiautomatic firearms and parts that can be used to assemble such weapons. The government also instituted a buyback program for owners of these firearms. Many US politicians and activists praised New Zealand's actions on social media, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who described the legislation as "what real action to stop gun violence looks like."
The Second Amendment
The right to keep and bear arms was added to the US Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights, which was ratified on December 15, 1791. The precise meaning and purpose of the Second Amendment has been a subject of frequent debate. Gun control advocates argue that when the newly founded country adopted the Second Amendment in 1791, each state maintained a militia composed of ordinary citizens who served as part-time soldiers. According to the amendment, these militias were "well regulated"—subject to state requirements concerning training, firearms, and periodic military exercises. Fearing that the federal government would use its standing army to force its will on the states, the authors of the Second Amendment intended to protect the state militias' right to bear arms. According to some gun control supporters, in modern times, the amendment should protect only the states' right to arm their own military forces, including their National Guard units.
Gun rights advocates interpret the Second Amendment as the guarantee of a personal right to keep and bear arms. They assert that the amendment protects the general population, who were viewed as part of the general militia at the time of the amendment's drafting, as distinguished from the "select militia," which would have been controlled by the state. Colonial law required every household to possess arms and every male of military age to be ready for military emergencies, bearing his own arms. Therefore, in guaranteeing the arms of each citizen, the amendment simultaneously guaranteed arms for the militia. Gun rights advocates further maintain that the term "right of the people" in the Second Amendment holds the same meaning as it does in the First Amendment, which guarantees such individual liberties as the freedom of religion and freedom of assembly.
Legislation and Court Cases in the Twentieth Century
The US Supreme Court has heard several cases related to the Second Amendment and laws that attempt to regulate it. In 1934 Congress passed the National Firearms Act (NFA), the country's first major federal gun control legislation, which was challenged in the Supreme Court within five years of its passing. The law required the registration of certain firearms, imposed taxes on the sale and manufacture of firearms, and restricted the sale and ownership of high-risk weapons such as machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. The NFA was bolstered by additional regulations provided by the Federal Firearms Act of 1938. The Supreme Court upheld the NFA in United States v. Miller (1939), a case that involved the interstate transportation of an unregistered sawed-off shotgun.
The next major piece of federal firearms legislation came in 1968 when Congress passed the Gun Control Act in response to the assassinations of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The law ended mail-order sales of all firearms and ammunition and banned the sale of guns to felons, fugitives from justice, illegal drug users, the mentally ill, and those dishonorably discharged from the armed forces.
In two other rulings, the Supreme Court upheld New Jersey's strict gun control law in Burton v. Sills (1969) and supported the federal ban on possession of firearms by felons in Lewis v. United States (1980). The Miller ruling set a precedent for the court's interpretation of the Second Amendment. Through the remainder of the twentieth century, lower circuit courts cited the Miller decision in most cases, maintaining that the right to bear arms related to individuals in active, controlled state guard or militia units.
Though the Gun Control Act established a foundation for subsequent gun control legislation, its effect was limited due to inconsistent licensing practices and lax enforcement of the law's provisions. The Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) eased many restrictions of the Gun Control Act. Gun rights supporters lauded the law for undoing restrictions regarding where firearms could be sold and who could sell them, but they continued to object to an amendment to the law that forbade the continued manufacture of machine guns for civilian use.
In 1989 the administration of President George H. W. Bush announced a permanent ban on importing assault rifles. Restrictions on assault weapons went further in 1994 when the federal government placed a ban on the manufacture and sale of specific models of assault weapons and various duplicates. The 1994 ban expired in 2004 when Congress failed to renew or replace it. The relatively low use of assault weapons before the ban and unreliable police reporting have made it difficult to determine the effect of the ban.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which Congress passed as an amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968, was named in honor of James Brady, the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who suffered a near-fatal wound during an assassination attempt on the president in 1981. The Brady Act addressed several key concerns of gun control advocates by requiring a five-day waiting period for all handgun sales, during which a background check was to be made on all prospective purchasers. This provision expired in 1998 and was replaced by the National Instant Check System (NICS), a database available for sellers to verify the eligibility of a buyer to possess a firearm. Within the first three years of the passage of the Brady Act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported significant declines in homicides, robberies, and aggravated assaults involving guns. Between 1993, when the law's background checks were implemented, and 2006, gun-related homicides fell by 32 percent. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reported that by 2013 the law had prevented over two million firearms sales to ineligible individuals.
Legislation in the Twenty-First Century
In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment prohibits the federal government from making it illegal for private individuals to keep loaded handguns in their homes. It was the first Supreme Court decision to explicitly rule that the Second Amendment protects an individual, personal right to keep and bear arms. The case signified a major development in firearms legislation but left many questions unanswered. For example, proponents of an assault rifle ban argue that the decision only applies to handguns, while gun rights advocates contend that the Constitution extends the individual right to all firearms.
Gun rights advocates have also used federal courts to challenge state restrictions, such as requirements for issuing permits to carry concealed weapons in public. In 2014, a three-judge panel for the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that California's requirements for receiving such a permit were unconstitutional under the Second Amendment in Peruta v. San Diego. The case was argued a second time, however, in front of a larger panel of judges. The same court reversed its decision in 2016 and ruled that the Constitution did not prohibit such restrictions. Conflicting rulings have led to confusion over the law, which, gun rights advocates argue, requires the Supreme Court to make a definitive ruling. In January 2017, the plaintiffs filed a petition for the case to advance accordingly. The Supreme Court, however, announced in June 2017 that it would not hear the case, allowing California to keep its restrictions in place.
In January 2019 gun rights activists praised the Supreme Court's decision to hear New York State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, New York, a case that challenged the constitutionality of New York City's law restricting the transport of licensed handguns. To prevent the law from being struck down, New York lawmakers proposed a slight change to its travel restrictions in April 2019. The city filed a motion with the Supreme Court alleging that the change would address the petitioner's complaints. Gun rights advocates, including the NRA, have criticized the proposed change as a tactic intended to delay or discourage the Supreme Court from hearing the case.
Lack of agreement on gun control has led to a wide variety of state and local laws regarding licensing and registration of firearms. In California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, for instance, a permit or license is required to purchase a gun. Laws restricting an individual's ability to carry a concealed firearm also vary from state to state. In Illinois and Utah, for example, a licensed individual may carry a concealed handgun in public, while several states, including Alaska and Vermont, allow individuals to do so without a license. Concealed carry permits are issued in New Jersey at the discretion of the state, which requires gun owners to demonstrate an urgent need when applying for a permit. Many gun rights advocates, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie, have criticized the state's gun laws as too restrictive. In most states, a person who has not been convicted of a felony can receive a permit to carry a loaded and concealed handgun. Representative Richard Hudson (R-NC) introduced the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act to the US House of Representatives in 2015, 2017, and again in 2019. The bill dictates that permission to carry concealed firearms, in any state that allows the practice, would be extended beyond residents to nonresidents as well. The bill has faced significant opposition from gun control advocates.
Loopholes in Legislation
Though legislative regulations have had some measurable effect on reducing gun violence in the United States, critics have identified certain loopholes within these laws that may jeopardize public health. These loopholes enable many people to obtain guns who may not otherwise meet the legal requirements to do so. Private collectors, for example, can elude a provision of the Brady Law requiring a background check by purchasing firearms from an unlicensed seller who does not perform them. This provision is often referred to as the "gun show loophole," though these sales can take place elsewhere, including over the internet. A study of gun owners conducted by researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University in 2015 found that such purchases accounted for about one-fifth of total gun sales among those surveyed.
Proponents of allowing unlicensed firearms transfers contend that the provision is primarily used to allow weapons to be inherited or given as gifts. Federal law and more than twenty states allow juveniles to purchase long guns, which include rifles and shotguns, from an unlicensed firearms dealer. Child safety advocates have unsuccessfully campaigned lawmakers to enact legislation at the federal level that would prevent children from accessing guns in the home, such as legislation requiring gun owners to store guns unloaded in a locked location. A study published by the New York Academy of Medicine in 2018 determined that 7 percent of children in the United States (4.6 million) live in a household with access to at least one loaded and unlocked firearm.
Additionally, inconsistent reporting and underfunding for NICS has resulted in an insufficient database that lacks substantial data in many categories, especially in non-felony areas such as mental health and domestic violence. Multiple examples of inconsistent reporting have emerged, such as in 2017 after a former member of the US Air Force used a legally purchased firearm to kill twenty-six people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Following the shooting, the Air Force acknowledged that they had failed to report the shooter's previous military court-martial conviction for domestic violence to civilian authorities. The shooting led Congress to pass the Fix NICS Act of 2017, which President Donald Trump signed into law in March 2018, to penalize federal agencies that do not meet NICS reporting requirements.
In February 2019 the US House of Representatives passed two bills aimed at enhancing background checks and reporting. H. R. 8, also known as the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, required private parties to conduct background checks, effectively closing the gun show loophole. H. R. 1112, also known as the Enhanced Background Checks Act, expanded the three-day time period allotted for background checks to be returned to licensed firearm dealers. The bill required dealers to wait between ten and twenty days for a background check to be returned before selling a weapon to a buyer. By doing so, H. R. 1112 would close what gun control supporters have referred to as the Charleston loophole because federal law enforcement has asserted that Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, would not have been able to acquire the gun he used had authorities been able to complete its investigation into his background. The loophole allows for a sale after three days regardless of whether a background check was completed. Both bills must pass the Senate to become federal law.
Efforts under the Obama Administration
Violent events sensationalized in the media, such as a mass shooting or assassination attempt, often mobilize calls for more stringent firearm restrictions. President Barack Obama led several attempts to enact gun control legislation following a series of tragedies during his time in his office. In response to the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which twenty first-grade students and six staff members were killed, President Obama introduced a bill that proposed expanding background checks, limiting ammunition capacity, funding gun violence research by the CDC, improving coverage and quality of mental health care, and banning several of the same firearms listed in the assault weapon ban that had expired in 2004. The proposed legislation was defeated in Congress in April 2013 on what the president described as "a pretty shameful day for Washington."
Gun rights advocates doubted Obama's sincerity and accused him of politicizing the Sandy Hook tragedy. Members of fringe groups in favor of gun rights, including radio host Alex Jones, promoted offensive conspiracy theories, suggesting that gun control advocates had staged the massacre to advance gun control legislation. Families of Sandy Hook victims have reported ongoing harassment, including death threats, from those who believe the false claims. Several families filed defamation lawsuits against Jones for promoting these theories. In March 2019 Jones delivered a sworn deposition in relation to one of the lawsuits in which the radio host acknowledged that the Sandy Hook shooting did take place. He testified, however, that he continued to doubt the official version.
When a married couple killed fourteen people and injured several more in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, President Obama again expressed his frustration with the legislative process and issued a series of executive orders that tightened existing gun control laws and called for Congress to take further immediate action. The executive orders expanded background checks to cover firearms sold at gun shows and online; required states to provide the federal government with more information on people disqualified from purchasing guns; hired more federal agents to process the background checks; sought $500 million to improve access to mental health care; and pushed for more "smart-gun technology," which refers to personalized firearms that use technology to prevent a weapon's unauthorized use.
Developments under the Trump Administration
President Obama's successor Donald Trump campaigned on dismantling Obama's executive orders on gun control. Shortly after taking office, President Trump acted upon his promise, signing a resolution into law in February 2017 that removed a provision that required the Social Security Administration to submit mental health information to NICS. Gun rights advocates and policymakers have sought to expand gun rights under the Trump administration. Following the 2016 presidential election, several states advanced legislation to permit the carrying of a firearm without a license and the carrying of firearms on public university campuses.
During President Trump's first year in office, gun violence once again prompted calls to revisit gun control legislation. In June 2017, for example, House majority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and three others were injured in an ambush by a single shooter during a congressional baseball practice in Virginia. In addition to condemning the shooting, Democratic lawmakers expressed hope that the event could lead to expanded gun restrictions. Many Republican lawmakers, however, including Scalise, strongly opposed using the incident as a platform for enacting new gun control laws.
In October 2017 a shooter located on the thirty-second floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers below, killing fifty-eight people before killing himself. More than 500 people were injured in the attack, which surpassed the 2016 Orlando shooting as the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. Authorities found twenty-three firearms in the shooter's hotel room, including twelve rifles equipped with a bump fire stock, an accessory that allows a semiautomatic rifle to rapidly expel ammunition like a fully automatic rifle. Without bump fire stocks, which were obtained legally in the case of the Las Vegas shooting, the shooter would not have been able to fire as many shots as quickly. Prior to the incident, most Americans were not familiar with bump fire stocks and began to question whether they should be legally available. Gun control advocates called for the devices to be banned similarly to fully automatic assault weapons. Critics of such a proposal contended that bump stocks are not difficult to create and could be produced on a 3-D printer.
The 2018 shooting of fourteen students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, renewed debate over access to assault weapons. In the immediate wake of the shooting, student survivors of the massacre joined other gun control advocates in calling for reform. Students, parents, and members of the community attended a CNN townhall in Sunrise, Florida, where they posed questions to representatives from the NRA, local law enforcement, and local politicians, including Republican senator Marco Rubio, who defended accepting contributions and support from the NRA and its members. Gun control advocates applauded the students' willingness to confront adults for failing to provide them with a safe place to learn. Inspired by the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, student activists around the country joined them in organizing a national school walkout and the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, to voice their demands for legislative reform that spring. An estimated 800,000 people demonstrated in the march in DC, and thousands of others marched in over 800 cities across the United States and around the world. As it had done following previous mass shootings, the NRA accused lawmakers and activists of using the tragedy to pursue further gun control legislation.
On March 9, 2018, Florida governor Rick Scott signed into law the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a move that surprised those on all sides of the gun reform debate, as it marked the first gun control legislation passed in that state in decades. The law raises the minimum age for purchasing a firearm in the state from eighteen to twenty-one, bans the sale or possession of bump stocks, gives law enforcement more latitude to seize weapons from those determined mentally unfit, and provides funding for heightened school security. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act also includes a provision for funding a program that would train and arm some teachers on a voluntary basis. Later that same day, the NRA filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Florida, arguing that the new age restriction violates both the second and fourteenth amendments. In April 2019 the Florida Senate passed additional legislation to implement some of the recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, such as expanding mental health programs and services and allowing trained and certified school employees to carry firearms.