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Civic Lab Online: What is gun control?

Posted on June 24, 2022 at 6:00 am

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Gun Control: Fast Facts

When gun violence, including school shootings, appear in the news, it often spurs the ongoing debate about how to handle gun violence in the United States. You may be wondering what laws already exist for gun owners and how the issue of gun control is different in the U.S. than other countries.

What is “gun control”?

Gun control refers to legislation that regulates or controls the ownership of firearms, restricts certain types of firearms, or determines where and how they may be carried. Some examples of gun control are background checks, gun permits or licenses, required gun safety training, not being allowed to carry a weapon in a school or a bar, or not being allowed to own certain weapons as a civilian.

There are multiple types of gun violence in the U.S. and different but intersecting conversations around preventing each.

There were 45,222 firearm-related deaths in the U.S. in 2020, as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 54% were suicides and about 43% were homicides.

  • Opponents of gun control argue that stricter laws around guns won’t prevent mass violence because both suicide and homicide can be committed by a legal gun owner.
  • Advocates for suicide prevention sometimes lobby for stricter gun laws around waiting periods for purchasing a gun because most suicides are committed during moments of crisis and survivors often never try again. However, those attempting suicide with a firearm often don’t live to get a second chance.

Firearm-related injuries rank in the top five causes of death for U.S. citizens up to age 64. Assault by firearm accounts for 70 percent of nonfatal firearm-related injuries, while unintentional injury accounts for 20 percent.

Both sides of the gun control debate point to domestic violence as a major predictor of homicide, assault with firearms, and mass shootings. Between 2009 and 2018, at least 54 percent of mass shootings, defined as shootings in which more than three people are killed in one event, were related to domestic or family violence. In more than half of school and public mass shootings, the perpetrator killed a female family member directly before committing a larger act of violence. 

What federal laws exist for gun control? Does Washington state have any additional laws?

The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 was the first major federal gun legislation in the U.S. in response to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The law requires the registration of certain firearms, taxes on the sale and manufacture of firearms, and restricted sales and ownership of machine guns.  

The Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968 passed after the assassinations of 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 minors, felons, fugitives from justice, people who use illegal drugs, persons with mental illness, and those with dishonorable discharges from the armed forces.

The Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA) eased many GCA restrictions. Opponents of gun control lauded FOPA for expanding where firearms could be sold and who could sell them but objected to prohibitions on machine guns for civilian use.

In 1989, the administration of President George H. W. Bush announced a permanent ban on importing assault rifles. Many opponents of gun control today point to the domestic manufacturing of assault weapons as boosting local economies and creating innovation. Congress also banned the manufacture and sale of specific assault weapons in 1994, but the ban expired in 2004.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 passed as an amendment to the GCA. It required a 5-day waiting period for all handgun sales so that a background check could be run. It expired in 1998 and was replaced by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a database that verifies if a buyer can possess a firearm.

After lawsuits against gun manufacturers, Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) and the Child Safety Lock Act of 2005. The first act limited the liability of gun manufacturers and dealers when their firearms were used in crimes, and the second act required anyone licensed to transfer or sell firearms to provide gun storage or safety devices.

The US Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) determined 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 is an individual right, and the decision clarified that it allows for limits on the types of arms that can be kept and how they are used.

Washington state has several additional laws:

  • All residents of Washington state must obtain a concealed pistol license, in person, in order to concealed carry (carry a weapon somewhere it isn’t readily visible).
  • State law designates certain areas where it can be a violation to have a firearm, even with a concealed carry license: these include restricted access areas of a jail, other law enforcement facilities, mental health facilities, and a commercial service airport; the area used in connection with court proceedings; areas classified by the liquor and cannabis board as off-limits to persons under 21 years of age; and public or private elementary and secondary school premises.
  • It is a crime to possess a firearm if you are under the age of 18, unless possession is permissible under one of the exceptions listed.

Read. Watch. Listen.

READ

Guns in America, Richard Brownell, 2018.

This book provides students with historical context of gun ownership in the U.S., tracing the issue from colonial roots through the establishment of the NRA up to today’s highly charged and often politicized debates around issues like assault rifle bans, open carry laws, and more. It also addresses concealed weapons, mass shootings, and gun ownership and the laws surrounding ownership.

WATCH

Green, Matthew and Chinchilla, Maria. 3-D Printed Guns: The Latest Chapter in the Loaded History of Gun Control,” 26 July 2017.

Discussion of how 3D-printed guns and other homemade guns may affect gun control laws and how a 3D-printer can print a fully working gun.

A Brief History of Guns in America: Guns and Public Health Part 1,” Healthcare Triage, 7 August 2017.

This brief video explains the history of guns in the U.S., specifically how gun legislation has changed over the last few hundred years, the differences between types of guns, and how courts’ interpretations of the second amendment have changed.

LISTEN

Another Elementary School Massacre.” The New York Times, The Daily, 22 May 2022.

A reporter working closely with the family of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting describes problems they faced after the shooting and predicts what is next for the families in Uvalde, Texas. Major issues include charities that don’t necessarily give all funds to the family, lobbyists that assume family members will advocate for their policies or be figureheads for gun control without ever consulting them, and harassment from those who insisted that their trauma was part of a larger gun control conspiracy.

Additional Information

Are there any gun control laws in Washington state about to be implemented?

Three major gun control laws were passed in Washington state in 2022:

  • Washington became the 10th state to ban the sale (but not the possession) of high-capacity magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The law goes into effect July 1, 2022.
  • Washington state adopted House Bill 1705, which restricts the manufacture, assembly, sale, transfer, purchase, possession, transport, and receipt of ghost guns, which are guns that are bought from private sellers and assembled at home. They are not marked with a serial number, making them untraceable.
  • House Bill 1630 prohibits open carry at local government meetings and restricts firearms at school board meetings and election-related offices and facilities in order to prevent the use of open carry to intimidate citizens from participating in government proceedings.

Have loopholes been found in gun control laws? In what ways have they been addressed?

The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1996, prevents people who have been convicted of domestic abuse or are the subject of a restraining order from owning guns. However, abusers who are not a parent, guardian, or legal spouse to their victims face no such restrictions. This gap has become known as the “boyfriend loophole.”

Federal law and some states allow juveniles to purchase long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, from an unlicensed firearms dealer (this is not the case in Washington state).

Gaps in federal legislation can allow people to buy guns who may not otherwise meet the legal requirements. The background check requirement, for example, can be avoided by purchasing from an unlicensed seller who does not perform these checks. While referred to as the “gun show loophole,” these sales can take place online or in places other than gun shows. Temporary loans of firearms are typically allowed as are transfers of weapons that are inherited or given as gifts. While unlicensed gun transfers are acceptable within one’s own state, interstate sales are prohibited.

Underreporting and underfunding have contributed to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database lacking substantial data in many categories, resulting in multiple instances of sales of weapons to unauthorized persons who then used the weapons to commit crimes. A former member of the U.S. Air Force legally purchased a firearm and killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Following the shooting, the Air Force acknowledged that they failed to report the shooter’s military court-martial conviction for domestic violence to civilian authorities. In response, Congress passed the Fix NICS Act of 2017 to penalize federal agencies that do not meet NICS reporting requirements.

In 2015, a gunman who was still undergoing a background check shot and killed nine Black worshippers at a Charleston church in South Carolina. Sellers are allowed to give a buyer the weapon if the check takes more than three days. The House of Representatives passed a bill in 2021 to extend background checks from 3 days to 10 days, allowing more time for a full check to be completed. Known as the Charleston loophole” bill, as of January 2022, the Senate had not voted on the legislation.

In 2021, President Joe Biden issued a series of executive orders aimed at eliminating many of the loopholes in gun control laws. The orders focus on regulating specific types of firearms and gun modifications; funding research on firearms trafficking in the U.S.; and encouraging states to pass “red flag” laws. Red flag laws allow for the temporary removal of firearms from a person identified as a potential danger by law enforcement or family members, who can petition for a court order.

Why is gun control especially controversial in the United States?

The U.S. is the only country that guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” listed in the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Proponents of gun control often see this as a collective right, which is not violated unless arms are taken from the American people as a whole. Opponents of gun control often interpret this as an individual right, which is violated when restrictions are placed on the arms an individual can own or carry. Firearm laws are often stricter in other nations because the right to bear arms is not a part of their foundational documents.

Four in ten U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun, including 30 percent who say they personally own one, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2021. Personal protection is the most common reason listed for gun ownership. In 2021, U.S. citizens bought 19.9 million guns, and there are more guns in the U.S. than there are people.

Roughly half of Americans (53 percent) favored stricter gun laws, and 14 percent favored less strict laws, according to the Pew April 2021 survey, but Americans have differing opinions on which laws would make an impact and whether those laws impinge too much on individual freedoms:

  • 87 percent favor preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns
  • 81 percent favor subjecting private gun sales and sales at gun shows to background checks
  • 66 percent support the creation of a federal database tracking all gun sales
  • 64 percent support bans on high-capacity magazines (those holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition), and 63 percent support bans on assault-style weapons (those firing a full magazine round of ammunition every time the trigger is pulled)
  • 43 percent said there would be fewer mass shootings if guns were difficult to legally obtain, 42 percent said it would make no difference, and 9 percent said there would be more shootings
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Digital Resources

Gale In Context: Global Issues
Learn more about the global issues related to gun control laws with this digital resource.

Print & Other Materials in Our Catalog
Search our catalog for books, large print, eBooks, and audiobooks on any topic.

Downloadable Documents

Gun Control: Fast Facts
Gun Control: Read, Watch, Listen
Gun Control: Additional Information
Gun Control: Sources

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