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History of gun control in the U.S.

By Wes Goforth
Published On: Feb 19 2013 03:56:00 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 19 2013 09:30:00 PM CST

The Second Amendment has guaranteed certain gun rights for Americans for more than two centuries. But various laws and court decisions have changed the manufacturing, sale, possession and use of guns.

From the time it was adopted in 1791, the Second Amendment’s guaranteed “right of the people to keep and bear arms” went virtually unchallenged for decades.

The first gun control laws were created in the South.  In 1837, the Georgia Legislature banned handguns.  But the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the law eight years later, citing the Second Amendment.

After the Civil War, “Black Codes” in several Southern States sought to prevent blacks from owning and carrying guns.  That essentially ended in 1868, with the Fourteenth Amendment’s citizenship guarantee and equal rights clause.

The first federal gun controls didn’t happen until the 1920’s and 30’s, nearly a century and a half after the Second Amendment.  Over the past 80 years, the U.S. Congress has written a series of controversial gun control laws.  Almost every one of those laws has stemmed from a shocking crime involving guns.

DR BLOSS “…And it’s not only just happened just in incidents of gun violence. We see this in criminal justice policymaking in general across the 20th century,” said Dr. William Bloss of the Department of Criminal Justice at East Carolina University (pictured at left).

New, automatic weapons were introduced during a time of economic depression, prohibition, and organized crime.  A new criminal element and the guns it used helped form support for the National Firearms Acts of 1934 and 1938. The laws regulated the use of machine guns - imposing a tax on their manufacture and sale.  All sales were recorded and dealers were licensed.  Violent criminals were prohibited from owning guns.  Court rulings have changed parts of the laws, but current regulations include those main points.

The shooting deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in the 1960’s rocked the nation.  President Lyndon Johnson (pictured below) won passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, the most sweeping federal gun law at the time.  Its main features still prohibit convicted felons, drug users and the mentally ill from buying guns. 

LBJ In March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan and White House Press Secretary James Brady were shot on a Washington, D.C. street.  Brady’s recovery and campaign to change guns laws took years, but the “Brady Bill” became law in 1993.  It imposed a waiting period to buy a handgun and required buyers to undergo background checks.  Some specifics of each requirement have since changed.

David McFadyen (pictured below) is a former North Carolina district attorney who prosecuted many cases involving illegal use of guns.  He talked about the background check provision of the Brady Bill.

DAVID MCFAYDEN “It did have a positive effect in that with legal transactions, there are thousands every year of legal transactions where individuals, who are prohibited from acquiring firearms, try to acquire firearms,” McFadyen said.

By 2012, almost 18 years after the Brady Bill, an estimated 156 million Americans had undergone background checks.  An estimated one million were rejected.

The most significant recent federal regulation was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly known as the Assault Weapons Ban.   The ban on certain classes of semi-automatic guns and large-capacity magazines expired 10 years later.

Two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases in just the last five years had major impact on gun control. In each decision, The Supreme Court effectively upheld an individual’s personal right to own a gun. 

Now, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the United States is again exploring new federal laws on gun regulation.  While the history of gun control laws is clear, its exact effect on public safety is difficult to prove:

“I’m not aware of any of our research whose findings suggest that there’s a cause and effect relationship between legislation and the outcome,” Bloss said.

What is clear is that as long as there is gun-related tragedy, Americans will continue to debate the use of guns and try to strike the delicate balance between gun rights and public safety.

Click here to view a slideshow about the history of the Second Amendment and gun control in the United States.