It all starts with the Second Amendment: “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The controversy centers around the meaning of this sentence (including a heated grammatical debate called the 'Comma War.') But the American gun debate is now larger than the Second Amendment. It is a dispute over culture, fear, partisanship, money and more.
There are approximately 310 million civilian guns in the US-- about one gun per person. The US has far and away the highest number of guns per capita in the world. 42% of Americans have gun in their home. However, 65% of guns are owned by 20% of gun owners. [More stats here.]
The US has a far higher gun-related murder rate than anywhere else in the developed world. But media coverage is misleading about where the problem lies: mass shootings (incidents in which more than four people died) account for only 1% of gun deaths in America. Further, mass shootings are much more highly connected to domestic violence than mental illness. [More here.]
The gun industry is immense. According to the Department of Justice, there are over 131,000 federally licensed gun dealers in the US-- four times the number of grocery stores (!). In 2014, the gun industry made around $13 billion in revenue, with a 3.4% annual growth rate. [More here.]
Support for gun control has markedly declined in the last fifteen years. Gallup polls show 49% of Americans think gun laws should be more strict (down from 78% in 1990). 37% think they are fine as is and 13% think they are too strict. Despite publicity to the issue, public opinion usually remains unchanged after a mass shooting. [More here.]
LAWS & CASES
What laws actually exist? At the state and local levels, regulation varies widely (check yours here.) However, Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago (2010) that the Second Amendment trumps state and local law. On the federal level, there are several important acts:
- National Firearms Act of 1934 (NFA): taxes and requires registration of Title II weapons like machine guns and explosives.
- Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA): generally prohibits unlicensed interstate sales-- but was partially repealed by the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA)
- Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 ('Brady Bill'): requires background checks-- except exceptions. Many politicians have spoken out about the need for universal background checks.
- Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB, 1994-2004): prohibited civilian sales of 'assault weapons,' defined as semi-automatic guns with large magazines “for rapid fire and combat use"-- but expired in 2004.
Why is this important?
Something is deeply wrong with gun control in America. Given the recent 'Virginia TV' shooting and candidates' responses, this is shaping up to be a controversial issue in the 2016 presidential election. It will (it must) be a debate on balancing lawful gun owners' constitutional rights with the reality of gun violence in our country.