A Brief History Of Gun Control Legislation In America

Published December 3, 2015
Updated February 28, 2019
Published December 3, 2015
Updated February 28, 2019

Even though the Second Amendment is a supposedly "inalienable" right, our interpretation of it has changed over the years.

Gun Control History

A semi-automatic rifle. Image Source: Assault Weapon

A mass shooting is defined as an “incident where four or more people are killed or injured by gunfire.” 2015 has seen 355 mass shootings in the United States — that’s 355 shootings in 337 days.

Over the course of his two-term presidency, Barack Obama has been made visibly haggard by the seemingly constant gun violence. Following Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, a BBC news anchor lamented that it was “just another day in the United States.” Following the massacre which killed 14, people flocked to Twitter to call out politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” but suggested no real institutional change.

These kinds of shootings are a distinctly 20th-century phenomenon in America. Prior to 1966, mass shootings were so rare in the U.S. that they weren’t considered a threat.

The concept of “spree killings” or “rampage killings” certainly existed, but they didn’t involve semi-automatic weaponry because the general public just didn’t have access to them. Over the years, many gun control proponents have pointed to lax regulations regarding the sale of guns when it comes to assigning blame for mass shootings.

Likewise, gun rights advocates stipulate that their right to own a weapon shall not and cannot be restricted. Gun control history, however, shows that the truth falls somewhere in between and is, predictably, shaped by politics.

The Origin Of Mass Shootings In America

The first mass shooting in the United States comparable to what we currently see on a near weekly basis occurred in 1949 in Camden, New Jersey, when a 28 year-old World War II veteran named Howard Unruh opened fire in his neighborhood, killing 13 people. After a gate had been stolen from his yard, Unruh grabbed a German luger pistol from his room, loaded it, and shot over a dozen people.

Howard Unruh

The incident came following years of trouble for Unruh. The New Jersey resident had a history of mental instability and had become something of a recluse in the months leading up to the killings. He was paranoid, and perhaps it wasn’t unfounded: he’d been taunted about his supposed homosexuality and hadn’t been able to finish his university studies after being honorably discharged from the military. Unruh hadn’t gotten along with his neighbors, and after the killings police discovered a diary entry in which he’d named individuals and noted “retal” — retaliation. Some of the dead were on his retaliation list.

After shooting 13 people in 20 minutes with a gun he had purchased in Philadelphia, Unruh entered an hour-long stand-off with the police, who did not shoot him. Instead, he was taken into custody alive and served the rest of his life in prison, dying in 2009 at the age of 88. The media called his spree the “Walk of Death.”

Early Gun Control History In America

Thirty some years before the Camden shootings, the violence of Al Capone and his cohorts ushered in important gun legislation: in 1934, all gun sales had to be recorded in a national registry. Four years later, FDR prohibited the sale of guns to individuals indicted or convicted of violent crimes.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald (who purchased the rifle from the NRA’s mail-order catalog), Congress passed stricter laws via the Gun Control Act of 1968, which in addition to prohibiting the sale of guns by mail-order, raised the age of legal purchase to 21 and prohibited criminals as well individuals found mentally incompetent from owning a gun.

Lee Harvey Oswald

At this point, the NRA didn’t even oppose the ban on ordering guns from their catalog. Said Executive Vice President Franklin Orth during the committee hearings:

“We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”

Somewhere over the next twenty years, though, the NRA changed its tune. In the 1980s, the organization lobbied to equate gun ownership with American freedom and used its sizable influence to pressure politicians into supporting their causes. The 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act essentially repealed many of the mandates set about by the Gun Control Act of 1968, claiming that the previous restrictions were too restrictive and infringed upon Second Amendment rights.

They did this by arguing that the Second Amendment, which stipulates that the right to 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,” means that all individuals have a right to bear arms. (This stands in contrast to another school of legal thought, which interprets the amendment as meaning that a country has a right to defend itself, not any old citizen who wants to own a gun.)

When the NRA sought to reform gun control in the ’80s, the organization implied that the restrictions imposed by the Gun Control Act of 1968 unfairly penalized law-abiding citizens for minor regulatory infringements, rather than protecting them.

Asserting that it was an American’s constitutional right to own and carry a firearm, they lobbied to enact a largely self-enforcing, comparatively lax set of regulations that included the reintroduction of interstate sales of firearms and a reduction in the number of gun dealer inspections. The law also prohibited the United States government from keeping a national registry of gun ownership.

The United States Tightens — And Then Loosens — Its Grip On Gun Control

James Brady

James Brady and Thomas Delahanty lie wounded on the ground following an assassination attempt on President Reagan. Image Source: Wikipedia

It wasn’t until 1993 that background checks were instituted as a precursor to gun ownership, which came as part of The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. This act was named after James Brady, a man shot by John Hinckley Jr. during a 1981 attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Hinckley purchased the gun at a pawn shop using a false address after he had been arrested several days earlier for trying to board an airplane with several handguns.

Under the new law, background checks were logged with the National Instant Crime Background Check System (NICS) which is maintained by the FBI. If a person met one of the following criteria, he or she would not be able to purchase a firearm:

  • Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Is a fugitive from justice;
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
  • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  • Is an alien illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
  • Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
  • Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship;
  • Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner, or;
  • Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

The NRA fought back, calling the legislation unconstitutional and spending millions of dollars in an attempt to defeat it. The NRA funded lawsuits in several states in opposition to the law, and eventually the Supreme Court took it up and deemed one provision — that which compelled state and local law enforcement officials to perform background checks — unconstitutional on the grounds of the 10th amendment. The law was still kept intact in spite of the ruling, but in 1998 a few concessions were made when the NICS went online. Background checks were largely instantaneous, meaning that the five-day wait period was a thing of the past.

Mass Shootings: A Cultural Or Legal Problem — Or Both?

Gun Control History Gun Show

A gun show in America. Image Source: Wikipeda/M&R Photography

From the time it went online in 1998 to 2014, more than 202 million Brady background checks have been conducted. 1.2 million firearms purchases were blocked, with the most common reason for denial being previous felony convictions. Violators are rarely convicted, however, and studies of the law’s efficacy show that while there has been a reduction in suicides due to Brady background checks, gun homicides have not fallen.

The guns in question are usually handguns, but in recent years focus has shifted to the acquisition of semi-automatic weapons. In 1994, The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act placed a ten-year ban on the production of semi-automatic assault weapons and specified 19 prohibited models. This law also banned possession of newly manufactured magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition.

The law did not, however, apply to weapons already in possession and once the ban on production was lifted in 2004, gun manufacturers found it relatively easy to adapt the models to avoid prohibition. The following year, President George W. Bush signed a bill into law that freed gun manufacturers of legal responsibility for the negative effects of their products, further distancing manufacturers from the social consequences of their products.

In October of this year, the New York Times ran an infographic that showed how several mass shooters acquired their guns, and what type of gun they used for their spree killings. When you consider gun control history since Howard Unruh used a luger to murder more than a dozen of his neighbors, it might not come as much of a surprise that the vast majority of the guns used were purchased legally — many of them semiautomatic rifles or handguns.

Still, some scholars insist that the real issue is not one of law, but of culture. Perhaps, they state, mass shootings are not due to lax laws (and likewise, that they are not, in fact on the rise); perhaps the violence arises from entrenched cultural attitudes — and founding principles — that legal mechanisms will have a hard time shaking. This is maybe the most frightening thing about it all — as James Alan Fox posited in a study he coauthored at Northeastern University, “Mass murder just may be a price we pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.”

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.