Let’s Talk About Guns: Past Reflections

By Caroline Mathews, Trending Writer

Originally ratified on December 15, 1791, to provide more power to state militias—known as the National Guard today—the Second Amendment was compromise between Federalists and the anti-Federalists over state rights. The amendment’s original purpose was to give citizens the means to revolt against a tyrannical federal government. Since its ratification, Americans have been arguing over the amendment’s meaning and interpretation, shaping the country’s continuous gun control debate.

Passed on June 26, 1934, the National Firearms Act (NFA) was the first piece of national gun control legislation. The NFA imposed a tax on the manufacturing, selling, and transportation of firearms. Eight years later, the Federal Firearms Act (FFA) of 1938 required gun manufacturers, importers, and dealers to obtain a federal firearms license. The FFA also defined a group of people, such as convicted felons, who could not purchase firearms, and required gun sellers to keep customer records. In 1939, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of regulation, stating that Congress could regulate the interstate selling of a short barrel shotgun.

Following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968 was passed to update constitutional discrepancies of the NFA, added language about “destructive devices”, and expanded the definition of “machine gun.” The GCA banned the importation of guns with “no sporting purpose,” imposed the age restriction of gun owners to 21, prohibited felons, the mentally ill, and others from purchasing guns. It also required that all manufactured or imported guns have a serial number. The GCA was later amended in 1993 by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which requires background checks and established the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is maintained by the FBI.

In 1986, however, Congress enacted a law mainly to protect gun owners: the Firearm Owners Protection Act. The bill prohibited a national registry of dealer recorders, limited ATF inspections to once per year (unless there are multiple infractions), allowed licensed dealers to sell firearms at “gun shows” within their state, and loosened regulations on the sale and transfer of ammunition. Furthermore, the Tiahrt Amendment of 2003, prohibits the ATF from publicly releasing data showing where criminals have purchased their firearms—a law that “effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study, and public scrutiny.” In 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was signed, which prohibits gun manufacturers from being named in federal or state civil suits by victims of crimes involving the company’s guns.

Debates over gun rights continue primarily at state level. A working paper from Harvard Business School researchers (2016) found that mass shootings lead to a 15 percent increase in the number of firearm-related bills introduced into the state legislature. The more fatalities, the larger the increase in bills. When Republicans hold power within the state legislature, laws to loosen gun restrictions increase by 75 percent and Democrat-held legislatures do not enact a higher rate of regulation-tightening laws immediately following mass shootings than before.


A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 27th print edition.

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