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Mar 03

A Brief History of Gun Control

Hope is on the Horizon

With the election of Donald J. Trump to the White House, along with sweeping Republican victories across the nation in November of 2016, many pro-2nd Amendment folks are finally breathing a sigh of relief and looking optimistically forward to a future where some of the restrictions of previous political eras might be revoked. Currently in the sights of the firearms community at large are the restrictions on suppressors/silencers and repealing the National Firearms Act of 1934. Whether these laws will be repealed is anyone’s guess at this point, but let’s take a look back and see what led us to this point. When did gun control as we know it get started? Is there any kind of compromise that pro-2nd Amendment types and anti-gun folks can come to agree on? Let’s do some research.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll only be going over the defining points of gun control in the United States. The rest of the world is a very different, and often very bloody story.

Revolution!

It could be argued that the first attempt at gun control on American soil was done by the British in 1775. Understanding that rebellion was imminent, General Gage ordered troops under his command to seize an armory stocked with arms, shot, and powder in the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Intercepting these intentions, Colonial Minutemen armed themselves and took a bold stand against the British regulars. Fire was exchanged, and the regulars were eventually routed. The first major attempt at gun control in what would become the United States had failed.

I‘m certain that this is what the Minutemen probably looked like.

Following the Revolution and subsequent establishment of the United States of America, the Founders made it very clear that their position on firearms was a very liberal one: speaking fondly of being armed and independent, the founders had no issue with private citizens owning and operating small arms, ships of war, and even artillery. In fact, they encouraged ownership and even issued letters of marque to private citizens so that they could lawfully engage in attacks on enemy shipping. There wasn’t much push for regulation up until the mid 19th Century, and even then, it tended to only be local in nature.

Only Cowards and Villains Carry Concealed!

Several towns in the Old West, such as Tombstone, Arizona, would pass laws against the carrying of firearms. Even some states would pass anti-carry laws. For the most part, these laws went effectively unchallenged and were sporadic in nature: most people didn’t carry firearms, and those who did chose to carry rifles or shotguns. Remember, firearms technology in the mid to late 19th century was vastly inferior to what we have today. Handguns were not very effective fighting tools by comparison to long guns and were a method of last resort (the same applies today, but to a much lesser extent). This is largely because the shorter a firearm’s barrel is, the more power it loses. A longer barrel increases velocity, and since modern smokeless gunpowder had yet to be invented, this was doubly true, as the older black powder cannot achieve the same velocities as what we have today.

Therefore, we find that some towns, such as Tombstone, developed policies to control the possession of firearms while in city limits. The typical situation seems to be that one would leave any firearms in their possession with the town’s sheriff. In fact, the famous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone was over this, when a group of individuals refused to relinquish their firearms to the sheriff.

Concealed carry was not a common practice at this point in time, but open carry was. Because of this, the general consensus was that an individual who concealed a firearm was likely up to no good, and determined to engage in cowardly or immoral acts. Those who open carried their firearms so that they could be plainly seen were viewed as the good guys, for the most part. As a result, most people didn’t really bat an eye when towns and states enacted anti-concealed carry laws.

Obviously one of the good guys, open carrying and all.

The Jim Crow Era

With the exception of occasional anti-concealed carry laws, the United States as a whole was very firearms friendly (as was much of the world at the time). So what changed? Well, the beginning of what we know as the modern gun control movement began shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War: the Jim Crow Laws. Racism and hostility against the freed slaves was deeply seated in the South, and spread out further from there as time went on. Amongst the various restrictive laws passed to keep the freedmen in their place were many legislative efforts to ensure that they as a whole would be unable to adequately defend themselves. Some of the first states to engage in this kind of behavior were Tennessee and Arkansas. In 1870, the Tennessee legislature prohibited the carrying of “a dirk, sword-cane, Spanish stiletto, belt or pocket pistol or revolver” openly or concealed. After the court case of Andrews v. State, the legislature passed further laws banning the carrying of any handgun other than “…an army pistol, or such as are commonly carried and used in the United States Army, and in no case shall it be lawful for any person to carry such an army pistol publicly or privately about his person in any other manner than openly in his hands.”

As you can imagine, Army pistols of the day cost a pretty penny compared to cheaper handguns that could commonly be purchased, ensuring that only those who had some financial means could afford to own or carry a firearm. As you can imagine, most of the recently freed slaves did not have this kind of financial backing. Furthermore, we can see that the only approved method of carry was in the hand. That’s right, no holster or pocket carry, you had to literally walk around with your loaded firearm in your hand, ready to go. Seeing as how that’s a pretty universal sign that you intend to imminently use your firearm, we have a de facto ban on the use and carry of firearms.

Threatening, but at least I’d be legal for the last few moments of my life!

Arkansas was a similar story. Their state constitution only guaranteed the right to own and use firearms “for the common defense”. This was twisted into stating that only militia-type firearms were allowed. The Arkansas Supreme Court stated, “The rifle, of all descriptions, the shotgun, the musket and repeater, are such arms and … under the Constitution, the right to keep such arms cannot be infringed or forbidden by the legislature.” Arkansas claimed that “pocket pistols” were not constitutionally protected because they were not effective weapons of war. In 1881, encouraged by Tennessee, they passed a similar law prohibiting the carry of all firearms except army pistols unless uncovered and in the hand. The following year, they prohibited the sale of all handguns except those “used in the army or navy of the United States”.

Other states followed the trend, including Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Ohio. Some states began to require permits to carry a firearm, though with a very selective process based more on who you were than on the principles of United States Constitution. One by one, black Americans felt the sting of racism as they were systematically denied their right to keep and bear arms based solely on the the color of their skin. In 1941, Florida Supreme Court Justice, Rivers Buford shed some light on these kinds of laws, which used no discriminatory language in the actual legislation, but had a darker motive:

“The statue was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied. We have no statistics available, but it is a safe guess that more than eighty percent of the white men living in rural sections of Florida have violated this statute. It is also a safe guess to say that not more than five percent of the men in Florida who own pistols and repeating rifles have ever applied to the Board of County Commissioners for a permit to have the same in their possession and there has never been, within my knowledge, any effort to enforce the provisions of this statute as to white people, because it has been generally conceded to be in contravention of the Constitution and non-enforceable if contested.” (Watson v. State)

Modern Gun Control Emerges

However, gun control would eventually make itself known to all American citizens, and one of the earliest examples of this is the Sullivan Act of 1911, passed in the state of New York. This act required a license to possess a handgun in the home, and as you can imagine, these licenses were seldom given. This law is still in effect today.

The National Firearms Act, 1934

The next major step came in the form of the National Firearms Act, passed in 1934. The premise of this law was in response to “motorized bandits” who were proving to be a major thorn in the site of most state police agencies at the time. Utilizing this fear, the NFA was drafted and signed into law, requiring a “special tax” on anyone “engaged in the business of importing, manufacturing, and dealing in NFA firearms.” It required the registration of all firearms that fell under the following definitions:

  • Shotguns and rifles having barrels less than 18 inches in length.
  • Machine guns.
  • Suppressors/silencers.
  • “any other weapon” which does not fit the standard form and/or function of common rifles, shotguns, or handguns.

The “special tax” on machine guns, suppressors, and short barreled rifles/shotguns was set at $200. The tax for “any other weapon” was set at $5. While that was a tremendous amount of money back then, constituting a de facto ban and registration, the law did not change the tax with inflation. Today the tax is still $200 and $5, respectively. This law is still in effect today.

The Gun Control Act, 1968

The next chip at American’s 2nd Amendment rights came in the form of the 1968 Gun Control Act. This law was brought about as a response to the assassination of JFK, but had languished in Congress until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (who applied for a permit to carry but was denied). This brought the bill once again to the forefront, where it was passed after quite the struggle. This law forms much of the current firearm rules and regulations that we know today. To begin, it created a list of “prohibited persons” who could not own firearms. This included:

  • An indicted or convicted felon, violent or nonviolent.
  • A fugitive from justice.
  • Drug addicts.
  • The mentally ill.
  • Illegal aliens.
  • Anyone receiving a dishonorable discharge from the United States military.
  • Individuals who renounce their citizenship.
  • Individuals under a restraining order.
  • Individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

The GCA set the current legal age to purchase a firearm at 18 years old for a long gun, and 21 years old for a handgun. Note that this is only for purchasing: 18 year olds can still own and be gifted handguns.

Federal Firearms Licenses were established, creating a registry and regulation of who can sell firearms, manufacture ammunition, etc. as a business. It also established the 03 Curio and Relic FFL for those who collect firearms.

It prohibited mail-order sales of firearms. The argument was that JFK’s assassin used a mail-order firearm, so therefore the practice should be outlawed so that no one can order them through the mail.

It required serial numbers on any and all new firearms.

It established a “sporting purpose” criterion for importing firearms. Under this, only firearms which meet a “sporting purpose” such as hunting are allowed for import. Plinking, target shooting, or collecting are not counted as having a sporting purpose, apparently.

Finally, the GCA of 1968 regulated interstate firearm sales. This means that you must be a resident of the state in order to purchase a handgun from that state. Long guns are still permitted to be bought/sold between residents of different states. The only exception is for those who hold an 03 C&R license, who can ship between state lines and have firearms that meet the C&R classifications shipped to their door. As a C&R license holder, this is one of the few things I enjoy about this law. This law is still in effect today, but has been modified from its original form.

The Firearm Owner’s Protection Act and the Hughes Amendment, 1986

FOPA was originally designed as a victory for the 2nd Amendment, and it did a great deal to alleviate the restrictions put in place by the GCA of 1968.

It clarified what a firearms dealer was, so that you wouldn’t be prosecuted for selling off some of your privately owned firearms.

The original GCA allowed for confiscation of firearms which had been allegedly used in a violation, as well as allowed for the confiscation of firearms “intended to be used” in one. If a firearms collector or dealer could be charged with one violation, it was easy to argue that they planned on using their entire collection for further acts. The state could literally swoop in and take all of your firearms. FOPA removed this from the GCA.

Furthermore, even if a firearms owner was found not guilty, under the original GCA, their firearms could still be taken. FOPA removed this.

Firearms dealers could be searched without any warning, for any reason, at any time. FOPA mandated that only one inspection could be done on a single dealer per year, though inquiries attempting to trace firearms in commission of a crime was still allowed.

FOPA made it law that you could transport your firearms from anywhere you could lawfully possess them to any other place that you can lawfully possess them, provided that they were unloaded and locked out of reach.

There were other small things that FOPA fixed about the U.S.’ broken gun laws, but tragedy occurred at the last moment. As tends to happen in Congress, moments before passing, an amendment was tacked onto the Firearm Owners Protection Act. This was known as the Hughes Amendment.

The Hughes Amendment made it illegal to manufacture or possess any fully automatic firearm manufactured after 1986. Those who already possessed and were registered under the 1934 NFA were grandfathered in, but no new “machine guns” could be made or brought into the country legally. Before 1986, fully automatic firearms were sold right alongside semi-automatic firearms, and the only difference between the two was that the fully automatic one required a $200 tax stamp. The number of homicides committed with fully automatic firearms since the NFA of 1934 is two. Yes, you read that right: two. The Hughes Amendment was a political move that served no real purpose other than infringement of the 2nd Amendment. Still, because FOPA fixed much of the backward gun laws, the NRA encouraged President Bush to sign it into law, vowing to fight the Hughes portion later. This law is still in effect, though the Hughes Amendment is a hopeful for repeal since November of 2016.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, 1993

This law was first introduced in 1991, but languished for a couple of years. The 1990’s were a bad time for firearms. Public support for the right to keep and bear firearms was at an all-time low, concealed carry was still outlawed in most of the nation (Florida being the exception, having enacted a concealed carry bill in the 1980’s), and firearms were spoken of in hushed tones away from polite company. This made it easy for the Brady bill to be passed.

This law established federal background checks for all firearm purchases, with the exception of Curio and Relic firearms to Curio and Relic license holders. It mandated a national five-day waiting period after purchase before you could take possession of your new firearm, but this was removed once the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was implemented in 1998. A 2000 study found that the Brady Act did not reduce overall homicide or suicide rates. This law is still in effect today.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, 1994

Officially known as the “Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, this law prohibited the manufacture and import of certain semi-automatic firearms termed “assault weapons” and “large capacity” magazines to civilians. It was passed by a narrow vote of 52-48 in the Senate, and signed into law by President Clinton on the same day. Banned firearms already possessed were grandfathered in, and a sunset provision was set for ten years later: 2004.

This much fun was illegal between 1994 and 2004.

The restrictions were strange and nonsensical, relying upon a list of banned features that firearms could not have. A semi-automatic rifle was considered illegal if it had two or more of the following:

–  Folding or telescoping stocks.
– Pistol grips.
– Bayonet mounts, or lugs to accept a bayonet.
– Flash suppressors, or a threaded barrel to accommodate one.
– A grenade launcher mount.

A semi-automatic pistol was considered illegal if it had two or more of the following:

– A magazine that attached outside of the pistol grip.
– A threaded barrel to accept a barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor/silencer.
– A barrel shroud. It should be noted that this is a safety feature which is designed to protect the user’s hands from being burned from a hot barrel.
– An unloaded weight of 50 ounces or more.
– A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.

Semi-automatic shotguns were illegal with two or more of the following:

– Folding or telescoping stocks.
– Pistol grips.
– Detachable magazines.

The bill also outright banned the AR-15, as well as any magazine capable of holding more than 10 cartridges. Again, anything already present in the U.S. was grandfathered in. This bill was shown to have no effect on crime, since most of the restrictions were purely cosmetic in nature. The bill was quietly allowed to sunset in 2004, and was not renewed.

Modern Challenges and Changes

Since the early 2000’s, firearms ownership and advocacy has risen tremendously, with all 50 states overturning their concealed carry laws and enacting concealed carry provisions. Illinois was the last to do so, and began issuing CCW licenses in 2014. Many states have also furthered their laws to allow for constitutional carry, or carry without any kind of license with the 2nd Amendment being sufficient, as it was during the early years of the Republic.

In 2008, the case District of Columbia v. Heller struck down D.C.’s handgun ban and upheld the individual right to keep and bear arms. In 2010, the case McDonald v. Chicago struck down Chicago’s handgun ban as unconstitutional, building off of Heller and extending this ruling to the states.

During the Obama administration, which was markedly anti-firearm, firearms sales boomed and firearm ownership rose tremendously to an all-time high, with months upon months of record-breaking sales, not including private sales and C&R transfers. With the election of a largely pro-gun government, 2nd Amendment advocates are hopeful for a lifting of restrictions, specifically the following:

1. A passage of the Hearing Protection Act of 2015. This would remove suppressors/silencers from the NFA registry, allowing them to be purchased with only a background check. It would remove the $200 tax stamp and registration from these items.

2. A repeal of the Hughes Amendment of 1986. This would allow fully-automatic firearms manufactured after 1986 to once again be purchased by the public. They would still be NFA items, however, subject to the “special tax” and registration. Remember, only two homicides have been committed since 1934 with these kind of firearms.

3. A repeal of the National Firearms Act of 1934. Of the four, this one is probably the least likely to happen. This would abolish the $200 tax stamp and registration of all NFA items, such as fully automatic firearms, short barreled rifles/shotguns, suppressors/silencers and “any other weapon”s.

4. Passing the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. This would eliminate the guesswork when it comes to different state’s acceptance or nonacceptance of individual concealed carry licenses. Currently, each state is different, and if you have a license in one state, it may not be honored in another. The CCRA would do away with this confusing patchwork of laws, treating CCW licenses just like driver’s licenses – accepted everywhere, so that you don’t have to lose your carry rights just because you visit a state that doesn’t like them.

Of course, this does not mean that the fight is anywhere close to being over. States such as California, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois are bastions of gun control. California recently passed a law requiring background checks for all ammunition purchases. Washington state passed a law that prohibits “transfers” of any firearms without an FFL to perform the transfer. A transfer is as simple as handing a firearm to a relative. Yep. For that, you become a felon if you don’t go down to your nearest FFL and pay to have them transfer it for you. Some states mandate a waiting, or “cool down” period before you can take possession of a new firearm, despite no evidence that this reduces crime. New York’s “SAFE Act” is essentially a state-wide version of the 1994 Assault Weapons ban, and was passed after midnight when no one was there to argue against it.

These same states are often “may-issue” states when it comes to concealed carry, meaning that they can deny your right to carry at their own discretion, regardless of the fact that they technically allow it in the state. In many of the states listed, it is nearly impossible to obtain a concealed carry license because of this.

The fight carries on, as it likely will for the foreseeable future. However, the pendulum has swung in the favor of the 2nd Amendment, and the momentum continues to build. “Shall not be infringed” is finally starting to mean something again.

Remember: gun control isn’t about the guns nearly so much as it is about control.

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