History of Gun Ownership Laws

History of Gun Ownership Laws

The early explorers and settlers of the United States took full advantage of the abundant game to be found in the new lands they were beginning to inhabit. The ability to hunt wild animals for food not only offered a means for survival, but also allowed settlers to expand their territories farther west. It was taken for granted that every man, starting in his teenage years, would know how to shoot a rifle.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1791, as a direct result of the Revolutionary War; without access to weapons, the colonists would not have been able to defeat the British troops. In part, the Second Amendment states that 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 ambiguity of the amendment's text - in particular the controversy over the original meaning of the term "well regulated militia," and the question of whether contemporary concerns justify an adaptation of its original meaning - has always been at the heart of the gun control debate in the United States.

In 1871, one hundred years after the ratification of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was founded by two Union officers who wished to promote rifle shooting. The NRA has since become one of the biggest and most powerful non-governmental organizations in the country: it works to protect personal firearm rights and hunting rights, promotes shooting as a sport, and sponsors educational programs on firearm safety.

The NRA is against most gun control legislation. Among its positions are the claims that the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals to bear arms, that stricter gun control laws have done nothing to prevent gun violence (while taking away a form of self-defense from law-abiding victims of violence), and that requiring better safety controls on firearms places unfair burdens on manufacturers.

In the 1930s, in reaction to gun violence by organized crime groups during Prohibition, the National Firearms Act and the Federal Firearms Act were passed banning machine guns, imposing taxes on gun sales, and regulating certain kinds of sales and shipments of guns. Even stricter legislation was created in 1968 with the Gun Control Act, which outlawed mail-order sales of guns. In part, the momentum for this act came from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. A few years later, in 1972, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was created to issue licenses, inspect firearms dealers, and enforce existing federal gun control laws.

Two pieces of legislation, both passed in 1994, became the focal point for the gun control debate: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The former banned various types of assault weapons entirely, and the latter (named after Ronald Reagan's press secretary Jim Brady, who was seriously wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt on the president) imposed a mandatory five-day waiting period and background check on all sales of firearms to unlicensed individuals.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, also named after Jim Brady, is the largest grassroots organization working to promote gun control legislation. Its positions include the claim that certain classes of guns should not be legal for private ownership (including assault weapons and small, lightweight handguns), that guns in the home are more often used in accidental shootings, suicides, or criminal activity than in acts of self-defense, and that gun violence strains the U.S. economy and health system. The Brady Center supports more gun control legislation and better enforcement of current laws.


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