A history of US gun laws - Joshua Park, Tiffin School

A Wilson Combat Sig P320, legal in certain parts of the US <i>(Image: Unsplash)</i>
A Wilson Combat Sig P320, legal in certain parts of the US (Image: Unsplash)

The US remains an interesting example concerning gun laws. These laws are among the most lenient in the whole world, which supporters argue is necessary for the protection of citizens, while its detractors argue that it cause more harm than good, pointing to many mass shooting incident that have plagued the countries which have been in the hundreds during the last 10 years. The most notorious of these have claimed the lives of the most vulnerable in society, including children, ethnic and sexual minorities.

Mass shooting have become so entrenched into the news of the United States that all but 12 states (Oregon, Idaho, Myoming, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island) Cases such as those of the Orlando nightclub shooting, Sandy Hook shooting, and Parkland school shooting, among the deadliest ever mass shootings, all involved semi-automatic weapons of some kind, which is unsurprising given their purpose to shoot multiple bullets in quick succession. This is what the vast majority of people would associate with armed conflicts rather than homeland activities, so why is it that ordinary civilians in America have easy access to machines of massacre.

The United States has 120.5 guns per 100 people (around 393,347,000 guns), being the highest total and per capita number in the world. 22% of Americans own one or more guns (35% of men and 12% of women). This pervasive statistic is partly due to its colonial history, and thus its revolutionary history and frontier expansion, which required the use of firearms in order to achieve the Founding Fathers' objectives for a new America. The Second Amendment also provides a legal justification for the ownership and operation of firearms as it states: “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 Founding Fathers, although they advocated for the right to bear arms, denied gun ownership to many people (e.g., slaves, free blacks, and even law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution that gained US independence from Britain). Organisations like the NRA love to point out and suggest that the Founding Fathers would support their cause of loosening gun restrictions in America, however this seems to contradict that sentiment. This attitude towards gun laws was double downed on following the passing of the National Firearms Act of 1934, which had an underlying purpose to restrict, if not prohibit, transactions of NFA firearms, which included machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, heavy weapons, explosive ordnance, silencers and "any other weapon" (disguised or modified weapons). This was done as a response to armed conflicts between armed gangs during the Prohibition.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 regulates firearms at the federal level and requires citizens and legal residents to be at least 18 years of age to purchase shotguns or rifles and ammunition. All other firearms (e.g. handguns) are sold to people 21 and older. State or local officials may implement higher age restrictions but the federal minimum takes precedence over this privilige. However, fugitives, people deemed a danger to society, people involuntarily committed to mental institutions, and felons with prior convictions that include a prison sentence exceeding one year, or misdemeanors carrying sentences of more than two years are among those barred from purchasing handguns. This was implemented after high-profile assassinations of political figures during the 1960s, such as President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and African-American activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

These policies were mostly overturned in 1986, when Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, supported by the National Rifle Association because it reversed many parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act. However, it did ban ownership of unregistered fully automatic rifles and civilian purchase or sale of any such firearm made from that date forward. Previously, the NRA mainly catered towards sportsmen, hunters, and target shooters, while paying less attention towards gun control issues. A shift in political affliation then began to happening during the 1970s, as it became increasingly aligned with the Republican Party. After 1977, the organization expanded its membership by focusing heavily on political issues and forming coalitions with conservative politicians, most of these people being Republicans.

There is also an amendment to the 1968 Gun Control Act (Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993) that requires FFL holders to conduct a background check. Those who wish to buy firearms must fill in a federal form called the ATF 4473, which checks for prior convictions and other suspicious characteristics. The justification for this amendment was also justified by a similar incident to those of the sixties, as then-President Ronald Reagan surivived an attempt on his life in 1981.

Despite all this, it can be suggested that the current regulations in the United States isn't enough to combat harmed caused by these weapons. There were 572,537 total gun deaths between 1999 and 2016, with 336,579 of then being suicides (58.8% of total gun deaths), 213,175 of them homicides (37.2%); and 11,428 unintentional deaths (2.0%). Guns were the leading cause of death by homicide (67.7% of all homicides) and by suicide (51.8% of all suicides). A study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine also discovered that firearms were the second leading cause of deaths for children, responsible for 15% of child deaths compared to 20% in vehicle crashes. When high-capacity magazines are used in mass shootings, the death rate risea 63% and the injury rate rises by 156%, adding to the view that high-capacity magazines should be restricted more, if not banned, as they have the capability to increase the number of shooting victims. Gang members across the country, such as those in Chicago (a city know for its prevalent gang culture and subsequent high murder rate, thus creating its nickname 'Chiraq' - a portmanteau of Chiacago and Iraq) use high-capacity magazines (nicknamed 'switches'), such as 30 rounds or even 90 rounds, to maximize the chance of harm done.

Then again, the high number of guns circulating in the US (393,347,000 guns as mentioned above) may make gun control much harder to achieve. Between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million guns were stolen from US homes during property crimes (including burglary and car theft), totalling to a yearly average of 232,400. Although this statistic can be used to argue for gun regulation, it can also go the other way by saying that it would be very difficult to track all of these guns down, especially if their serial numbers and other identification features are defaced, a common criminal practice used by felons. Gun ownership may also bring about a sense of security, as 48% of convicted felons surveyed admitted that they avoided committing crimes when they knew the victim was armed with a gun in a 1983 survey. A Pew Foundation report also found that 79% of male gun owners and 80% of female gun owners believed that owning a gun made them feel safer, and 64% of people living in a home in which someone else owns a gun felt safer. This suggests that gun ownership, while difficult to regulate in today's society, nevertheless acts as a detterent and protector to the livelihoods of many. It can also be argued that states with the largest increases in gun ownership also have the largest drops in violent crimes. West Virginia is one example, with a gun ownership rate of 58.50% (5th highest in the country), and had the largest decrease in violent crime of any state between 2017 and 2018. 5,236 violent crimes occured in the state in 2018, a 20.2% decrease from the previous year. Its violent crime rate of 289.9 per 100,000 people also places in in the lower half of states with the highest rates of violent crime.

Despite all this, mass shootings or brazen crimes involving firearms may just be something that the general populace must embrace as a saddening aspect of American life given complications around gun laws and their regulation.

Mass shootings have steadily been increasing, seen in the fact that in 2014, there were 273 incidents, while this year there have been 606 incidents. With cases such as that of a 10-year old boy shooting his mother dead after she refused to buy him a virtual reality headset, and cases such as the recent Uvalde school shooting where the perpetrator's mental health issues were largely hidden, it casts an uncertain and relentless future.