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How To Make Sense of America's Wildly Different, Confusing Patchwork of Gun Control Laws

What's true in one state is not in another. A primer on U.S. gun control.


(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A year and half after the District of Columbia was granted home rule (the ability for the city to govern its own affairs, apart from Congress), it made a bold move. The city outlawed handguns.

It was 1976, and while the legislation would prove to do little to curb gun violence in the city, it was a bold test of the reach of the Second Amendment, which was not as thoroughly adjudicated as it is now. The Supreme Court had only taken up one case relating to it previously, in 1939, in which it allowed a measure of gun control.


But in 2008, a 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller overturned the ban. In the majority opinion, the court determined that the ban violated the Second Amendment's right to bear arms, regardless of whether such firearms were intended to be used in conjunction with "a militia." A follow-up case in 2010 extended this ruling to all 50 states. However, the Court ruled, states do have a right to pass gun-control measures such as requiring permits for concealed weapons. States just can't deny firearms outright.

"The Court only held that the Second Amendment protects the right of law-abiding responsible individuals to possess a handgun in the home for self defense," Juliet A. Leftwich, the legal director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says. "The Supreme Court made clear there was still a lot that state and local governments could do to prevent gun deaths and injuries that would be consistent with the Second Amendment." 

So what emerges is an overlapping patchwork of federal and state laws. The right to bear arms exists everywhere, but how arms are controlled and disseminated varies. Which makes for a confusing answer to the question: What is the current state of gun control in the United States?


Let's break it down.

What the Federal Government Says:

According to the federal government and the the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994, it's illegal to receive, possess, or transport guns or ammo if you

  • Have been convicted or are under indictment for a felony that would result in more than one year in prison.
  • Have been convicted of a misdemeanor that would result in more than two years in prison.
  • Are a fugitive.
  • Are a drug user.
  • Are mentally disabled or have been committed to a mental institution.
  • Are an illegal immigrant.
  • Were dishonorably discharged from armed service.
  • Have renounced your U.S. citizenship.
  • Are under a particular type of restraining order.
  • Have been convicted of domestic violence.

It is illegal for a gun retailer to sell a firearm to anyone listed above. These dealers need a federal license, and must run background checks to see if the buyer meets any of the criteria above. However, as the Center for Public Integrity reports, national databases used for the background checks may be out of date or missing information.

There's also a major loophole here: Federal law does not mandate private individuals to conduct background checks before they transfer their gun to another owner, if that person lives in the same state. This is what allows for the "gun-show loophole," where people in certain states can buy guns at large expos without a background check. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence states that 40 percent of all gun purchases take place among private parties.


Where States Come In

"Federal laws are the floor and not the ceiling, meaning that states are free to adopt stronger laws," Leftwich says. 

Short of declaring an all-out ban on guns, these are some of the options currently available to states looking to curb gun violence (some of these limitations are being litigated in the courts in the wake of the Heller decision):

  • Require state permits or licenses.
  • Require firearm registration.
  • Ban or restrict assault weapons.
  • Require the reporting of stolen guns.
  • Limit the amount of guns that can be purchased by one person in a given amount of time.
  • Ban large-capacity magazines.
  • Require long waiting periods to purchase guns.
  • Issue concealed-weapons permits.
  • Allow or deny unconcealed weapons.

The NRA's Compendium of State Firearms Laws (updated in 2010) is a good resource to compare restrictions across states. Another good resource (from the other side of the ideological spectrum) is the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence state-by-state report card for gun laws.

What you learn in looking through this data is that the ease of gun ownership varies widely across the country. For instance, according to the Brady report card, in Georgia you can buy guns at gun shows without a background check and you do not need a permit or license to own a gun. Connecticut, on the other hand, requires safety training of gun owners and has closed gun-show loopholes. As has been observed, Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. So stopping mass shootings isn't always in the hands of local powers, although there is evidence that suggests gun violence is more prevalent in areas with looser gun restrictions.

Guns can also be regulated on a municipal level, however only a few states allow for it. Those states include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. For example, Leftwich explains, local governments can limit where firearms dealers can operate or require safe storage of firearms in the home.

But all of this is for naught if the gun has been stolen from a person who purchased the firearm through lawful means, as was apparently the case in the shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school.

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