The Politics of Firearms Control

The first serious effort by the federal government to control firearms was The National Firearms Act of 1934 (for a detailed summary, see Anthony Madonna’s summary of the legislative history of the 1934 NFA). The bill was passed on 18 June 1934. The Act taxed the sale of machine guns, sawed off shotguns or rifles, and silencers. The NFA was a response to the notorious gangsters and bank robbers of the era — for example, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd (all were shot dead by law enforcement officers in 1934). The plague of gangsters who robbed banks and then fled across state lines led to Congress passing The Federal Bank Robbery Act of 1934 on 14 May 1934. This made it a federal crime to rob any national bank or state member bank of the Federal Reserve. This act allowed the FBI aided by local law enforcement officials to pursue bank robbers across state lines. The bill was passed by both Chambers by voice vote.

The debate over the NFA prefigures some of the debate taking place today. The decision to tax and register machine guns seemed to implicitly assume that individuals had the right to own firearms under the second amendment. Certainly firearm ownership was relatively widespread in the 19th Century in rural areas of the United States and Congress made no effort to limit their ownership. The wording of the second amendment is hotly contested in the 5-4 District of Columbia et al. v Heller (2008) decision. The five justices in the majority held that individuals had the right to own a personal firearm whereas the four justices in the minority held that this right was linked to membership in a (State) militia. Needless to say, each side constructed their arguments around different interpretations of the Founders’ intent and early history of the Republic.

The next significant Act that regulated firearms was the Gun Control Act of 1968. It was a response to the murders of President John F. Kennedy (22 November 1963), Dr. Martin Luther King (4 April 1968), and Robert F. Kennedy (6 June 1968 — he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan on 5 June 1968). President Kennedy was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald with a bolt action rifle. Dr. King was murdered by James Earl Ray with a bolt action rifle. And Robert Kennedy was murdered by Sirhan Sirhan with a 22 caliber pistol.

The 1968 Act finally banned mail order sales of rifles and shotguns and prohibiting most felons, drug users and people found mentally incompetent from buying guns. The key votes shown below were lopsided with majorities of both political parties supporting the law.

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President Johnson, echoing some of the debate of the 1934 NFA, when he signed the 1968 Act stated: I asked for the national registration of all guns and the licensing of those who carry those guns. Clearly he felt that national registration and licensing was Constitutional and did not violate the second Amendment.

The next significant piece of legislation on firearms control was The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act passed by Congress in 1993 and backed by former President Ronald Reagan. The Brady Bill required that background checks be conducted on individuals before a firearm may be purchased from a federally licensed dealer, manufacturer or importer with a five day waiting period before the purchase could be completed. The National Rifle Association opposed the law and managed to get a provision inserted that mandated the National Instant Criminal Background Check System be put into effect by 1998. This system is still in use.

The Brady Bill split both political parties internally. In the House the old (and dying) Conservative Coalition was against the Act but it still passed by a comfortable margin.

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Almost at the same time as the Brady Act was being considered a ban on Assault Weapons was also being debated. The attention to Assault Weapons (basically, military style semi-automatic rifles and pistols) began with a 1989 school yard shooting in Stockton, California and later a 1993 shooting in San Francisco, California. Both shooters appeared to have been insane and committed suicide rather than be captured. The Stockton shooting led President George H.W. Bush to ban all imports of Assault Weapons into the United States in 1989.

The votes on the Assault Weapons ban were closer than those for the Brady Bill. Once again, the votes split both political parties internally with the vote in the House being very close. In a preview of what was to come the Senate Democrats were more united in favor of Gun Control than House Democrats. The political parties were beginning to move to a polarized position on the issue of Gun Control.

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Next up was a push by firearms supporters for the protection of gun makers from civil lawsuits over the use of their guns in crimes. This was the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The basic idea was to protect manufacturers from being sued because someone criminally used a firearm. As Senator Sanders (I-VT) put it during the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary Campaign: “If somebody has a gun and it falls into the hands of a murderer and the murderer kills somebody with a gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible? Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer.”

The votes are similar to the Assault Weapons Ban only now the Republican Party is now almost completely pro-firearm while the Democratic Party is split. The high PRE values indicate that the issue is become more divisive and set the stage for the battles during the Obama Administration.

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During the Administration of President Obama a number of high profile shootings has raised the salience of gun control to a very high level. These shootings include the mass casualty shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on 20 July 2012 (12 dead, the shooter, James Holmes, was later ruled to be insane), the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on 14 December 2012 (27 dead and the shooter, Adam Lanza, committed suicide [he had murdered his mother before he went to the school]), and most recently, the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida on 12 June 2016 (49 dead and the shooter, Omar Mateen, was shot dead by police).

In all three shootings semi-automatic weapons were legally obtained (in the Sandy Hook case, obtained by his Mother) and used by the shooters. In the cases of James Holmes and Omar Mateen a better background check system should have prevented them from buying the weapons they used in the shootings. Holmes had been seen by a Psychiatrist at the University of Coloradoand evidently “fantasized about killing a lot of people.” Mateen was known to the FBI but this evidently was not enough to flag him during a firearms background check. Consequently, recent legislative action in Congress has focussed on beefing up the background check system.

So far action has only occurred in the Senate. On Monday, 20 June the Senate voted on the Republican version of a beefed up background check system that would encourage states to share mental health records as part of the system. The Senate also voted on the Democrat version that would require a background check for most sales or transfers of guns.

Unfortunately, from 1934 when firearms control was unanimously supported by both parties, the issue has now fallen into the vortex of partisan polarization. Almost all sensible people agree that, at the least, the background check system should be considerably expanded to include persons on the “no fly list” and include records on individuals who are clearly insane. The devil is in the details. In the past when there were a substantial number of moderates in both parties this would be an easy question to resolve. Some sort of semi-judicial system should be set up to decide if someone was unfairly denied the right to purchase a firearm. But 2016 is an election year and gun control has become a deeply partisan issue. It is possible that there may be a compromise but that seems to be a long shot as things stand at the moment.

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