Gun laws of the United States are found in a number of federal statutes. These laws regulate the manufacture, trade, possession, transfer, record keeping, transport, and destruction of firearms, ammunition, and firearms accessories. They are enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
In addition to federal gun laws, all of the individual U.S. states, as well as some local governments, have their own laws that regulate firearms. The right to keep and bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Major federal gun laws
Most federal gun laws are found in the following acts:
- National Firearms Act ("NFA") (1934): Taxes the manufacture and transfer of, and mandates the registration of Title II weapons such as machine guns, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, heavy weapons, explosive ordnance, silencers, and disguised or improvised firearms.
- Federal Firearms Act of 1938 ("FFA"): Requires that gun manufacturers, importers, and persons in the business of selling firearms have a Federal Firearms License (FFL). Prohibits the transfer of firearms to certain classes of persons, such as convicted felons.
- Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (1968): Prohibited interstate trade in handguns, increased the minimum age to 21 for buying handguns.
- Gun Control Act of 1968 ("GCA"): Focuses primarily on regulating interstate commerce in firearms by generally prohibiting interstate firearms transfers except among licensed manufacturers, dealers and importers.
- Firearm Owners Protection Act ("FOPA") (1986): Revised and partially repealed the Gun Control Act of 1968. Prohibited the sale to civilians of automatic firearms manufactured after the date of the law's passage. Required ATF approval of transfers of automatic firearms.
- Undetectable Firearms Act (1988): Effectively criminalizes, with a few exceptions, the manufacture, importation, sale, shipment, delivery, possession, transfer, or receipt of firearms with less than 3.7 oz of metal content.
- Gun-Free School Zones Act (1990): Prohibits unauthorized individuals from knowingly possessing a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone.
- Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993): Requires background checks on most firearm purchasers, depending on seller and venue.
- Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994–2004): Banned semiautomatics that looked like assault weapons and large capacity ammunition feeding devices. The law expired in 2004.
- Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (2005): Prevent firearms manufacturers and licensed dealers from being held liable for negligence when crimes have been committed with their products.
Overview of current regulations
The Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulates firearms at the federal level, requires that citizens and legal residents must be at least 18 years of age to purchase shotguns or rifles and ammunition. All other firearms — handguns, for example — can only be sold to people 21 and older. Fugitives, those convicted of a felony with a sentence exceeding 2 years, or 2 year for a misdemeanor, past or present, and those who were involuntary admitted to a mental facility are prohibited from purchasing a firearm. The purchase of a semi-automatic firearm is legal in most states, as are automatic firearms made before 1986. Gun dealers interested in obtaining a Federal Firearms License must be at least 21 years of age. This also applies to online sales. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires holders of Federal Firearms Licenses to conduct a background check. Potential firearm purchasers fill out a federal form known as Form 4473, which checks for prior convictions and other red flags. Federal Firearms License holders then use the information provided on the form in the background check. Most states require permits to carry handguns. Concealed carry and open carry vary by state. Some states allow residents to carry handguns without permits. . Forty-four states have a provision in their state constitutions similar to the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects the right to keep and bear arms. The exceptions are California, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York. In New York, however, the statutory civil rights laws contain a provision virtually identical to the Second Amendment. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court held in McDonald v. Chicago that the protections of the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms for self-defense in one's home apply against state governments and their political subdivisions.
The right to keep and bear arms in the United States is protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While there have been contentious debates on the nature of this right, there was a lack of clear federal court rulings defining the right until the two U.S. Supreme Court cases of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010).
An individual right to own a gun for personal use was affirmed in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008, which overturned a handgun ban in the Federal District of Columbia. In the Heller decision, the court's majority opinion said that the Second Amendment protects "the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home."
However, in delivering the majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote on the Second Amendment not being an unlimited right:
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.
The four dissenting justices argued that the majority had broken prior precedent on the Second Amendment, and took the position that the amendment refers to an individual right, but in the context of militia service.
In the McDonald v. City of Chicago decision in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that, because of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights, the guarantee of an individual right to bear arms applies to state and local gun control laws and not just federal laws.
The Supreme Court has not ruled on whether the Second Amendment protects the right to carry guns in public for self-defense. Federal appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings on this point. For example, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in 2012 that it does, saying, "The Supreme Court has decided that the amendment confers a right to bear arms for self-defense, which is as important outside the home as inside." But the Tenth Circuit Court ruled in 2013 that it does not, saying, "In light of our nation's extensive practice of restricting citizen's freedom to carry firearms in a concealed manner, we hold that this activity does not fall within the scope of the Second Amendment's protections." More recently, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in its 2016 decision Peruta v. San Diego County that the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right of gun owners to carry concealed firearms in public.
The following persons are eligible to possess and own firearms within the United States, though further restrictions apply:
- US citizens
- permanent resident aliens
- non-immigrant aliens admitted into the United States for lawful hunting or sporting purposes or if the non-immigrant alien falls under one of the following exceptions:
- possesses a valid hunting license or permit issued by any US state
- an official representative of a foreign government who is accredited to the United States Government or the Government’s mission to an international organization having its headquarters in the United States or is en route to or from another country to which that alien is accredited
- an official of a foreign government or a distinguished foreign visitor who has been so designated by the Department of State
- a foreign law enforcement officer of a friendly foreign government entering the United States on official law enforcement business
- has received a waiver from the Attorney General as long as the waiver petition shows this would be in the interests of justice and would not jeopardize the public safety under 18 U.S. Code § 922(y)(3)(c)
Each state has its own laws regarding who is allowed to own or possess firearms, and there are various state and federal permitting and background check requirements. Controversy continues over which classes of people, such as convicted felons, people with severe or violent mental illness, and people on the federal no-fly list, should be excluded. Laws in these areas vary considerably, and enforcement is in flux.
Under United States law, any company or gunsmith which in the course of its business manufactures guns or gun parts, or modifies guns for resale, must be licensed as a manufacturer of firearms.
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- ^ See "District of Columbia v. Heller: The Individual Right to Bear Arms" (PDF) (comment), Harvard Law Review, Vol. 122, pp. 141-142 (2008): "Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, agreeing with the majority that the Second Amendment confers an individual right, but disagreeing as to the scope of that right….Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined Justice Stevens’s opinion."
- ^ Bhagwat, A. (2010). The Myth of Rights: The Purposes and Limits of Constitutional Rights. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 9780195377781.
Justice Stevens begins his opinion by conceding Justice Scalia's point that the Second Amendment right is an 'individual' one, in the sense that '[s]urely it protects a right that can be enforced by individuals.' He concludes, however, that all of the historical context, and all of the evidence surrounding the drafting of the Second Amendment, supports the view that the Second Amendment protects only a right to keep and bear arms in the context of militia service.
- ^ Bennett, R.; Solum, L. (2011). Constitutional originalism : A Debate. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. p. 29. ISBN 9780801447938.
In both dissents, the clear implication is that if the purpose of the Second Amendment is militia—related, it follows that the amendment does not create a legal rule that protects an individual right to possess and carry fire arms outside the context of service in a state militia.
- ^ Schultz, D. A. (2009). Encyclopedia of the United States Constitution. New York: Infobase Publishing. p. 201. ISBN 9781438126777.
Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the debate over the Second Amendment was not whether it protected an individual or collective right but, instead, over the scope of the right to bear arms.
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