America's gun laws: a timeline, and what's changed

SBS News
6 Jan 2016 - 4:05 PM  UPDATED 6 Jan 2016 - 5:02 PM

Obama has proposed executive action on gun control. How is this different to getting through Congress?

1791: Second Amendment

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms. This amendment is part of the Bill Of rights.

The amendment reads:

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.

1934: National Firearms Act

Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, and in response to the proliferation of gang-related crime it created, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, the first major piece of federal gun control legislation.

The act mandated taxation and registration of certain types of firearms. These are now collectively known as NFA firearms and include machine guns, short-barrelled shotguns and rifles, and silencers and supressors. This effectively regulated any firearm that was capable of being concealed.

An NFA firearm must be registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). They must receive a signature for the Chief Law Enforcement Officer in their city or county, receive written permission to transfer the weapon across state lines, and pay a tax.

The applicant must also pass an extensive background check.

1968: Gun Control Act

The year 1968 saw two significant pieces of gun legislation pass through Congress. They were originally set into motion by the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963, who was killed with a rifle purchased by mail-order. The following assasinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy increased support for more restrictive laws.

The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and, among other measures for public safety, prohibited interstate trade in handguns and increased the minimum buying age to 21.

Shortly afterwards, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed (often referred to as Title 1 of US federal firearm laws). It prohibited all convicted felons, known drug users and the mentally ill from buying guns. It also restricted interstate traffic of firearms to licensed dealers. The act also required all arms to carry a serial number and called for more detailed record keeping.

1986: Firearm Owners Protection Act

Prompted by complaints that the federal government had been abusing its power to enforce gun laws, the Firearm Owners Protection Act significantly amended previous legislation and was the beginning of a general movement towards decreasing restrictions on gun sellers.

The law limited the number of ATF inspections of dealers' premises without a warrant and eliminated the need for sales of ammunition to be licenced or recorded.

Dealers were also permitted to sell arms away from the location of the premises listed on their license if they were at a 'gun show' in the same state. (This became known as the gun show loophole and was the target of later legislation).

The law specifically forbids the federal government from creating a national registry of gun ownership.

An amendment is also passed banning civilian ownership of machine guns manufactured before May, 1966. Weapons made and registered before that date are not affected.

1993: Brady Handgun Violence Act

Named after White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, the act mandated background checks of gun buyers in order to prevent sales to people prohibited under the 1968 legislation.

Checks would eventually occur through a new system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), maintained by the FBI, however FOPA prevented the information gathered in such checks from being preserved.

Sales by unlicensed private sellers who are not engaged in gun dealing as a business are not subject to the checks.

1994: Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 produces a 10-year federal ban on the manufacture of new semi-automatic assault weapons, specifiying 19 assault rifles, many of which were the preferred weapon of violent drug gangs.

The act also banned large-capacity ammunition magazines and limited them to 10 rounds.

The law does not apply to weapons already in legal possession, and it remains possible to adapt new weapons to avoid prohibitions.

These bans expired in 2004.

2005: Protection of Lawful Commerce in Ams Act

President George W. Bush signs the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which grants gun manufacturers immunity from civil lawsuits filed over crimes committed with firearms.

The law killed a legal strategy being pursued by gun-control advocates to hold manufacturers liable for the negative effects of their products. 

Manufacturers and dealers remain liable for damages relating to defective products, criminal misconduct, or negligence if they have reason to suspect the gun is intended for use in a crime.

2008: Supreme Court strikes down handgun ban

The Supreme court overturned the D.C. City Council ban on residents owning handguns, which had been in place since 1976. The ban was ruled as being in violation of the Second Amendment and therefore unconstitutional.

2012: Obama attempts to reinstate 1994 restrictions

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which left 20 children and six staff members dead, President Barack Obama announced he would revive efforts to reinstate the ban on assault weapons which had lapsed when the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act expired in 2004.

However, the Republican Party (which had regained control of Congress in the 2010 mid-term elections) blocked all legislation that placed any further restriction on the manufacture, sale or possession of firearms.

President Obama continues to speak in support of gun control during his second term, making it a key feature of his 2013 State of the Union address, and urging local and state officials and governments to help change public opinion.

2013: Obama hands down first executive action

Stymied by legislation being blocked in Congress, President Obama amends the regulation of the ATF, therefore placing further restrictions on firearms without needed bipartisan support.

The regulation closed loopholes in the gun laws that allowed the acquisition of machine guns and other weapons without a background check by individuals registering as a trust or corporation.

Re-importing US military weapons that had been sold to foreign governments was also forbidden. Under the executive action only firearms imported for museums and other historial reasons would be permitted.

These actions drew criticism from gun rights activists as an example of executive overreach.



2016: Obama hands down futher executive action

President Obama criticises the pro-gun lobby in Washington, stating in a press release:

"While Congress has repeatedly failed to take action and pass laws that would expand background checks and reduce gun violence, today, building on the significant steps that have already been taken over the past several years, the Administration is announcing a series of commonsense executive actions."

The orders all take place within federal agencies, which are under President Obama's administrative control. A president does not require an act of Congress to change regulation within a federal agency, as long as the regulation doesn't contravene existing laws.

The orders include:

- ATF background checks will apply whether firearms are sold or purchased at dealerships, gun shows, or online, or as an individual or as part of a trust.

- The FBI will hire an additional 230 NICS examiners to assist in the adequate processing of mandatory background checks. The FBI has also partnered with the US Digital Service to modernise the background check system.

- US Attorneys are required to direct federal prosecutors nationwide to focus on effective enforcement of gun laws, and 200 new ATF agents and investigators are included in the budget.

- $500 million is allocated to encouraging those in need to access mental health care. The Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services will increase efforts to properly report those who should be prohibited from accessing firearms.

- The licensee shipping a gun for sale or transfer will be responsible for notifying law unforcement upon discovery that it had been lost or stolen in transit. All dealers must report all lost and stolen firearms.

 - The Departments of Defence, Justice and Homeland Security will conduct and sponser research into gun safety technology.

- A committment to engage with states, local governments, and the private sector to increase efforts to keep guns out of wrong hands and reduce gun violence.

The full order is available here.