This is the second of a three-part series analyzing gun violence in the United States. Part II focuses more intently on the content of America’s firearm laws, their dangerous implications, and how stricter gun control would prevent many of the country’s gun-related incidents.
The first part of this series ended by drawing attention to the fact that, despite the country’s ongoing gun violence, American gun ownership appears to be on the decline. This doesn’t mean, however, that the country’s number of guns is necessarily shrinking. While there may be fewer people buying them than in decades past, three quarters of those who own guns have two or more. In fact, according to an unpublished survey from 2015, “an estimated 3% of American adults own roughly 50% of the country’s civilian guns.”
“An estimated 3% of American adults own roughly 50% of the country’s civilian guns.”
It seems that Stephen Paddock, now America’s most lethal mass-shooter, was one of these 7.7 million “super-owners,” meaning those who possess between eight and 140 guns. Following the devastating massacre in downtown Las Vegas, police discovered that the shooter legally owned over 40 guns. Paddock had purchased 33 of them in a mere 12 months, something that, to some, would seem like a red flag. However, because of Nevada’s loose gun laws, Paddock experienced no barriers in buying weapons, nor unlimited amounts of high-capacity magazines, or modifiers which allowed his semi-automatic rifles to shoot like widely-prohibited automatic machine guns. Neither did he have to register to own a gun, or purchase a permit or a license. Guns may be becoming less popular in America, but certainly no less easy to own or operate — state and federal legislators have made sure of that.
Under pressure from the NRA, lawmakers across the United States have spent decades watering down gun laws, or otherwise eliminating them altogether. This has granted the country the unique privilege of having the most liberal gun regulation in the developed world and, as was covered last week, the highest rates of gun violence as a result.
Though federal laws impose a minimum level of regulation, these rules are hardly extensive. They primarily dictate who is not allowed to own firearms, such as felons or minors, and what types of weapons are prohibited, like silencers and machine guns — yet even older versions of these guns can be acquired legally if you go through the regulatory hurdles. It doesn’t go much further than that. For example, federal law does not place a limit on the number of guns or amount of ammunition a person can buy at one time. Neither are gun owners required to carry a license nor, unlike some developed countries with lower rates of gun violence, are they placed on a federal registry.
While there have been attempts to strengthen federal laws in the past, legislators have let some of these measures fall by the wayside. Despite widespread public support, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited certain semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, expired in 2004 and was not renewed by Congress. This meant Americans could once again legally own grenade launchers. Since the ban’s lapse, however, observers noted that the legislation “was rife with loopholes and generally ineffective at curbing gun violence — though it might well have reduced mass shootings.”
This is a common feature of federal gun legislation. Beyond being scarce, many laws are also open to wide evasion. Take the background check loophole, for instance. Under the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, federal law requires licensed gun dealers to perform background checks for all gun sales, yet does not enforce this rule on private sellers, like those who sell weapons at gun shows or online. “Individuals prohibited by law from possessing guns can [therefore] easily obtain them from private sellers and do so without any federal records of the transactions,” according to a 2010 report by the US Department of Justice. In other words, prohibited buyers, like convicted felons, can easily get around these ostensibly “universal” checks.
The Brady Act is representative of the NRA’s ability to ensure gun control legislation is whittled down to its barest parts, or else scuttled completely. One provision from the original draft of the bill proposed waiting periods for gun purchases. A recent Harvard Business School study suggests these “cooling off” periods could save hundreds of lives every year. This section was entirely removed following NRA objections. And though background checks on purchases from licensed dealers did remain, its enforcement was not necessarily guaranteed. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, these checks usually take only a few minutes, but if, for whatever reason, they aren’t completed within three business days purchasers can receive their guns without even being verified. This so-called “default proceed” gap led to the 2016 Charleston massacre where nine churchgoers were killed after the shooter was able to obtain a gun without having completed a background check.
While watered-down legislation, like the Brady Act, is better than nothing even these types of bills have become rare in recent years. When President Barack Obama attempted to close the background check loophole after the 2012 Newtown shooting, the bill died on the floor of the Senate following intense pressure from the NRA. Another piece of legislation inspired by this horrific massacre attempted to ban certain assault weapons; this also failed. Meanwhile, recent gun control bills that have succeeded made it through mostly because of their toothlessness.
“These individuals are not permitted to go on a plane, but they are free to buy semi-automatic rifles.”
Rather than limit the potential for gun violence, several recent moves by Washington lawmakers seem to induce the very opposite. Earlier this year, President Trump revoked his predecessor’s efforts to prevent people with mental illness from buying guns. More recently, House Republicans were pushing for a bill which would have lifted a civilian ban on gun silencers. This was shelved after the Las Vegas shooting. Most egregiously, last year, a Republican-led Senate blocked an attempt to ban gun sales to individuals on terrorist watch lists after a shooter, who was on an FBI list, killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub. These individuals are not permitted to go on a plane out of concern they may commit an act of terrorism, but they are free to buy semi-automatic rifles.
Regardless, examining federal regulation is just to scratch the surface of America’s complex and regionally varied web of gun laws. That’s because individual states can craft their own rules beyond what the federal law book says. California has used this to introduce some of the country’s strictest legislation. In recent years, the state has moved to ban most assault weapons as well as the possession of large-capacity magazines. It has also introduced waiting periods on gun purchases and closed the background loophole by requiring all purchases be made through a licenced dealer. Unfortunately, many states, especially those in the South, have moved in the opposite direction, loosening what were already lax laws. These states happen to have the highest rates of gun violence in the country.
Photo of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at CPAC in 2014. Picture taken by Gage Skidmore courtesy of Wikipedia.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.