The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of the free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The Supreme Court has historically defined the Second Amendment as giving states the right to maintain a militia separate from a federally controlled army. Courts have consistently held that the state and federal governments may lawfully regulate the sale, transfer, receipt, possession, and use of certain categories of firearms, as well as mandate who may and may not own a gun. As a result, there are numerous federal, state, and local laws in existence today, through which a person must navigate in order to lawfully possess a firearm.
There were relatively few laws passed regarding gun control prior to the twentieth century. In fact, most legislation has been passed in the last fifty years.
- The National Firearms Act of 1934 was passed to hinder machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.
- The Firearms Act of 1938 provided for federal licensing of firearms dealers, regulated firearms transportation across state lines by dealers, outlawed the transportation of stolen guns with the manufacturer’s mark eradicated or changed, and outlawed firearms from being carried by fugitives, indicted defendants or convicted felons.
- The National Firearms Act was later amended significantly by the Gun Control Act of 1968, putting more stringent control on licensed sales, buyer requirements, and the importation of sporting guns.
- Prompted by the fear of hijacking, the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 banned plastic and other undetectable guns.
- The Crime Act of 1994 banned the sale and possession of 19 assault-type firearms and certain high-capacity ammunition magazines.
- The Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990 outlawed the knowing possession of firearms in school zones, and made it a crime to carry unloaded firearms within 1,000 feet of the grounds of any public or private school. The law was later held unconstitutional in 1995, in United States vs. Lopez.
- The 1982 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan resulted in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. The Brady Bill imposed a five-day waiting period before a handgun could be taken home by a buyer. Though the law also mandated that local law enforcement officers conduct background checks on prospective handgun purchasers buying from federally licensed dealers, this part of the law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997 in Printz vs. United States as unconstitutional.
Depending on where one lives, a person may only be forbidden to carry a concealed weapon, or may be forbidden to own a handgun at all. People who disobey or are not aware of the laws pertaining to firearms in their local areas and in areas to which they travel may be subject to tough criminal prosecution. It is therefore best to be familiar with the local and national laws before owning a firearm.