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Milestones in Federal Gun Control Legislation

A timeline of gun legislation and organizations from 1791 to the present. See also Time Line of Worldwide School and Mass Shootings.

by John Gettings and Catherine McNiff
1791 1871 1930s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s

Throughout American history, high-profile gun violence has focused the national spotlight on gun control.

The Dec. 14, 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School and other mass shootings—like the deadliest school shooting to date at Virginia Polytechnic Institute—are always followed by a public debate of gun safety and gun owners' rights in America.

But despite these debates there has been little response from Congress in the form of new federal gun control legislation. The last significant federal gun law was 1994's Assault Weapons Ban, passed five years before Columbine, which expired in 2004.

On Jan. 16, 2012, President Obama held a press conference to announce his plan for changing the face of gun control in this country. Among his suggested initiatives are universal background checks for gun sales, the reinstatement and strengthening of the assault weapons ban, limiting ammunition magazines to a 10-round capacity, providing schools with resource officers and counselors, putting more police officers on the streets, establishing stronger punishments for gun trafficking, and offering more comprehensive insurance coverage for mental health.

Some of the measures outlined in his speech the president intends to achieve through 23 executive actions, while he called on Congress to do its part to enact stricter gun control legislation.

Should Congress make a move this year, this table should help to add some context to its actions. The following is a timeline of important federal legislation and milestones reached by national organizations tied to the Second Amendment and the issue of gun control.

1791

Second Amendment Ratified

It states, "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." See U.S. Constitution.

1871

National Rifle Association Founded

Union soldiers Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate found the NRA to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis." Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who was also the former governor of Rhode Island and a U.S. Senator, serves as the organization's first president.

1934

National Firearms Act

Brought about by the lawlessness and rise of gangster culture during prohibition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped this act would eliminate automatic-fire weapons like machine guns from America's streets. Other firearms such as short-barreled shotguns and rifles, parts of guns like silencers, as well as other "gadget-type" firearms hidden in canes and such were also targeted. All gun sales and gun manufacturers were slapped with a $200 tax (no small amount for Americans mired in the Great Depression; that would be like a tax of $2,525 today) on each firearm, and all buyers were required to fill out paperwork subject to Treasury Dept. approval.

1938

Federal Firearms Act

Congress aimed this law at those involved in selling and shipping firearms through interstate or foreign commerce channels. Anyone involved in the selling of firearms was required to obtain a Federal Firearms License from the Secretary of Commerce ($1 annual fee). They were also required to record the names and addresses of everyone they sold guns to and were prohibited from selling to those people who were convicted of certain crimes or lacked a permit.

1968

Gun Control Act

The assassination of John F. Kennedy, who was killed by a mail-order gun that belonged to Lee Harvey Oswald, inspired this major revision to federal gun laws. The subsequent assasinations of Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy fueled its quick passage. License requirements were expanded to include more dealers, and more detailed record keeping was expected of them; handgun sales over state lines were restricted; the list of persons dealers could not sell to grew to include those convicted of felonies (with some exceptions), those found mentally incompetent, drug users and more. The act also defined persons who were banned from possessing firearms.

The key element of this bill outlawed mail order sales of rifles and shotguns; Up until this law, mail order consumers only had to sign a statement that they were over 21 years of age for a handgun (18 for rifle or shotgun); it also detailed more persons who were banned from possessing certain guns, including drug users, and further restricted shotgun and rifles sales.

1972

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms created

Enforcement of the Gun Control Act was given to the Dept. of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division of the Internal Revenue Service. The organization replaced "tax" with "firearms," nearly doubled in size, and became the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

1986

Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act

Made it illegal for anyone to manufacture or import armor piercing ammunition, or "cop-killer bullets," which are capable of penetrating bulletproof clothing.

Firearms Owners' Protection Act

Eased restrictions on gun sellers and the sale of some guns. Imposed additional penalties for persons using a firearm during certain crimes and persons with robbery or burglary convictions who are illegally shipping guns.

1990

Crime Control Act

Directed the attorney general to develop a strategy for establishing "drug-free school zones," including criminal penalties for possessing or discharging a firearm in a school zone. Outlawed the assembly of illegal semiautomatic rifles or shotguns from legally imported parts.

1994

Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act

Imposed, on an interim basis, a five-day waiting period and background check before a licensed gun importer, manufacturer or dealer can sell or deliver a handgun to an unlicensed individual.

Required a new National Instant Criminal Background Check System, run by the FBI, be ready to replace the waiting period by Nov. 30, 1998. The new background check system will apply to all firearms and will allow checks to be done over the phone or electronically with results returned immediately in most cases.

Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act

Commonly referred to as the "Assault Weapons Ban," this bill banned the manufacture, possession, and importation of new semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices (or magazines) for civilian use.

Criteria for semiautomatic assault weapons that fall under the ban are provided as well as a list of 19 specific firearms.

Prohibits juveniles from possessing or selling handguns and directs the attorney general to evaluate proposed and existing state juvenile gun laws.

2013

President Obama Proposes Sweeping Changes to Gun Control

In response to recent massacres, including the killing of 20 first graders in Newtown, Conn., and 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., President Barack Obama introduces proposals to tighten gun-control laws. His plan includes universal background checks for gun sales, the reinstatement and strengthening of the assault weapons ban, limiting ammunition magazines to a 10-round capacity, and other measures.

Colorado Recalls Pro-Gun Control State Senators

On Sept. 10, voters threw out of office Democrats John Morse and Angela Giron for their support of recently enacted gun-control laws that mandate background checks on private gun sales and limit magazine clips to 15 rounds. The election drew national attention not only for the ouster of the officials but also for the influx of money on both sides, from the National Rifle Association and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun-control advocate.






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