Useful Notes / American Gun Politics

"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."
The 1791 Second Amendment to the United States' Constitutionnote .

A fascinating and emotive political divide in the USA, and one which sets the USA apart from all countries of comparable wealth and values. It centres on whether preparation for armed conflict or the day-to-day quality and quantity of life of the USA's citizens is more important. It has three major political elements:

No less fascinating is what psychology has to tell us about what sustains debates in mass-politics. Namely, these are not rooted in reasoning and logic but in strong values and beliefs - on all sides. Yes, even positions based on faith in the power of human reasoning to triumph over emotion.

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     Preface: Belief 

Human beings evolved to use their powers of reasoning to satisfy their physical and emotional wants. By default we use logic to make us feel good about ourselves and our decisions. Even intellectual self-awareness tends to stem from the emotional feeling of being bad somehow (e.g. inadequacy or guilt), which causes us to use logic to make us feel bad about our character and actions. As if this weren't bad enough, we also automatically perceive and remember the world in ways which validates our feelings and choices.

To elaborate by lovingly reproducing sections from the boffins who wrote our articles on Useful Notes/Psychology and Believing Their Own Lies:

  • Confirmation Bias: People are more likely to remember things that support what they already believe, and to interpret ambiguous data to support their own conclusions. If your favorite MMO got an Editor's Choice award from GameSpot, you'll remember that. The fact that it got 8.8 reviews from every other publication out there may mysteriously slip your mind.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Selective attention and inattentional blindness. We don't think about it much, but every single moment of every day we are bombarded with huge swaths of information: blue skies, trees waving in the wind, the smell of grass, the sound of people's voices, the feeling of walking or sitting at our chairs or even wearing clothes. At some point, we must either learn to ignore this stuff or be overwhelmed by it. So we filter out any information that isn't pertinent to whatever we're doing right now. ...And run the risk of not noticing that the guy we're giving directions to isn't the guy we started giving directions to. (Why should we?—his identity and clothing are irrelevant to the fact that he doesn't know how to get to the bus stop. Still, it's funny to watch.)
  • Selective Obliviousness: Denial, pure and simple. Obviously, if you don't want to think or know about something, being able to shut it away can be very useful in the short term; but huge swaths of drama and horror stories have been written about someone who just can't face the truth. Apply with caution.
  • Self-Serving Memory: Human memory is plastic, malleable. Combine this with the fact that people aren't actually that observant, and a "memory" will warp and shift over time as the story of it gets altered to 1) be more consistent with itself (wait, X couldn't have happened before Y, so Y must have happened first), 2) be more consistent with other things the person believes (wait, wasn't Dave in Aruba? It must have been Bob), and 3) remain consistent with the person's beliefs about himself (I'd never say something like that. I must have said something else.). It can reach the point where siblings will each remember a highly specific event which could only have happened to one of them.

What this means for mass politics is that many people do not respond to logical arguments because they are biologically predisposed to misunderstand, dismiss, and forget all information which threatens to make them feel bad. The most fundamental feelings under threat typically 'goodness'/'morality' and 'intelligence'/'reasonableness' - very few people want to feel that they are bad or stupid. Some 3/4 of people believe that they 'have more common sense than the average person'.

     'Gun Control' 

A British-style militia is necessary for the USA's security, since she's too poor to have a European-style standing army and has no real need of one anyway? Sure. 'The People' can have weapons. Simple as it gets. But problems start when you try to put them together and interpret them in today's world: is the law about arming the militia in the name of 'the people' or arming 'the people' so they can form militia? One way of intepreting the USA's constitution is to conform to the intent of writers of the constitution and/or that particular change to it. The other is to go along with the general principles (freedom, prosperity, justice, democracy, etcetc) and the letter of the constitution's laws in their present form, but still actively work to have it changed and meanwhile exploit ambiguous wording to ensure the public's welfare. Do note that the USA's constitution can actually be changed, it's just very difficult because 2/3 of the people in their federal law-writing bodies have to agree on it, AND the law-writing bodies in 3/4 of the states have to sign off on it as well.

In any case, the interpretation of this chunk of their constitution gives an ideological backbone to two causes: individual-armament and militia-armament (or 'pro-gun' and 'anti-gun'), with plenty of other standpoints abounding (minus said ideological backbone). Make no mistake - this is the USA, so both sides are in favour of extensive conventional-military and nuclear armament. But they have their differences:

The individual-armament lobby emphasises, well, individual armament to a standard that makes the average citizen a useful conscript/partisan/terrorist in a Civil War. Having conscripts who have basic familiarity with weapons will cut down on their training time, allowing the faction they join to produce forces more quickly in the opening stages of the war. If they contribute their own weapons to the cause they could even simplify and cheapen their faction's attempts to arm their troops (the faction needing only to buy heavy weapons and machine-tools with which to set up factories and manufacture vast quantities of ammunition). But they also believe that the next US Civil War will have extensive partisan and terrorist elements and that it is important to ensure the armament of each individual citizen so that the Civil War faction with the greatest popular support will have an advantage - even if most of the regular military sides with the less popular side, normal people can make up the difference through sniping, (suicide-)bombings, and ambushes to deny their enemies 'secure areas' and hamper their supply lines. Relatively ordinary people (out of uniform) can also kill key public figures, ordinary enemy supporters, and their families when a regular military could not - such atrocities would demoralise the enemy faction and discourage public support for it without discrediting one's own faction too much, again favouring the side with the most popular support. Some insist that on a day-to-day basis lethal weapons like firearms are more useful than non-lethal weaponry for reducing crime via maiming and/or killing criminals in self-defense, since it is more likely to cause injury or death of the criminal if the would-be victim fires first.

The militia-armament lobby emphasizes, well, the armament of the USA's professional military organisations - at the expense of the average citizen, who is not expected to contribute to fighting a Civil War. They are not concerned with the possibility of Civil War or its outcome, but are focused on the day-to-day management of society. Accordingly they want to restrict the armament of normal people to reduce suicide and murder (particularly mass-murder). The militia-armament lobby believes that, unlike the rest of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment should be interpreted as guaranteeing a collective right and therefore the armament of the USA's various law-enforcement and defense organisations (Police, National Guard, Military) but not private citizens - who are internationally notorious for abusing that right to murder loads of people. They support their position with the arguments that:

  • Universal Armament enables citizens to kill themselves and/or murder large numbers of people very easily.
  • Countries of similar levels of economic development (and government enforcement of laws) have successfully reduced the incidence of suicide and mass-murder by abandoning Universal Armament.

The individual-armament lobby, which is represented by the US's NRA (National Rifle Association, though members have all sorts of firearms) and other organizations, believes that the Second Amendment should not be changed because they favour a strict interpretation of the constitution according to its meaning when it was last changed concerned firearms ("well-regulated" meant "well-equipped" at the time). In other words they suppor the armament of individuals, rather than that of professional organisations such as the police, militia, and military. They butress their position with the arguments that:

  • Civil War remains a possibility, and given sufficient cultivation of 'American Values' in the country's youth Universal Armament could ensure that the faction which remains the most true to American Values has an advantage in the war.
  • Revolution remains a possibility, and given sufficient cultivation of 'American Values' in the country's s youth Universal Armament could ensure a swift victory for the Revolutionary forces against those of a traitorous government.
  • Invasion remains a possibility, and Universal Armament could hamper the enemy's supply lines and force them to adopt harsh anti-partisan measures which would reflect badly upon them.
  • Laws designed to reduce firearms(-mass)-murder complicate the lives of people who use guns legally.
  • Criminal gangs might still be able to acquire firearms even if the USA tried a European-style disarmament program.
  • The gang culture of the USA could mean that even if insane people were unable to buy firearms and go on mass-murder sprees, mass-murders might still occur during Gang Wars.
  • Universal Armament theoretically allows citizens willing to kill or maim potential attackers the opportunity to do so when not caught by surprise or when confronted by attackers unwilling to harm them in a surprise attack.

They make the point that some of the Founding Fathers were distrustful of government (which is Truth in Television), which is then used to claim that the purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to ensure that a Civil War or Revolution could always be initiated if the central government was sufficiently unpopular, even if the army and/or navy were largely loyal to the government. Because the Constitution already provides for a national army and navy without the Bill of Rights, the militia clause is most often interpreted to refer to the people themselves rather than the military forces of each individual state or the USA as a whole.

The concept of a citizen militia dates back to 12th century English common law, and its requirement that royal subjects keep and bear arms for military duty. King Henry II, in the Assize of Arms, obligated all freemen to bear arms for public defense. King Henry III required men between the ages of fifteen and fifty (including non-land owning subjects) to bear arms. The reason was that in the absence of a regular army and police force, it was the duty of citizen militias to keep watch and ward at night to capture and confront suspicious persons.

As of June 26, 2008, the United States Supreme Court found that an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense exists within the Second Amendment, in the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller. The chances of this solving the general argument are about nil. About two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago that the right to bear arms is incorporated against the states, meaning that states (and, by extension, local governments, which were created by the states) cannot ban guns outright. However, Justice Alito's majority opinion clearly leaves leeway for governments to regulate access to firearms in their jurisdiction. This allows them to implement age restrictions and mandatory background checks to limit access they see fit, as well as the power to outright ban certain types or specific models of guns and related accessories. Despite the fact that both rulings affirm the right of ordinary citizens to bear arms while not considering it completely inviolable, both ''individual-armament'' and ''militia-armament''advocates remain dissatisfied as the ruling failed to clarify how existing firearms regulations are to be reviewed. In any case, the ruling prompted the NRA to file multiple lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of several pre-existing firearms regulations, which will likely be tied up in courts for years.

The point is, there is a lot of disagreement on the issue.


Just about the only thing that both sides of the debate have in common is that their arguments are supported by the verbiage of the Constitution of the United States of America. Key among them is of course, the Second Amendment, which is rooted in the history of the colonies prior to The American Revolution.

For the longest time, the thirteen British colonies of North America did not maintain any standing armies of their own. Given the expanse of the frontier and the shakiness of some of the government's agreements with the various Amerindian tribes, the colonists could not rely on British troops for protection either. Local defense (especially in border-regions) fell to the citizens themselves, who formed themselves into armed militia to raid the Amerindians, maintain law and order, and theoretically defend their homes if the French or Spanish or Dutch should attack. All adult males were normally expected to be a member of the local militia, and would provide and maintain their own firearms. Life on the frontier being uncertain as it was, practically every household kept a musket for protection or hunting anyhow.

When a series of incidents in Colonial North America dragged mainland Britain into the Seven Years' War (known locally as the 'French and Indian War'), the local militias were called up to defend their terrories and free up manpower for the regular army. Some of these were then formed into regular army regiments commanded by their own British-American officers, George Washington being a prominent example. The crown had to invest considerable resources in defending the colonies before the tide of war finally turned. Contributions of the militia over the course of the war were minimal, though the war would have a significant impact on subsequent events. The government was already heavily indebted before the war, but the expense of servicing the newest war-time loans meant that new revenue would have to come in they wanted to stay on top of the added interest. Since British America paid practically nothing in tax, despite having a fifth of the entire population of the United Kingdom on its lonesome, the bean-counters in London figured that they could at least get something more out of them - not least because it was their damned fault there was a war and all those extra debts in the first place! Needless to say the richer colonists were not pleased because they were quite happy with paying virtually no taxes, thank you, and ideologically-minded folk throughout the whole country (not just North America) agreed that it was unconstitutional to tax segments of the population who didn't elect members to parliament and thereby give their consent to said taxes. One thing lead to another, and in a few short years the government found itself facing the second Civil War in as many centuries.note 

The American Revolution was said to have "officially" begun when the army got word that the militias were stockpiling large quantities of gunpowder and other munitions. So, on April 19, 1775, the army sent out a force from Boston to the countryside to confiscate militia arms and arrest revolutionaries in Concord. When they arrived in Lexington, they were confronted by the local militia on the village square. Shots were fired and fighting broke out: the militia got their faces stomped into the grass, but had bought enough time for the supply caches in town to be removed and to alert colonial garrisons in other communities. The army force ended up getting shot to pieces as they marched to Concord and back. News of the Battles at Lexington and Concord spread, and one by one the colonies' governments eventually rose in rebellion. The rest as they say, is history.

So as you can see, the practice of maintaining firearms in the household is firmly rooted in the US's history. Aside from its use as a means of killing Indians and Frenchmen, helping police the village, and killing game for food, it also played a prominent (albeit often exaggerated) role in the Civil War/War of Independence. When the war ended, the necessity of maintaining a militia for defense of the union as well as allowing citizens to keep their own firearms would be enshrined as a constitutional right for reasons that were quite practical, as law enforcement was virtually non-existent and the nascent republic was so weak that the greatest threat to its national security was actually the establishment of a unified Amerindian Nation that could block its westward expansion. It also appealed to the Enlightenment beliefs that would form the basis of how the new nation was to be run, namely that the sovereignty of the state is established through the common interest of the people.

But two hundred years is a long time, and a lot has changed since then.

For similar information on Australia's gun laws, click here.

     Party Politics 

This isn't as much of a party-line issue as most topics. From the 2008 Presidential Democratic and Republican nomination cycles, Bill Richardson was a Democrat and a gun-friendly candidate, while Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were very much on the side of further gun control while being Republicans. That having been said, no remotely sane Republican candidate for President can risk grossly alienating the National Rifle Association voting bloc during the general election season, while at least one Democratic candidate has done so and still won.

American gun control policy is one of the more emotional issues in the sphere of US politics. Its importance derives partially from the concept of "single-issue voting", which we here on the enlightened and egalitarian TV Tropes database call "Single-Issue Wonk". What this means is that there are certain blocs of people who will vote for or against a candidate based solely on their position on a single hot-button issue: the candidate could agree with them on everything except that one issue, and the single-issue voters would still go against them. Besides gun control, other hot-button topics include, but are not limited to abortion, the war in Iraq, gay marriage and legalization of marijuana.

Another point that gun-rights advocates consistently and rightly bring up is that many of the anti-gun politicians, celebrities, and wealthy businessmen never go anywhere without armed bodyguards. "Do as I say, not as I do" simply does not carry much weight in this matter. However this conveniently ignores the fact that armed security has been extensively trained to use the weapons that they carry, and that the people they are protecting are far more likely to be attacked, making the comparison between them and an average citizen irrelevant.

     Individual Safety 

Many Americans on the individual-armament side of the debate argue that private gun ownership is essential to guerilla warfare, which is in turn a key way of striking back at unpopular governments; on the whole Americans are still very mindful of the need for military mobilization and guerilla warfare, which makes sense when you think about the English Civil War that was still in living memory (depending how one defines its ending, whether with the Restoration in 1660, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, or the Battle of Culloden in 1745, which effectively ended the Jacobites as a political force) when they fought another Civil War which was still in living memory when they fought ''another'' Civil War and then another just to cap it all off. Besides, enough abuses of power are reported daily to inspire some mistrust of a government monopoly on weaponry, especially given the examples of countries where authoritarian governments have enacted disarmament in the aftermath of Civil Wars or armed rebellions - the prime example cited being post-Civil War Red China, which upon its victory in 1950 disarmed the country's millions of politically-unreliable warlord militiamen and bandits due to their bad habits of robbing and killing people note . In any case, some feel that private gun ownership would be useful in guerilla warfare in a civil war or foreign occupying power. These arguments are very much theoretical given that the USA is neither on the brink of Civil War nor in any danger of being occupied, and Americans favoring 'gun control' tend to ignore them or consider them irrelevant to their country's contemporary politics.

More contentious is the usefulness of firearms against street-level crime. Gun-rights advocates often play up the deterrence effect of an armed citizenry: a 1994 study by the Department of Justice titled "Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms" estimated approximately 1.5 million defensive gun uses (that is to say, incidents where the presence of a firearm either successfully defended against crime or deterred a criminal from committing a crime, without the firearm in question having necessarily been used) occur per year. Gun-control groups however, state that any such effects are outweighed by accidental deaths and greater availability of firearms to criminals: it is undeniable that the United States has a disproportionately higher level of homicides and violent crimes when compared to most other developed nations. Plenty of anecdotal evidence gets thrown around by both sides, along with statistics of questionable believability.

Part of the difference in opinion is due to the usual rural/urban divide in American politics. In rural areas, police presence is much lower, and while crime is generally lower, in the face of a criminal a citizen is less likely to get a timely response from a police officer and more likely to need to take self-defense into his or her own hands. In a heavily urban area, police presence is higher and hence the need for personal lethal self-defense is lower, while the density of people means that even legal guns are more likely to find their way into criminal hands (e.g. through theft) There's also concern about the extent of self-defense laws, which may more or less justify use of an appropriate level of force to defend yourself. The problem is that the definition of "appropriate" can be very broad, even before taking into account the huge amount of variance that occurs across jurisdictions. Consider this: if one person kills with their gun, claiming that the person they killed was trying to kill them, were they justified in killing them even if the judge and jury have no reason to believe that they were? Someone who has appeared on your property and is acting suspiciously (seeming about to torch your house and/or murder you) may just be drunk, tired, or insane - but your killing them could still be provoked by genuine fears.


Understanding American gun legislation requires a certain amount of familiarity with terminology. Here's a short primer:

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE, but commonly referred to as simply the ATF) defines the categories of small arms as follows:

  • Rifle: A firearm designed for use with 2 hands, with a rifled bore and either a shoulder stock or a pair of vertical grips. Minimum overall length 26 inches, barrel length 16 inches from muzzle to breach face.
    • Short Barreled Rifle: As above, but failing one or both of the length minimums. Legal, with a $200 tax stamp.
  • Shotgun: Similar to Rifle, but with a smooth bore and a minimum barrel length of 18 inches.
    • Short Barreled Shotgun: Determined and taxed as Short Barreled Rifle. A modified (sawed-off) shotgun is considered illegal due to concealability concerns.
  • Pistol: A weapon intended for use with one hand, with a rifled bore. No length restrictions.
  • Any Other Weapon: A firearm that does not fall into an above category. The most common examples of this category are smoothbore pistols. Though it costs $200 for the initial tax stamp, it costs only $5 to transfer the weapon.
    • With the exception of shotguns that only have a pistol grip. The ATF determined in 2010 that such a weapon was not a "firearm" as defined by the National Firearms Act of 1934, although it was a "firearm" under the Gun Control Act of 1968. As a result, it is treated as an "other weapon"—NOT "Any Other Weapon"—and requires no tax stamp or special paperwork other than that required for a standard shotgun or pistol.
  • Machine Gun: Any weapon that fires more than one bullet at a time, regardless of what other categories it falls into, or whether or not it fits the actual definition of "machine gun." This includes fully automatic (constant fire), burst (firing a mechanically regulated set number of rounds) and selective (possessing 2 or more user selected firing modes). Originally phrased as one bullet "[[ExactWords per trigger pull", but was changed after people started making fully-automatic weapons with no triggers. Does not include crank powered weapons such as the Gatling Gun. Technically legal, and costs $200 to transfer, but no new tax stamps have been issued since 1986, and the ATF will often at least try to prosecute you for owning one regardless of its legality anyway.
  • Destructive Device: A rifled bore weapon greater than .50 caliber in bore, explosive devices, and any weapon repurposed to launch an explosive device. Includes anti-tank weapons. Does not include flare guns unless you either acquire or make a grenade that will fit it, in which case both will be considered a Destructive Device when the charges are filed.

In 1994, the US Congress passed an assault weapons ban, a measure that limited the sale of larger capacity weapons and was somewhat of a porridge of a law. Valid for only 10 years, it lapsed in 2004. In addition to banning some weapons by name (including the TEC-9 pistol, which had come to be associated with street gangs) and restricting magazine capacities to just ten rounds, it introduced a list of features that a weapon could have only a certain number of, including heat shields, bayonet lugs, pistol grips and thumbhole stocks on rifles and magazines outside the grip on pistols. This law is generally considered a joke on both sides, largely for the same reason: it banned things that looked scary (like the heat shields, which are, in fact, safety features for the operator) regardless of actual lethality. In addition, most arms makers were able to retool their lines, trimming off enough listed features to stay in production (such as the deletion of the bayonet lug from Colt's post-'94 AR-15 rifles). This law only applied to semi-automatic weapons, even though the news networks often played footage from the North Hollywood Shootoutnote  while discussing it.

Civilians can own machine guns made before May 1986. However, due to high demand and a very small and increasingly worn-out supply, they are more expensive than most cars. Obtaining one requires a substantial amount of paperwork, the same background check that purchasing a single shot rifle does, and a $200 tax stamp (this is not a permit, though it is mistaken for one a lot). The $200 tax stamp rule was started in the 1930s when $200 was cost-prohibitive to almost everybody. While the dollar amount has stayed the same since the '30s, owning a machine gun or assault rifle is still far too expensive for most Americans due to the aforementioned value of such weapons.

As of recent years, some states (Kansas, Georgia and Texas to name a few) have fully legalized machine guns and other fully automatic weapons, although the permits required for them can typically fill bookcases.

All states have concealed-carry laws, allowing a person to carry a weapon in a concealed holster with a permit. The ease of obtaining these permits varies widely; Alaska, Vermont and Arizona don't require permits at all, but getting a permit does have benefits (can carry in more places, speeds up buying a firearm, and can carry in some other states), while in other states, multiple legal hurdles have to be jumped through to acquire a permit. Many states do not outlaw the carry of an unconcealed weapon, or require a permit for such activity, although even carrying a weapon openly and lawfully can result in negative political results and get you a lot of funny looks depending on where you are. Note that the instruction of law enforcement agencies can supersede the law: if the Secret Service says that you cannot carry a gun when the President is in the building, regardless of whether or not it's allowed in that particular state, you will be arrested for failing to comply. In California, unless you are rich, powerful, know the right people or live in a rural county, a concealed carry permit is out of the question, as they are issued at the discretion of politically-appointed municipal police chiefs or county sheriffs in unincorporated areasnote . This is the subject of an ongoing court battle, as the "May-Issue" policy essentially deprives you of a right without due process.

The issue of gun laws frequently ends up in the courts, but these cases don't tend to go anywhere; the Heller decision on DC gun laws is the first Supreme Court ruling on the topic in nearly seventy years.

     Carry Permits and Online Sales 

In general, where there is a requirement to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon (CC permit), the permit system generally devolves into one of two forms: "shall issue" and everything else. Under a "shall issue" system, you fill out a form, may have to provide some qualifications (like having had some firearms safety training), and pay a fee. You get fingerprinted and photographed, and unless you have a criminal record, the police shall issue you a permit; they cannot refuse. Under all other permit systems, they can impose additional requirements or refuse to issue you a permit altogether.

In some places, you couldn't carry, open or concealed without a permit, but if you have a permit it will allow concealed carry. Until the Heller decision, Washington D.C. was under a "shall not issue" regime; you could be a security guard (as Heller was) who had a police permit to carry a weapon on duty, but you could not, for love or money, get a permit to have a gun at home. New York City was almost as restrictive, but if you either have (considerable) money or (equally considerable) political connections you could get a permit, and many of the very same city leaders who impose those restrictions turn around and use those connections for that exact purpose. Before a federal court decision in December 2012 held that Illinois' blanket ban on concealed carry was unconstitutional, Chicago had been perhaps the most restrictive of all — the city refused to even print the registration forms required by city ordinance to allow firearms to be kept in the home, let alone carry permits. That is, unless you had the aforementioned considerable money or political connections (note that Chicago is infamous for its corrupt machine politics, so this isn't special). Since then, Illinois has passed a concealed carry law that allows all legal owners of firearms who complete a 16-hour training course and pass a background check to receive permits. The new law creates a "shall issue" regime, with permits issued by the Illinois State Police (therefore taking all local governments, including Chicago, out of the loop).

Online Sales

One of the more contentious areas in the digital age arises from online and gun show sales, due to concerns over how weapons sold in such a way could be obtained by criminals, due to not requiring a background checknote  A few investigative reports have shown that existing standards are sometimes not enforced, as vendors sometimes take a buyer at their word rather than double-checking the license, or sell a gun to someone that doesn't live within the same state via online trading. In a few cases, this Loophole Abuse allowed those that were legally barred from gun ownership to get one from an unlicensed vendor, with one investigation done by the City of New York finding that 77 out of 125 vendors would sell to those that admitted that they probably couldn't pass a background check.

This news has led gun control proponents to push for universal background checks, while those against this idea invoke the Slippery Slope Fallacy by saying that it would only be a matter of time before a national gun registry was created if the background checks became universal. Compounding this is the argument that enforcing such background checks would be burdensome on non-FFL vendors. Interestingly, the NRA (see below) used to endorse the idea of universal background checks in the mid-'90s before siding with the latter camp.


National Rifle Association (NRA) and Assorted Gun Rights Advocates

The main gun lobby is the National Rifle Association's Institute For Legislative Action. Not only do they spend large amounts of money supporting politicians and lobbying, but the NRA itself provides legal support, firearms safety training, and sponsors marksmanship tournaments throughout the United States. In some instances, NRA-certified instructors have an official status in gun training and hunting; most states that license the carrying of concealed weapons specifically recognize NRA instructors by statute.

While they officially state their primary purpose is to support game hunters, target shooters, gun collectors, and the defense of lawful citizens from crime, they tend to take a hard line against gun control measures regardless of their apparent relation to these groups. While very recently they have moderated some of their more extreme positions, they have resisted attempts to ban machine guns, assault weapons (however defined), and armor-piercing ammunition, as well as identification measures to prevent felons and mentally ill people from buying firearms and attacking any regulation to make guns more child safe, such as adding child locks or mandating how guns are kept in the home. Their resistance to background checks and licensing for gun owners has also attracted some controversy, as well as the sources of their funding having ties to gun manufacturers themselves. On the other hand, the NRA supported the current background check system, the NICS, and seldom lobbies against legislation to increase penalties for preexisting crimes.

While the NRA is the predominate supporter of lawful gun usage, it's not the only one in the United States. Other noteworthy groups include the Pink Pistols, who focus on self-defense for GLBT individuals, the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and the Gun Owners of America; the latter two tend to be more absolutist on the matter of gun control than the NRA. The Second Amendment Foundation and Law Enforcement Alliance of America are generally, although not always, considered more moderate supporters of gun owners' rights.

Joyce Foundation and Associated Gun Control Advocates

American gun control advocates do not really have a single unified public face like the NRA does. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was particularly powerful during the early-mid '90s, but now is primarily a force inside major cities, while the Violence Policy Center and American Hunters and Shooters Association tend to have stronger showings in more suburban or rural areas. General points of focus are the ban of assault weapons, handguns, and some types of ammunition, in addition to raising taxes on guns and ammunition, requiring longer waiting periods or police permission for gun ownership, and limiting sales of firearms.

The most general and noteworthy group would be the Joyce Foundation; it does not lobby personally, but is a major source of funding for a lot of different gun control advocates, ranging from groups as small as blogs to as large as the Violence Policy Center.

Gun control advocates tend to be criticized on a number of grounds — beyond questions of constitutionality, critics often bring up the fact that anyone already willing to commit murder (one of if not the most severe class A felony on the books and with a max sentence of life imprisonment or death) is hardly likely to be deterred by a charge of unlawful firearms possession (a class C felony with a max sentence of 10 years), claim that the gun laws advocated by these groups punish the innocent without blocking the criminally inclined, and that the facts and terms used by gun control advocates are misleading at best and more likely entirely false. In short, "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns". However, given that most guns used by criminals were at one point legally purchased and that guns are complex pieces of machinery that require an established infrastructure to manufacture, it is unclear where said outlaws are supposed to acquire said firearms.

Back in the 1980s, there was a significant increase in crimes being committed on tourists in Florida. Nobody could figure out why tourists were being targeted for robberies and other violent felonies until someone looked at the change in the law. Florida had gone to a "shall issue" concealed carry permit system which allowed any resident without a felony conviction to get a permit for concealed carry. But this obviously did not apply to non-residents, so criminals watched for people who drove automobiles that had rental car license plates, and (correctly, in most cases) targeted those people as they would be less likely to be a resident who might be carrying a concealed weapon. This problem became serious enough that Florida and some other states discontinued, except on request, the special classes of license plates that indicate a vehicle is a rental car. Of course, the facts that tourists are a popular and easy target just about everywhere, and that Florida gets huge numbers of them, is rarely mentioned.

The Violence Policy Center, for example, has falsely claimed that there "are virtually no significant differences" between semiautomatic assault weapons and automatic assault rifles (except for that the fully automatic weapons continue to discharge rounds for as long as the trigger is held back, and semi-automatic weapons fire only one round per trigger pull, which you'd think would be considered a "significant difference"!), falsely accused Barrett Firearms Company of selling .50 caliber rifles to Al-Qaeda, and has stated that "[Semi-Automatic assault weapons] are arguably more deadly than [selective fire] military versions.". The Brady Campaign has moved to ban plastic guns, despite the fact that no guns capable of passing undetected through x-ray machines or metal detectors currently exist, fictitious claims about the x-ray-opaque and >1.5 lbs of metal GLOCKs aside. The Joyce Foundation is also criticized for funding small groups of other advocates and of scholarly studies, with individual-armament groups claiming that this amounts to astroturfing and creating questionably accurate studies on an amazing scale. The NRA and other gun control opponents have also criticized the terms "assault weapon" and "armor piercing ammunition", as they do not have any clear definition, and proposed laws claiming to ban just "assault weapons" or "armor piercing ammunition" have covered popular non-military rifles and handguns like the Ruger 10/22 or Walther P22, as well as ammunition used for deer hunting, like the .30-06 (in fact, almost all centerfire rifle ammunition can pierce body armor).

     Firearm-Related Crime Statistics 

According to Department of Justice statistics, in the year 2008 (the most recent year for which this data and analysis is available)

"The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) measures the nonfatal violent crimes of rape/sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault. Victims who experience violent crimes are asked if the offender(s) used weapons.

In 2008 —

  • An offender was armed with a gun, knife, or other object used as a weapon in an estimated 20% of all incidents of violent crime.
  • Offenders used firearms to commit 7% of violent crime incidents in 2008.
  • Robberies (40%) were the most likely crime to involve an armed offender.
  • Firearms (24%) were the most common weapons used in robberies.
  • Most rapes and assaults did not involve the use of a weapon, although rape is overwhelmingly a personal rather than random crime and so emotional manipulation and/or non-violent co-ercion is all that is needed.
  • Of serious nonfatal 'violent victimizations', 28% were committed with a firearm, 4% were committed with a firearm and resulted in injury, and less than 1% resulted in gunshot wounds."

This study tells us that while weapons, particularly firearms, are often used to commit crimes most crimes are committed without them. What we can't speak of from this one study alone is whether the greater levels of armament in the USA (50%, versus 15% in Australia) result in higher overall levels of murder and crime: to do that we would need to analyse other countries. See Firearm Deaths Statistics for such details.

On the other end, data from the NCVS indicates that a firearm is used in the [i]prevention[/i] of a crime a minimum of 100,000 times a year fairly consistently, and most analysts put the actual number at about 250k to 300k when looking at other data and compensating for the NCVS only asking the question in fairly limited circumstances. Surveys at the high end pin this number north of 1 million/year, but are considered less reliable. ("Defensive" use includes everything from actually stopping a mugger by being armed and chasing off a burglar with a claim of being armed.) This is either interpreted as a counter-argument to the extreme anti-gun position or further evidence that Americans are crazy, depending on which side of things you're on and how invested you are in sticking with your camp.

     Firearm-Related Suicide Statistics 

Perhaps the most notable thing about firearms-suicide is just how low survival rates are compared to all other methods (hitting things at speed, cutting off air-supply, bleeding, drug-overdose). The suicide 'success' rate is therefore intimately related with the availability of firearms. This is the source of most "waiting period" gun control laws, since clinically a suicide attempt which is prevented (by having to wait a few days between buying and receiving a firearm in this case) often will not make a second attempt.

Interestingly, a cross-cultural study of European countries and firearms-deaths by Harvard concluded that the availability of firearms in so-called 'disarmed societies' has less effect on murder- and suicide-rates than other factors: a slightly better armed society is not necessarily one with more murders and suicides. 'Happier' countries have fewer murders and suicides and 'unhappier' countries have more: all a few percentage-points' worth of difference in firearms-ownership does is pave the way.

The practical upshot of this study for US readers is that while a concerted disarmament program would reduce her (firearms)-deaths, diminishing returns would begin to kick in once firearms-ownership was under about 20% or so (after a a 60% reduction in ownership). Reducing gun-ownership below that level would have less and less effect on the overall number of suicides and murders as ownership approached zero and factors other than ownership (medical care for the insane and mentally disturbed, attitudes to criminals & rehabilitation thereof, unemployment, etcetc) became more important in determining the overall murder and suicide rates.

     Firearm-Related Death Statistics 

Of the industrialized democratic nations, the United States leads in firearm deaths by a huge margin. The United States also happens to be the only one with mass access to firearms - some 50% of their population is armed, versus less than 20% for everyone else.

Guns per 100 residents runs as follows: (Note that Switzerland requires adult males to have a firearm in their house as part of their army reserve. Said firearm is not to be used for any other purpose and is almost a holy object never to be touched except for official duty. It is also unloaded, with ammunition only to be handed out at government-run armories when they are actually called up-thus it's basically just a club.)

  • United States: 90
  • Switzerland: 46
  • France 32
  • Finland 32
  • Greece 31.8
  • Canada 31.5
  • Sweden 31.5
  • Austria 31
  • Germany 30
  • New Zealand 26.8
  • Australia 15.5
  • Italy 12.1
  • United Kingdom 5.6

Note these figures are based on the total number of guns; if a collector owns 50 guns, it obviously doesn't mean one person per gun. Although the USA has a nearly 1:1 firearm:citizen ratio, only half her population is actually armed.

List of the same countries by firearm-related death rate per 100,000 population in one year:
  • United States: 15.22 (or 11.66 depending on which figure you use)
  • Finland: 6.86
  • Switzerland: 6.4
  • France: 6.35
  • Canada: 4.78
  • Italy: 2.95
  • Austria: 2.94
  • Australia: 2.94
  • New Zealand: 2.66
  • Sweden: 2.36
  • Germany: 1.57
  • Greece: 1.5
  • United Kingdom (England/Wales): 0.46 or 0.38

Looking at all deaths-by-gun in the USA, the vast majority fall into the following categories:
  • A person accidentally shooting themselves or a close family member with their own gun.
  • A person deliberately shooting themselves or a close family member with their own gun.
Briefly, if there is a gun in your house, you are much more likely to be killed with that gun than any other.

The New England Journal of Medicine has found that, "Keeping a gun in the home [is] strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide."

If your head is still in one piece after reading all that, we take our hats off to you. No pun intended.