"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 subject of much debate in the USA.
—The 1791 Second Amendment to the United States Constitution
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Short though it is, the Second Amendment may be one of the more contentious elements of the United States Constitution, the reason for this being that societal changes since the American Revolution have caused Americans to wonder what, precisely, the Founding Fathers meant by "a well-regulated militia." 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. The individual-armament lobby emphasises, well, individual armament. The vast majority support individual armament for both protection from and as a deterrent to street-level crime. These people will point to stories and statistics of private citizens who thwarted robberies or other crimes by either shooting their assailant, or simply proving to the assailant that they were armed. They will also argue that not all gun owners use their weapons solely for defense; many use their guns for hunting or target shooting, popular pastimes in many states. There is a minority supporting individual gun rights in case of a second Civil War or some other post-apocalyptic eventuality; however, these people are not often taken seriously by the majority of gun rights supporters. The militia-armament lobby emphasizes, well, the armament of the USA's professional military organizations, while restricting that of citizens. Those in this camp will point to instances where legal firearms were used in murders or suicides, 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. 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. 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.
The Second Amendment has its roots in the American Revolution. At the time, the United States had no standing army, being a colony of Great Britain, and so its soldiers would have to be drawn from the citizenry. While the exact interpretation of the amendment itself remains the subject of much debate, it can be interpreted, at its most basic level, as arising out of the belief that at some point in the future, a militia would be needed, and that the best way to form one would be to ensure that the nation's citizens were familiar with firearms.
As of the 2012 election, the issue has been more or less split roughly down party lines, with gun rights advocates gravitating toward the Republicans and gun control advocates gravitating toward the Democrats. However, within each party, differences in opinion remain—some Democrats support a nationwide gun ban, while others merely support heavier restrictions on existing weapons; likewise, some Republicans are in favor of stricter gun control laws, while others believe those already in existence should be relaxed. Following mass shootings at San Bernardino, CA; Orlando, FL; and Newtown, CT; more Americans—conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat—are more likely to support stricter gun regulations. Opinions differ on what these regulations should cover. Suffice it to say, most Americans believe something should be done; however, the law of unintended consequences makes it difficult for them to agree on what.
Many gun-rights advocates argue that gun ownership is useful to the deterrence of street-level crime: 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.
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 illegal due to concealability concerns.
- Pistol: A weapon intended for use with one hand, with a rifled bore. No length restrictions.
- Other Weapon: A category that does not appear in law, but rather in ATF regulations, consisting solely of shotguns that have only a single pistol grip. The ATF ruled in 2010 that such weapons were not "firearms" as defined by the National Firearms Act of 1934, though they were "firearms" under the Gun Control Act of 1968. Same length restrictions as regular shotguns.
- Any Other Weapon: A firearm that does not fall into an above category. Not to be confused with "Other Weapon" above. 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.
- 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 "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.
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 takes 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. 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 who probably couldn't pass a background check. Online retailers, meanwhile, conduct the sale and transaction online but, contrary to popular misconception, do not ship firearms directly to an unlicensed individual's doorstep. Direct, mail-order gun sales are not only illegal, but they have been since 1968, with the passage of the Gun Control Act. The firearm may only be delivered to a Federal Firearms License holder —most commonly a brick & mortar gun dealer— who then must conduct a proper background check before the gun can be transferred to the buyer. The same laws apply to private sellers on auction sites such as Gun Broker, where the seller does not require an FFL to ship a firearm, but the recipient must still be an authorized FFL holder to take delivery. Note that the weapon's completed receiver (the frame that all other parts of the gun attach to) is the only portion legally defined as a "firearm," so one existing loophole of a sort for online sales is to purchase a partially-milled receiver (which doesn't require an FFL to ship because it's not operable in that state), finish the machining work to make it functional, and assemble a complete weapon from aftermarket or original parts. However, the relatively high expense and technical know-how needed for this workaround keeps it from being an especially tempting choice to the criminal element.
National Rifle Association (NRA) and Other 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. In the past, the NRA have resisted attempts to ban machine guns, assault weapons, and armor-piercing ammunition. 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 Other 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 have garnered criticism— 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". These critics also point out that, unlike Australia note , America is not sealocked; therefore, if a nationwide gun ban were implemented, those willing to break the law could obtain their guns illegally from Mexico. Another criticism of gun control advocates is that many of the most vocal critics of the 2nd Amendment and strident supporters for strict gun control are wealthy businessmen, politicians, and celebrities...who never go anywhere without armed bodyguards.