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 emphasizes, 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 organizations (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.
No matter which side of the debate you lie on, the principles later enshrined in the Second Amendment were sort of the straw that broke the camel's back and started the Revolutionary War. British troops received word that Colonial forces were stockpiling arms and munitions in the towns of Lexington and Concord, and promptly marched out to disarm the colonists. This had already been done in Boston, but the fact that most of the people in the town used such weapons for hunting for food AND militia defense against hostile Native American attacks on the city meant that the British were essentially leaving their own citizens to die in what was still largely wilderness. While there were numerous other reasons to rebel against England and break from her, this was the start of the active shooting war. The seriousness of the amendment and its meaning isn't a recent development in US politics... it was a big factor in why the country exists at all.
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 how 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.
This was also written with the idea that, should a tyrannical leader occur, the American people would be properly armed to stage a revolution to remove that tyrant. Of course, this was a hell of a lot easier (and harder) back in the 1780s than today.
As of the 2012 election, the issue has been more or less split 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.
The gun control debate often takes center stage either after a mass shooting or during presidential election races. Suffice it to say, many Americans believe something should be done; however, the law of unintended consequences and short attention spans of the public 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. The validity of this study's methodology is also questioned by the gun-control faction, who point out that it obtained its figure of 1.5 million by asking a random sample of Americans if they had used a gun defensively, and then extrapolated the rate of positive responses to cover the whole country. This seems like a fairly robust methodology on practice, but it is subject to error because many respondents may have given incorrect responses, either by alleging they used a gun defensively when they did not, or by alleging that an unlawful incident where firearms were used was lawful. In at least some categories of crime reportable to the FBI, the number of reported defensive gun uses against that crime exceeds the number of times that crime was reported as happening in the first place.
Understanding American gun legislation requires some familiarity with the federal structure of American government. Sovereign governmental power in the United States is divided between the federal government (i.e., the national government, based in Washington, D.C.), and the individual states. The federal government makes and enforces laws and regulations that apply across the country, while the states make and enforce laws that apply only within their own territory (so long as those laws don't conflict with federal law, including in particular the U.S. Constitution). Gun laws exist at both levels. The Heller and McDonald Supreme Court decisions mentioned above established at least that the federal government and the states may not, given the Second Amendment, prohibit the possession of handguns inside the home for self-defense purposes. Whether the Second Amendment might limit either further is a matter of ongoing litigation through the courts that will eventually likely be resolved by future Supreme Court decisions.
The following describes categories of weapons generally defined under federal law, and how federal law treats said categories. The same terms may be, and very often are, incorporated by the individual states in their gun legislation. Do not take any of this as legal advice, and be aware that the specific foibles of State and Federal laws and regulations, and their interaction with one another, can lead to some unusual circumstances.
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 breech 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 similarly to a Short Barreled Rifle. Sawing off a shotgun is considered "manufacture" of a short-barreled shotgun (which carries essentially identical legal requirements to possessing a short-barreled shotgun made by someone else).
- Pistol: A weapon intended for use with one hand, with a rifled bore. No length restrictions.
- Other Weapon, or "NFA Firearm": A category that does not appear in law, but rather in ATF regulations, consisting most notably of weapons that would otherwise qualify as "shotguns" (not short-barreled), but were designed with 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. Has become more important recently with several "NFA Workaround" firearms hitting the mainstream market in 2017 and 2018notably the Mossberg Shockwave and Remington Tac-14, "firearms" that chamber shotgun shells with an approximately 14" barrel.
- Any Other Weapon: A firearm that does not fall into any of the above categories. Not to be confused with "Other Weapon" above. The most common examples of this category are smoothbore pistols and pistols with a vertical foregrip (a feature that's unregulated for rifles and shotguns but banned for 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 cost $200 to transfer, but only for machine guns built or imported and registered prior to 1986, and the ATF will often at least try to prosecute you for owning one regardless of its legality anyway.note
- Destructive Device: A rifled bore weapon greater than .50 caliber in bore, explosive devices, and any weapon repurposed to launch an explosive device. Note that for grenade or rocket launchers, both the launcher and each individual round of ammunition are separately considered Destructive Devices, but the same does not apply to ordinary non-explosive bullets of greater than .50 caliber diameter. 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. The ATF has a "sporting use" exception that takes some large-caliber rifles out of this category, mostly those designed and used for hunting of large and dangerous game (typically African).
- Silencer: Any device for silencing, muffling, or diminishing the report of a portable firearm, including any combination of parts, designed or redesigned, and intended for the use in assembling or fabricating a firearm silencer or firearm muffler, any part intended only for use in such assembly or fabrication. $200 tax stamp.
Short-barreled rifles and shotguns, machine guns, destructive devices, and silencers are all regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 ("NFA", as amended subsequently since). All such "NFA weapons", in addition to requiring the specific tax stamps described above, must be registered with the ATF, generally require an extensive background check (usually taking many months to clear), and require specific permission from ATF to be taken across state lines (the serial numbers of such weapons are registered with ATF, and the registered owner's name and state of residency are also engraved on the NFA weapon, which makes for prima facie evidence of a crime if the weapon is found outside the registered owner's possession or state of residence). One trend, although it has come under additional scrutiny and regulation in recent years, is for NFA weapons to be owned by and registered to a legal trust, often known as an "NFA trust", which simplifies some of the paperwork and transfer requirements, and can allow for more than one individual (as a trustee) to possess an NFA-regulated item.
The potential criminal penalties for violations of the NFA by making, receiving, or possessing the above-described NFA-controlled items without the proper registration, paperwork, and tax stamps are severe, starting at up to ten years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine per offense. Just so that's clear: sawing off a shotgun or rifle barrel below the minimum uncontrolled legal length, making your own silencer, or even possessing parts that can convert a semiautomatic into a fully-automatic firearm, without specific permission from the federal government to do these things, can and very likely will get you sent to federal prison for up to ten years.
In 1994, the US Congress passed an assault weapons ban, a measure that limited the sale of larger capacity weapons. Valid for only 10 years, it expired in 2004 and was not renewed. 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 for new civilian-sale magazines after the law was passednote , 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 shootout (which used a post-ban AR-15, which was converted to full-automatic, a pre-ban H&K91 semiautomatic rifle, and three pre-ban Chinese AK-47 rifles which were all illegally converted to fire automatically, so they were already violating existing gun laws) while discussing it.
Civilians can own machine guns made before May 1986 (but such machine guns can no longer be imported, so only the ones that were already legally in the US as of May 1986 count). 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 and often exceeded the price of the actual gun. 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. BATFE also generally treats components that can be used to convert semiautomatic firearms into fully automatic firearms (e.g., "full-auto sears" for AR-15 rifles) as equivalent to machine guns (with the same registration, tax stamp, and date of manufacture requirements) if an individual possesses them and also happens to possess firearms which said components will fit. Federal courts routinely hand down criminal convictions for possession of unregistered machine guns of people who stumble into this particular trap.
State and local laws on what guns and related items may or may not be legally possessed within those jurisdictions vary considerably. At one extreme, some states have requirements no more stringent than the federal laws described above (though in some cases, state law mirrors federal law, so a person in possession of illegal weapons could be charged with either a state or a federal crime, or both). At the other extreme, several heavily-Democratic "blue" states such as Californianote , Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maryland have reams of complicated and restrictive gun control laws. These can include bans on "assault weapons" (usually defined as having only one of the "evil" features discussed with regards to the expired federal assault weapons ban above), bans on "high-capacity" magazines (usually over ten rounds), bans on some or all categories of NFA-described firearms (e.g., short-barreled rifles and shotguns or machine guns), bans on particular calibers (e.g., California bans all .50-caliber firearms), bans on particular types of ammunition (e.g., New Jersey bans hollowpoints), bans on mail-order or online sales of ammunition, registration and/or licensing of some categories of guns or of all guns, registration and/or licensing of ammunition purchases, rosters of supposedly safety-tested guns that are the only ones approved for sale in the state, waiting periods to purchase, background checks on all sales, requirements that guns sold in the state use technologies (such as "smart-gun" technology or "microstamping" that impresses cartridge cases with serial numbers) that aren't on the market yet (once those technologies come to market), and on, and on, and on. Most states fall somewhere in between, but trend towards the more permissive side (e.g., control over particular categories of NFA-type weapons and laws requiring background checks on in-state transfers, but not a great deal more). Most states have some type of "pre-emption" law, either expressly provided in statute or found by the courts, that restricts local municipalities' abilities from enacting gun control laws that are more restrictive than the state in most particulars. This is common even in states that themselves have more restrictive laws than the US average. Every state enforces its own laws on these matters, even against non-residents who don't take care to learn the local law, so it happens all too regularly that people traveling through particular states get arrested for things they didn't realize were illegal (and that weren't illegal where they live).
All in all, this results in a confusing landscape of laws ripe for Loophole Abuse on both sides by every level. The specifics can change suddenly, and often somewhat arbitrarily. Research your local laws if you want more specific information.
Generally, convicted felons, fugitives, persons "adjudicated as mentally defective" (meaning a court has ordered them committed to a mental hospital or found them not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity), convicted domestic abusers, drug addicts, illegal aliens, persons dishonorably discharged from the military, and persons subject to a restraining order from harassing, threatening, or stalking an intimate partner or their child, are prohibited by federal law from possessing any type of firearm. Certain states impose some additional prohibitions that generally mirror these, but might have some minor differences (e.g., prohibiting persons convicted of "serious or violent offenses", or those held for mental health treatment but not adjudicated by a court), with different legal requirements for how such findings are made or challenged.
Given that the right to keep and bear arms is a recognized Constitutional right under the Second Amendment, depriving an individual of that right requires some degree of due process, whereby the individual has notice of the potential deprivation and opportunity to challenge the case against them in front of a fair tribunal, such as in court. This generally means that the categories of people legally barred from possessing a firearm have either already "had their day in court" (such as a criminal trial or hearing on a restraining order petition), or would have to be allowed it if they never got it and asked for it. This raises some potential issues of Constitutional law in the wake of calls to prohibit persons on the various post-9/11 "terrorist watchlists" or "no-fly" lists from purchasing guns, in that those are secret lists maintained by law enforcement or intelligence agencies, often on the basis of classified information that may not have been obtained with warrants under the Fourth Amendment, and would have to be presented in court (and made available to potential terrorist suspects) if such an individual were to challenge the prohibition. There is also considerable controversy about the use of such lists because of their dubious accuracy. In one particularly infamous example, US Senator Ted Kennedy was included on the federal no-fly list apparently because "T Kennedy" was also a known alias of a terrorist (even though the senator's legal name was Edward Kennedy), until this was brought up in a Senate hearing and an embarrassed Department of Homeland Security removed him from the list. The Obama Administration raised some controversy by submitting individuals to the background check system who were identified in Social Security and Veterans Administration databases as having conservators appointed to handle their benefits, in that it was unclear whether those people had ever been "adjudicated as mentally defective", and that it may have amounted to deprivation of a Constitutional right by administrative fiat. Starting in the 2020s, the most recent controversy is the implementation of "red flag" laws in some jurisdictions. While the intent was to allow law enforcement to quickly react to an imminent threat posed by an otherwise legal gun owner, there have been tragedies involving law enforcement gunning down innocent gun owners over faulty or outright false reports.
Most firearm sales in the United States are required to go through a background check. The 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (the so-called "Brady Bill") required all firearms purchases conducted by all gun dealers holding a Federal Firearms License (FFL, required to engage in the business of dealing guns in interstate commerce) to undergo a background check. In most cases, since 1998, these background checks have been conducted through the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), though individual states are permitted by law to conduct their own background checks instead through their own state or local law enforcement agencies (which have access to the FBI's system as well as their own databases). NICS runs the name, date of birth, address, and other identifying information (such as Social Security number) of a potential purchaser through an FBI computer system that cross-references that information against known felons, fugitives, the mentally ill, or other individuals prohibited by law from possessing guns. The NICS system either approves the purchase, denies it (if a "hit" occurs on prohibiting information), or "delays" it if further investigation by the FBI is needed, in which case the FBI has up to three business days to investigate further and issue an approval or a denial. If the FBI doesn't follow up within the three business days, the dealer may complete the sale but is not required to, and many won't. If a gun is transferred this way and the background check later comes back denied, the case gets sent to BATFE to get a warrant and take the gun back.
There is regular political controversy over the so-called "gun-show loophole," through which guns supposedly regularly evade background checks at gun shows. This particular loophole is more accurately called the "private-party loophole", and it ultimately arises out of potential limitations on Congress' authority imposed by the Constitution. The federal background check law applies only to holders of Federal Firearms Licenses (FFLs), which are required by federal law to be kept by persons who regularly "engage in the business" of buying or selling firearms in interstate commerce.note Both the legal requirement to have an FFL and the subsidiary requirement to conduct background checks on sales are only authorized, like almost all federal legislation, from Congress' explicit Constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce.note Congress did not take the additional step of trying to impose a nationwide background check requirement on all firearms transfers, even if they occurred purely between residents of the same state (and thus occurring only in 'intrastate' rather than 'interstate' commerce). Congress could try to do so, but it would be sure to set up a Commerce Clause challenge in the federal courts, and it is unclear how the Supreme Court would rule on the question. Regardless, some states already require every firearms transfer, even if it is between private parties, to undergo a background check and/or be processed through a licensed dealer, and gun shows often require the same as a matter of policy, and provide an FFL dealer on-site to process background check transactions throughout the show.
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. Note that this is only a concern when it comes to private individuals selling off their own guns. Any licensed dealers selling firearms at a gun show will require, at the minimum, a properly filled-out form 4473 and an NICS background check, the same as if you were buying one from their store. Similarly,
Online retailers, meanwhile, conduct the sale and transaction online but, contrary to the popular and oft-repeated misconception, they do not ship firearms directly to an unlicensed individual's doorstep (those who continue to make claims to the contrary are encouraged to find and name a commercial website that will). 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 GunBroker, where the seller (who must be a non-prohibited person) does not require an FFL to ship a firearm, but the recipient must still be an authorized FFL holder to take delivery. Online classified services, meanwhile, are not restricted by law in most states, but frequently have internal policies that prohibit listings for firearms to shield themselves from criminal and civil liability (Craigslist, for example, forbids any ads for guns, gun parts or ammunition, even though legally ammunition and most gun parts can be shipped directly to an unlicensed individual's doorstep). It is legal for a firearm purchased online to be handed in person by the buyer to the seller without any FFL transfer being involved, but only if no state lines are crossed (and the state in question hasn't enacted any law to the contrary). But since this would usually be more trouble than it's worth to the buyer and seller (unless they happen to live in the same town) it's not a very common occurrence.
For private individuals who want to buy a gun and have it shipped directly to their doorstep, there actually are two ways that this can be done, but both are limited to only certain specific categories. The first is "antiques", defined in the Gun Control Act of 1968 as firearm manufactured prior to January 1, 1899, as well as muzzle-loading black powder firearms (which are treated as "antique" under the law even if they're modern reproductions). With the exception of pre-1899 machine guns and short-barreled rifles and shotguns (ie those regulated by the National Firearms Act), antique firearms are completely exempt from federal gun regulations. Whether a firearm qualifies as "antique" is determined by when its receiver was manufactured, based on either a date stamped on it if applicable, and serial number records from the manufacturer if not. In the event that neither is available and the particular model of firearm was manufactured both before and after the cutoff date, it's presumed under the law to not be antique because it can't be proven to be pre-1899.note The other is that private individuals who are not gun dealers can get their own type of FFL, the "Curio and Relic" license, intended specifically for gun collectors. This license is applicable to any firearm more than 50 years old, and any firearm specifically listed by the ATF as qualifying. Firearms can be added to the ATF's C&R list on the basis of either the curator of a state or federal museum certifying that the model of firearm is historically significant, or firearms whose value is demonstrably the result of extreme rarity or association with a historical figure or event. In all cases, C&R listing only exempts a license-holder from regulations under the Gun Control Act. Weapons like machine guns, short-barreled shotguns and silencers still must go through the NFA process even if they are C&R eligible (or permanently attached to a C&R eligible gun, in the case of silencers).
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 wholly inoperable 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 all but the most organized criminal elements— who often have the influence and funds to smuggle in illegal weaponry from corrupt officials, or even manufacture their own supply. As such, this option is instead taken by people who just really want to make a firearm that no government agency will be aware they have (usually out of fear of future confiscation), rather than out of any desire to commit crimes with the gun.
All states have concealed-carry laws, allowing a person to carry a weapon in a concealed holster with a permit, at least on the books. The ease of obtaining these permits varies widely. The different legal carry regimes generally break down as follows:
- "Constitutional carry" (unpermitted carry): No permit required. Anyone who is legally entitled to possess a firearm may carry it concealed. Some states allow this only for their own residents, most allow it for non-residents as well. As of November 2019, 16 states use this system: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho (state residents only), Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota (state residents only, concealed only), Oklahoma (state residents only), South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming (state residents only). These states (except Vermont) nonetheless still issue permits on a shall-issue basis, which have benefits (can carry in more places, expedites the purchase process, and allows for carry in some other states (reciprocity)).
- "Shall-issue": This is the majority rule, followed by 40 states (including the "Constitutional carry" states that issue permits) plus Guam. Permits are issued as a matter of right to anyone who is legally permitted to possess a firearm and fulfills the administrative requirements to get one, and the authorities do not have discretion to deny issuance of a permit. Some states will issue permits to non-residents, some will not, and some are shall-issue to residents but may-issue to non-residents.note The administrative requirements vary widely by state, but include an application, background check, fingerprinting, payment of fees, and usually some documentation of approved firearms training, whether written or practical.note Some states will issue through the mail to anyone, including non-residents, who sends in an application, fingerprint card, and a check and who passes the background check, others require an in-person application.
- "May-issue": The minority rule, officially followed by nine states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York,note New Jersey, and Rhode Island), the District of Columbia, and also Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on US military installations and Native American reservations. Permits are only granted at the discretion of the authorities, and often many legal and procedural hurdles have to be jumped over to acquire a permit, often determined by the local authorities.note
- In California, how difficult it is to get a permit depends on which city or county you live in, as they are issued at the discretion of politically-appointed municipal police chiefs or county sheriffs in unincorporated areas. In the Los Angeles area or the Bay Area, where most of the state's population lives, unless you are rich, powerful, or know the right people, a concealed carry permit is out of the question. note However, certain other counties, such as Sacramento County, are very nearly "shall-issue" in practice, due to tolerant local sheriffs.
- The "May-Issue" policy is the subject of an ongoing court battle.
- There have been many accusations and scandals alleging that at least some "May-Issue" jurisdictions only issue permits after receiving a bribe from the applicant.
- No-issue: No permits are issued to carry at all. In theory, this is only the rule in the territories of American Samoa and the Northern Marianas Islands. In reality, this is the de facto rule in the majority of the "may-issue" states and territories listed above for most of the public: permits are only available, if at all, to people with the right political connections or enough money.
- LEOSA: Technically not a state policy, LEOSA (the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004) is a federal law that entitles any currently serving "qualified law enforcement officer" or "qualified retired or separated law enforcement officer" (after ten or more years of service and keeping current with an approved shooting qualification certification in the past year), whether federal, state, local, tribal, or military, to carry concealed anywhere in the United States, even off-duty and on their own time, with few exceptions (principally, on government or private property if the laws of the local jurisdiction allow restriction of firearms on such property). LEOSA essentially bypasses almost all state and local limitations on carrying, including local magazine and ammunition restrictions. What constitutes "keeping current" and "approved qualifications" varies by law enforcement agency, who administer the training and issue the relevant credentials. "Qualified law enforcement officer" and "qualified retired or separated law enforcement officer" are defined by LEOSA very broadly, and have been interpreted by the courts to include part-time, reserve, and auxiliary law enforcement officers, corrections officers, and off-duty members of the Coast Guard (who exercise arrest powers in the course of boarding and search of vessels in U.S. territorial waters). As is the case with concealed carry permits in "may-issue" jurisdictions, the wealthy, powerful, and well-connected have found ways to abuse this system as well. Certain local law enforcement agencies are happy to allow sufficiently-generous supporters to become reserve or auxiliary officers or deputies, whom LEOSA allows to carry in all 50 states. note
The history of concealed carry in the US has shifted dramatically since the 1980s. In 1986, there were only eight shall-issue states (plus Vermont, the original "Constitutional carry" state), while the rest of the country was either may-issue or no-issue.note Within 25 years, by 2011, that ratio had completely reversed, with only nine may-issue states left. Five years later, there were more "Constitutional carry" states than may-issue states. Laws regarding concealed carry have been and continue to be in rapid flux and development, and constitute a shifting patchwork of approaches across the states. As of 2016, there were over 14.5 million concealed carry permits in the United States, meaning slightly over 6% of the U.S. adult population has one, and in ten states (not counting "Constitutional carry" states), more than 10% of the adult population has one. Three states (Florida, Pennsylvania, and Texas) each have over a million active permits issued.
Beyond the broad categories listed above, each state has its own particular laws concerning carrying a weapon. In many, open carry is permitted as well as concealed carry; in others (such as Florida), only concealed carry is allowed, and open carry will get you arrested for brandishing a weapon or a similar charge. In still others, open carry requires no permit but concealed carry does. Every state, though, has laws against brandishing, "menacing", or in some cases "going armed to the terror of the public", that make it illegal to display weapons with the intent to threaten people. Also, openly displaying firearms if you're in a local community where that isn't common or appreciated,note even if it may be technically legal, is very likely to lead to "person with gun" 911 calls to the police, which have the potential to end badly.
Each state has a list of particular locations where carrying even with a permit is prohibited, some of which can be quite long and complicated.note Expect all to prohibit carrying into courthouses, jails, psychiatric hospitals, or other sensitive locations. Some will prohibit carrying in bars and alcohol service areas of restaurants where minors are prohibited, some will allow it but will prohibit drinking, some (mostly in the South) will prohibit carrying into churches. Some will prohibit carrying anywhere a property owner has posted a "No Guns" sign, others won't make that technically illegal but may arrest you for trespassing (on a theory that the owner has denied permission to enter to armed individuals). Some will require you to disclose if you are carrying in encounters with law enforcement officers, some will not (though it's usually a healthy idea to let them know, rather than having them find out on their own that they're dealing with an armed individual). In any state, violating these laws, or being charged with most crimes other than a traffic infraction, or being caught under the influence of alcohol or drugs while you're carrying, will almost certainly result in your permit being revoked.note Carrying onto most federal government property, including even a local post office, is still illegal, even with a state carry permit.note Also, the federal Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990 makes carrying within 1,000 feet of a primary or secondary school without a carry permit issued by the state where the school is located a federal crime with a five-year sentence.note
Concealed Carry Across State Lines and Reciprocity
Most states allow at least some residents of other states to carry as well under particular circumstances. Most "Constitutional carry" states allow anyone who can legally possess to carry, regardless of state of residency, without a permit. Some states that require a permit will recognize a permit issued by any state. Some will only recognize their own permits, but will issue them to non-residents as well as residents, often on a shall-issue basis (if nothing else, it's a great excuse to chisel $40-$100 in application fees out of a non-resident and into the state's treasury). The restrictive may-issue states (except for Delaware) generally do not recognize any other state permits whatsoever.
The majority of states have reciprocity agreements with some other states, under which those states have mutually agreed to recognize each others' carry permits for holders traveling between those states. In such cases, these states recognize some out-of-state permits, but not all of them. Nationwide, there is utterly no rhyme or reason to this system as it currently exists, it's been built up entirely out of a hodgepodge of different state laws and agreements between different states over the years.note Some states have reciprocity agreements with many other states, some with only a few. Some state permits that have particularly broad reciprocity benefits, honored in many states, and that are readily issued to non-residents, are frequently sought out, somewhat like a "flag of convenience," by concealed carriers who travel or expect to travel, especially if their home states have worse or no reciprocity. This is especially so if the issuing state has minimal application requirements (for example, if they accept applications and issue permits by mail to out-of-staters). Some states however will not recognize out-of-state permits that have been issued to non-residents of the issuing state, though these states may nonetheless issue non-residents their own permits if applied for.
This system is so complicated, though, that there are interactive mobile apps and websites to help figure out which permits allow carry in which states (without potentially going to jail), and even these have to be checked and updated frequently as laws change. If you're going to travel with a gun, it's a very good idea to check carefully and make sure the permits you do have are honored wherever you're going.
Under current law, it is legally impossible for anyone (other than a current or former law enforcement officer who qualifies under LEOSA, see above) to be legally entitled to carry in all 50 states as a private citizen, because California and Colorado only issue permits to their own residents, neither recognizes each others' permits nor any other states' non-resident permits, and it is not possible to maintain legal domicile in more than one state. It's also practically impossible for most people to be permitted to carry in more than about 35-40 or so states at a time, due to the limits and vagaries of state reciprocity arrangements and the complicated individual requirements and broad local discretion exercised in the nine may-issue states.
National Rifle Association (NRA) and Other Gun Rights Advocates
The largest gun lobby is the National Rifle Association's Institute For Legislative Action. Not only do they support politicians and lobby, 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, most notably starting after the "Revolution in Cincinnati" in 1977. 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. At an earlier point in its history the NRA supported the current background check system, the NICS, and seldom lobbied against legislation to increase penalties for pre-existing crimes. Actor Charlton Heston was probably their most famous public figure; he was the president of the association from 1998 to 2003.
They often also draw a lot of heat for pretty controversial means of advertising their agenda, like rewriting classic fairy tales where the good guys triumph via the use of firearms.
While the NRA is the best known 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 LGBT individuals, the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, the Gun Owners of Americanote , and the Firearm Policy Coalition; the latter three 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.
Everytown for Gun Safety became one of the most notable groups starting in the mid-2010s following the well-publicized shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012, which resulted in the deaths of twenty children and six staff members. It had previously been founded in 2006 by the mayors of NYC and Boston as Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Due to lots of funding from ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, it provided a new face for gun control advocacy. It originally aimed at the national level, but now focuses on local and state laws. They primarily lobby towards universal background checks, preventing people convicted of domestic violence or stalking from getting gunsnote , strengthening penalties for gun trafficking, and increased storage requirements to prevent accidental shootings by children. They have also recently backed and run ads for Democratic candidates without mentioning their mission of gun control at all in places this topic is especially controversial.