A timeline of gun legislation in the United States
The Second Amendment
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified. It states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Two hundred years later, a dispute rages over its interpretation: Is it every American's right to own a gun? Or, is arms ownership limited to a military context? In 2008, the Supreme Court affirms the right for individuals to bear arms.
The National Rifle Association (NRA)
The National Rifle Association (NRA), established in 1871, has become the best known defender of the Second Amendment interpreted for individual gun ownership.
National Firearms Act
Created in response to organized crime, the National Firearms Act imposes a yearly tax on every firearm, and requires all buyers to fill out paperwork subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
Federal Firearms Act
The sale of firearms now requires a Federal Firearms License (FFL) authorized by the U.S. Commerce Department. Gun retailers are required to record the names of buyers, and were prohibited from selling to individuals convicted of certain crimes.
Gun Control Act
License requirements are expanded to include more dealers, with more detailed record-keeping. Interstate handgun sales were restricted, and the list of those prohibited from making purchases expands; individuals convicted of felonies, those found mentally incompetent, and drug users were prohibited from obtaining guns. Mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns become prohibited.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is established. Previous incarnations of the bureau, dating back to the late 1700's, had collected firearm-related taxes, but the new offshoot of the Treasury Department is tasked with enforcing the Gun Control Act and it takes the spotlight as a foe of organized crime.
Firearms Owners' Protection Act
The Firearms Owner's Protection Act eases restrictions on gun sellers. It repeals certain record-keeping requirements for the sale of ammunition (which had included the name, age, and address of the purchaser, as well as the date of sale) and permits mail-order sale of ammunition, but also imposes additional penalties for certain crimes involving firearms.
Crime Control Act / Gun-Free School Zones Act
The possession or discharge of a firearm within a school zone is prohibited and criminal penalties are increased. More than 40 states outlaw the possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.
Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
Named for White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was paralyzed by a gunshot in the assassination attempt of President Reagan, the act requires a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases and a background check for unlicensed buyers. In 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System goes online, allowing the FBI to run immediate background checks on gun buyers.
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act / Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The manufacturing, possession and importation of new semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices are banned. Juveniles are prohibited from possessing or selling handguns. The attorney general is appointed to evaluate proposed and existing state juvenile gun laws. Ten years later, in 2004, Congress fails to reauthorize the ban and many types of semi-automatic weapons become legal to purchase.
NICS Improvement Amendments Act
After a troubled student legally purchases weapons then kills 32 people at Virginia Tech, the national background check system is upgraded to include information about the mentally ill.
John Hockenberry, The Takeaway: So today’s the 10th anniversary of Columbine, we’ve noted more than once on the program. Just to recall the details: on April 20th, 1999, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates, killing a teacher and 12 students, and wounding 24 others before turning the guns on themselves. In the 10 years since, there have been other school shootings and there has been a debate, continually, and in political campaigns and otherwise, that guns should be more tightly regulated in America, and in fact the availability of guns is what caused the disaster at Columbine and that regulations are in order. But it seems to me that one could also make the argument that in the period since Columbine, the last 10 years, Americans have had the chance to say, you know, let’s eliminate this option of being simply one trip to the mall away from buying a gun, and Americans have decided, you know what? We actually feel better if we have the availability of guns if things should go south, and if for some reason, at some point we need a gun, we know where to get one. It makes Americans feel better. I think that’s the takeaway from Columbine, ten years later. And here to sort of defend that position, or tell me I’m full of it, is Jeff Fagan. He’s a professor of Law and Public Health at Columbia Law School and joins us here in the studio of the Takeaway. Jeff, thanks for being here with us.
Jeff Fagan: My pleasure.
John Hockenberry: Professor, am I wrong to think that really, when Americans have had the chance to look at gun control legislation, they basically think somewhere down deep in their kind of American constitutional stomachs that I actually would feel better if I did have the availability and that Columbine is a small price to pay?
Jeff Fagan: I think that’s a very difficult generalization to reach. I think that apathy is probably a better characteristic, a better way to think about the American position right now. There hasn’t really been a conversation about this since Columbine. There occasionally are conversations after tragedies like Virginia Tech, for example, and events like Virginia Tech spawn a great deal of soul-searching and social autopsies about how these events happen, where did Cho get the gun for example, so on, why wasn’t he caught in a background check because of his mental health status? But these are kind of minutia about particular events, and I don’t think there’s a great deal of energy and effort to connect the dots across the events. There’s just not a lot of political or cultural will to make those connections.
John Hockenberry: Where does that come from, historically? I look at, sort of, Prohibition, which is an enormous effort that started as a grassroots movement and became a constitutional amendment and then another one to ban alcohol and then to reinstate it. It’s not the single event “Columbine” kinds of things that motivate a Prohibition movement, right?
Jeff Fagan: I think that’s right. I don’t, I don’t know that there is a movement to ban guns or to make tighter regulation about guns. I wish I had some wonderful cultural and sociological insight into why there is such apathy about gun regulation, but there does seem to be. In fact, my understanding of the data is that there is—support for gun regulation is at a low. Maybe a 10 year low, since Columbine, right now.
John Hockenberry: So, you know, Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” movie and the success of that doesn’t really count? It’s more of a rhetorical stunt? It doesn’t connect to anything deep in the culture?
Jeff Fagan: No, I think there’s a bit of a cultural divide. What a friend of mine, Dan Kahan, calls “a cultural cognition gap.” People have pre-formed ideas about guns, and moving the dial on those pre-formed ideas from one group to the next is not easy to do. They tend to interpret events like Columbine or Virginia Tech, or even the rash of shootings in the past couple of weeks, through this cultural cognition, this lens that they have. And the lens shifts they way that they interpret it to match the cognition they had before the event happened. All of which is to say, there’s very deep set ideas and they are very hard to shift.
John Hockenberry: So Columbine actually reinforces the ideas of the gun-control advocate and someone who wants no regulation on guns?
Jeff Fagan: I think that’s fair to say. I think it’s hard to get either side—to move the dial on either side of those.
John Hockenberry: What was the firepower 10 years ago at that high school in Littleton, Colorado?
Jeff Fagan: Umm, well they had a lot of weapons, I don’t know that they had very sophisticated weapons, but they had a lot of weapons. They were well armed for contingencies that in case they were caught they had the capacity to reload and to re-up. They had a variety of weapons, not just guns, but a variety. They were prepared. I don’t know that, for example, keeping rifles away from people is going to stop the Columbine massacre.
John Hockenberry: Is this more about getting a gun and carrying out that revenge that you’re always thinking about, whether you’re in traffic and the person sitting in front of you annoys you, or is it really more about Americans have this idea that at some point I’m going to be able to settle the score, and guns just happen to be the tool?
Jeff Fagan: I don’t think you can make that kind of generalization. There are people who want to have guns because they do believe there is an amorphous fear and they have to be able to protect themselves at the drop of a hat. There are others who believe guns are like carrying around a vial of nitroglycerin and we should be regulating guns the same way we regulate nitroglycerin. We don’t make that stuff widely available, or dynamite or any other highly dangerous substance.
John Hockenberry: What does the law say about the predisposition of people to carry out their revenge in either social, public places in the form of strident rhetoric or in the case of actually coming to blows?
Jeff Fagan: You mean shooting people with a gun?
John Hockenberry: Well not shooting people with a gun, take the guns out of it for a minute, does the state have an interest in regulating people’s powerful feelings about hey, I’ve been wronged and I’m going to go tell my boss, co-workers, people in school and are cheerleaders, whatever it is, I’m going to give them a piece of my mind and I’m going to figure out how to do it?
Jeff Fagan: The law does not allow you to make threats. Making threats of violence against people is illegal in almost every place. The law does not allow you to make extremely incendiary speech, that’s inciting to riot. The law does not allow you to make plans and actively recruit people to conspire with you to take out your revenge on others. So there are restrictions. And, you know, of course there is a free speech debate on some of this. If I walk into my workplace and say I’m going to shoot all of you up because you’ve all wronged me, or I’m going to take lethal revenge on you without specifying the means, I can’t get very specific. There’s a line about specificity of what those threats will do and I can’t cross that line without running into the law.
John Hockenberry: So I can say “I feel like wasting all of you people,” but if you go beyond that…
Jeff Fagan: “I feel like wasting you people. I’m going to go home and get my gun and”—
John Hockenberry: That’s where you cross the line.
Jeff Fagan: Yeah.
John Hockenberry: Before we go, let’s note, before the terrible massacre in Binghamton, NY, a Gallup poll says that only 29% of Americans believe that possession of handguns by private citizens should be banned. 29%, does that surprise you, Jeff Fagan?
Jeff Fagan: No, because I think the kinds of questions and surveys like that are worded very badly. I think if you ask people should people, should possession of automatic weapons with multiple clips, high firepower, 50mm bullets and so on, should those be regulated, I think more people would say yes. Many more people would say yes. I think the question conflates handguns, which most people have. If I were a fisherman in Alaska and I ran into a bear who wanted my fish, I would certainly want to have my rifle without being encumbered.
John Hockenberry: Good point. Well, so it really is kind of a sociological mystery as to where the issue is that would move the needle on gun control, that’s sort of the takeaway 10 years after Columbine. Jeff Fagan, thanks so much for being with us. He’s a professor of Law and Public Health at Columbia Law School.