USA Gun Laws

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USA Gun Laws

In the recent past, the debate on gun control in the United States of America has been on the rise as a result of several cases of mass killings by gunmen in public settings.  For instance, in 2015 there were two deadly mass shootings that at a church in Charleston, South Carolina and at a community centre in San Bernardino, California whereby 23 people in total were killed. Learners in elementary, high schools and universities are not exceptional to such shootings. In December 2012, 20 schoolchildren were shot and killed by gunmen in Newtown, Connecticut[1]. This prompted Obama to take series of executive actions in 2016 aimed at controlling gun violence in addition to extending federal background checks on most gun purchasers. I therefore devote this section of the research paper to review Federal gun laws.

Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968

This Act which was enacted by the 90th United States Congress regulates firearms industry and firearms owner at the federal level. The passing of this Act was prompted by the assassination of U.S. president JF Kennedy in 1963 by a gun purchased by mail-order. The forerunners of the passage of Gun Control Act included the Senate Bill 1975 of 1963 aimed at regulating the shipment of firearms between states and the Senate Bill 1592 of 1965 that sought to introduce amendment to the Federal Firearms Acts of 1938. The primary focus of the Act is to regulate the sale of firearms between States by prohibiting transfer of firearms from one state to another except amongst licensed importers, dealers or manufacturers.

The Gun Control Act was enhanced by the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 which created a background check system. This was facilitated by the establishment of National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) making it mandatory for licensed firearms dealers and sellers to thoroughly inspect the criminal record of firearms purchasers. Under Article 18 U.S.C. 992 (d), the Act creates categories of people to whom the sale of firearms was unlawful. These categories include: persons below 18 years, the mentally disabled, drug addicts, those with criminal records, illegal immigrants, those that have renounced their American citizenship, as well as dishonorably discharged military personnel. In an open letter from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to all Federal Firearms Licensees, dated 21st September 2011, it was stated that in addition to categories of persons in 18 U.S.C 992 (d), holders of state-issued marijuana cards are automatically prohibited from transporting or shipping of firearms or ammunition[2].

Besides Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, other incorporated Acts of Gun Control Act are: NICS Improvement Act of 2008 and Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA). The NICS Improvement Act of 2008 was passed to address the loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that led to Virginia Tech Shooting by a person who had been ruled a danger by a Virginia court. FOPA on the other hand is federal law that revised a number of provisions in Gun Control Act.

The second Amendment of the U.S. constitution

The federal government has the sole mandate of setting the minimum standards for firearm regulation in the U.S. with States having their individual laws providing further restrictions. According to the second amendment of the U.S. constitution, “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and possess firearms shall be protected.” Court rulings in the country’s Supreme Court citing this amendment have withheld the right of individual states to regulate firearms. In America, gun ownership is a birthright as well as being an important element of the country’s heritage. This explains why America with less than 5% of the world’s total population has the highest percentage of the world’s civilian-owned guns estimated at 35-50%. Hence, the U.S. is ranked first in firearms per capita worldwide with the highest homicide-by-firearms rate of all most developed countries[3].

Federal Firearms Act (FFA) of 1938

The Act makes it mandatory for gun importers, manufacturers and sellers to obtain a federal license. In addition, the Act required that those responsible for issuing federal licenses to keep and maintain records of firearms purchasers. It is also illegal under FFA to transfer firearms to ‘prohibited’ categories of people such as those with active criminal records as well as mentally disturbed persons.

The National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934

The National Firearms Acts (NFA) imposes tax on manufacture and transportation of certain firearms defined by the Act. The Act further imposes an occupational tax on entities and individuals who manufacture, import or deal with NFA firearms. There is also a provision in the Act requiring all NFA firearms to be registered with the Treasury Secretary. The enactment of the Act by the Congress was as a result of increased firearms exposure to civilians and associated crime activities as these firearms were used in crime. Therefore, the intent of the Act is to prohibit transactions in NFA firearms. NFA required that a person possessing unregistered firearm to apply for registration with Treasury Secretary. The information given by firearm possessor to the Treasury Department could be supplied to State authorities for use in prosecution in case a person possessing the firearm violates State laws.


Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF or ATFE)

This is a federal law enforcement agency under U.S. Department of Justice responsible for investigation and prevention of federal offenses involving unlawful manufacture, use and possession of firearms and explosives. It is also the mandate of ATF to regulate through licensing the possession, transportation and sale of firearms, explosives and ammunition in interstate trade.

Concealed Carry Law

Concealed carry refers to carrying of weapons such as handgun in a concealed or hidden manner in public. Only those persons with concealed carry permits/licenses are allowed to carry these firearms in public places such as schools. Besides federal laws governing concealed carry of guns in public places, several states have enacted their individual laws. According to National Conference of State Legislature, the following states have laws mandating public universities to allow guns on college grounds: Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon, Kansas, Mississippi, Texas, Idaho, Utah and Wisconsin. The passing of Georgia House Bill 280 (also known as the campus carry bill) made Georgia the tenth U.S. state to enact such a law. This implies that all public university students aged above 21 year with a firearm license in these States are legally allowed to carry a concealed firearm to lectures and within campus. However, Minnesota has a narrow version of campus carry law allowing only visitors to carry guns while faculty, staff and students are prohibited from carry guns. In addition to universities, these laws authorize district schools to allow individuals with concealed carry licenses to carry handguns on school property. For instance, Kansas HB 2052 permits the chief administration officers of school districts to allow employees including teachers with concealed carry permit to carry handgun on school grounds. Arkansas SB 896 also permits church-sponsored private K-12 schools to allow individuals with concealed gun license to carry gun to school compound. Other laws authorizing school districts to allow their staff member with concealed gun license to carry handguns to school compounds include: Tennessee HB 6, South Dakota HB 1087, Oklahoma HB 1622 and Texas HB 1009. These laws have seen many district school students attending school with guns they steal from their ‘careless’ parents who don’t store their licensed firearms properly. These students have ended shooting their fellow students as well as their teachers. For instance, in October 21, 2013, a 12-year student at Sparks School, Sparks, Nevada fatally shot his teacher and wounded two of his colleagues using his parents’ handgun. In the following year, January 14, a 12-year old student at Berrendo School, Roswell, New Mexico walked into a school gym and shot at his fellow students critically wounding his schoolmates and a teacher.

The enactment of campus carry law by these states has been facilitated by increased number of deadliest mass shootings on campus colleges that have claimed hundreds of lives since 1966[4]. However, study has shown that campus carry laws are likely to escalate instances of violence in campuses. Hence, allowing students in campus to carry guns cannot reduce mass shootings in college campuses as these laws will increase campus shooting, suicides and homicides. The study was based on FBI study findings of 160 active-shooter situations from 2000-2013. According to FBI study, an armed civilian only managed to stop one in 160 active-shooter situations while 21 in 160 active-shooter situations were stopped by unarmed civilian[5].

Although it is a general belief that a state with more armed civilian has a large number of people to stop an attack, research findings have shown otherwise. For instance, research has shown that states with higher ownership rates had a large number of deaths resulting from gun-related homicides. That is, there exists a direct relationship between state’s gun ownership rates and firearm homicide rates. According to the study, the situation is different for states with strictest gun control laws which reported lower rates of gun-related deaths. The strictness of a state’s gun laws is dependent on the state’s legislative strength in terms of ability to curb trafficking of firearms, strengthened background checks on firearms buyers as well as the number of firearms restricted in public places. The study concluded that states with ability to enact and employ strictest gun control laws witness reduced number of gun related homicides. The study disapproved the misconceived theory of more guns equals less violence in terms of public shootings and homicides[6].

Police responses to school shootings

In Columbine High School, gunmen shot at people indiscriminately and set off bombs. The police response in this incident has been termed as slow-motion as the response team took about 30-minutes to enter the building. This response has been termed ‘pathetic’ and strongly criticized for not being dynamic. The response team that comprised of the special weapons and tactic (SWAT) officers responded slowly by moving into the scene very deliberately. Television footage of the incident showed group of SWAT officers slowly surrounding the institution. In their defense, the team argued they are primarily trained for hostage and drug raids situations and not active shooting situations. Secondly, according to Colorado police officer, the state of confusion at the scene such as shutting down of fire alarm, down-pouring of water from sprinkler, gunfire, bombs, wounded and screaming victims attributed to the slow police response as the police did not establish immediately how to address the situation.  According to critics, the lives of many students, teachers and school workers could have been saved if the response team moved in more quickly. The Columbine HS shooting has since shaped police response to mass school shootings through weapon upgrades, significant improvement in officer armament and wireless communication technology enhancement aimed at helping response teams to deal with active-shooters. This has enabled the police to respond promptly to mass school shootings to freeze, stabilize and neutralize the threat. In addition, the police have adopted new policies for active shooters in schools. Under these new policies, the police should enter the building and try to neutralize the threat immediately instead of surrounding the building and waiting for the SWAT team.

The Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007 that lasted for nine minutes left at least 31 people including the shooter dead. City police officers and those from the institution took three minutes to dash across the institution to the scene. On arrival, the police took five minutes to break into the chained-shut building. While inside the building, the police rushed towards the sound of gunfire. On seeing the police, the shooter, identified and Seung-Hui Cho shot himself on the head after the police shot through the doors and died alongside his victims. Unlike Columbine HS shooting, the way the police responded to this shooting has been praised by noting that their quick responses saved many lives that could have been lost if the police took much time to respond. The plan the police adopted saved their lives as well as those of students, teachers and other workers at the institution.

During Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012, twenty children aged 6 to 7 years and 6 adult staff member were shot and killed by an active shooter. After receiving 911 call, the police took four minutes to arrive at the scene. The police took five minutes before entering the building where they found 20-first graders and six staff member dead[7]. The reason why the police took five minutes before entering the building was distraction by the outside scene in which they took time to encounter an ‘unknown man running’ in the school compound with ‘something in his hand’. Although it is believed that this distraction slowed police response that could otherwise have saved lives, reports indicate that the active shooter killed himself immediately after police arrival at the scene[8].

[1] Mark Gius 2017. The effects of state and Federal gun control laws on school shootings, Applied economic letters


[2] Herbert, Arthur (September 26, 2011). “Open Letter to All Federal Firearms Licensees.” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

[3] U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. (2013). Strategic approaches to preventing multiple casualty violence: Report on the national summit on multiple casualty shootings. Retrieved from

[4] Newman, Katherine; Fox, Cybele, May 2009. Rampage Shootings in American High Schools and College Setting, 2002-2008. American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 52, No. 9, pp. 1286-1308.

[5] John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Study, October 2016.

[6] Richard 2013, The Striking Relationship Between Gun Safety Laws and Firearm Deaths, American Journal of Public Health

[7] Barron, J. (2012, December 14). Nation reels after gunman massacres 20 children at school in Connecticut. The New York Times. Retrieved from html?pagewanted-all&_r=0

[8] The New York City Police Department (NYPD), 2012

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