Guns are a part of U.S. culture. From hunting rifles to gun collections, many Americans own guns. However, public opinion polls show that 85% of gun owners and non-gun owners support gun control laws like background checks. The goal of gun control is to prevent someone who wants to harm themselves or others from having easy access to a gun.
Today, 40% of gun sales do not go through a background check because they take place online, at gun shows, or through classified ads. Mass shootings, like Pulse Night Club in Orlando and the 2017 country music concert in Las Vegas, have sparked disagreement about gun control laws, including background checks. Gun control is a polarizing topic, and there is debate whether strict gun control laws can prevent homicides or suicides.
Background checks on firearm purchases from a licensed dealer are required by law under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. A follow-up study found the Brady Bill stopped 2.1 million gun purchases between 1994 and 2014—an average of 343 purchases per day. The law blocked 1 million felons, 291,000 domestic abusers, and 118,000 fugitives from purchasing a firearm.
The Brady Bill allows states to decide whether local law enforcement or the FBI will do a background check within that state. A two-year study showed that having background checks done at the local level resulted in a 27% lower rate of gun-related suicides and 22% lower rate of gun-related murders. One reason for this impact could be that local law enforcement agencies have more information to help them ensure that people who want to hurt themselves or others don’t get a gun. Another possibility is that states requiring background checks by local law enforcement agencies also have stricter gun control laws.
Although the Brady Bill stopped many potential crimes, there have been accounts of failure to report felons to the federal database. In November of 2017, Devin Kelley entered a church in Texas and killed 26 people. It was later learned that the Air Force failed to report Kelley, and dozens of other service members charged with serious convictions, to the federal gun background check database. If Kelley had been reported, he would have been stopped from buying a gun because of his previous domestic violence conviction. The lack of reporting isn’t unique to the Air Force. The Army has the worst record, with 41% of convictions unreported, while the Navy failed to report 36% of convictions, and the Air Force failed to report 14%.
Other problems with the federal background check database came to light in November of 2017. Tens of thousands of individuals convicted of felonies were taken off the database in February of 2017 after the Department of Justice changed the definition of a “fugitive from justice” to apply only to those who crossed state lines. It is unknown how many of the felons purged from the list subsequently bought guns.
Effective Gun Control Measures
Missouri’s permit-to-purchase law is often cited by people in favor of stronger gun control. The permit-to-purchase law required that people get a permit from local law enforcement before purchasing a gun. When Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase law in August 2007, research indicated a 55-63% increase in the firearm homicide rate per year during the four years following the repeal. During the same year the law was repealed, Missouri also passed a “Stand Your Ground” law. This law allows people to use firearms in cases of self-defense without being charged for injury or homicide, and it increased the number of homicides. However, a comparison with other states with “Stand Your Ground” laws found that even when accounting for the deaths attributed to that law, the repeal of the permit-to-purchase law still caused Missouri’s homicide rate to increase significantly.
Research conducted in Connecticut also found a relationship between permit-to-purchase laws and firearm homicides. In 1995, Connecticut passed a permit-to-purchase law, and over the next 10 years the state saw a 40% drop in firearm homicides. There was no drop in non-firearm homicides, indicating that it was likely the permit-to-purchase law that prevented gun deaths. These studies suggest that requiring a permit before purchasing a gun could help reduce gun-related homicides.
More research is needed to conclude which policies are most effective at preventing firearm-related deaths, but as shown above, there is research that suggests that stricter gun-control laws may help. Unfortunately, there has been little expansive research on gun control in the last 20 years because Congress banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from conducting research on gun control as an amendment in the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill.
Following mass shootings, there is often a debate about gun control. A few national policy proposals include implementing universal background checks and making assault rifles illegal.
Even when people are reported to the federal database as being ineligible to purchase a gun, there is a loophole that has weakened the law. Background checks are required when purchasing a gun from a licensed dealer, but people can buy guns online or at a gun show without undergoing a background check. This means that many felons, domestic abusers, and fugitives can avoid background check requirements and buy a gun with no questions asked.
After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there was a strong effort to pass legislation to close this loophole and address gun violence. The “Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013” (S. 649) was introduced in the Senate to reduce gun violence, but did not pass.
In 2016, Senator Schumer introduced the “Fix Gun Checks Act of 2016” (S. 2934). The bill intended to close the background check loophole, but the Republican leadership prevented it from coming to a vote.
Automatic and Semi-Automatic Assault Rifles
Another gun control issue is who should be allowed to purchase assault rifles. There are two categories of assault rifles: semi-automatic and automatic rifles (many of which are also called machine guns). The transfer of machine guns was taxed beginning in 1934 under the “National Firearms Act in an effort to discourage their use.” In 1986, the “Firearm Owners’ Protection Act” prohibited the transfer and possession of machine guns, although exceptions were made for those who owned a machine gun before May of 1986. Currently, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives tracks the ownership and transfer of machine guns.
Semi-automatic weapons are legal in most states, but banned in California; Connecticut; Washington, DC; Massachusetts; Maryland; New Jersey; and New York.  Some of these firearms were banned in all states between 1994 and 2004 under the “Federal Assault Rifle Ban” passed in 1994, but this law expired and has not been reinstated.
There are accessories that make semi-automatic rifles similar to automatic rifles, such as a bump stock. This device is added to the exterior of the gun to make the gun shoot much faster, giving it the capability of shooting quickly like an automatic assault rifle. In the October, 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting at a country music concert, the shooter used bump stocks to modify semi-automatic rifles so they would fire like a machine gun. Representative Carlos Curbelo (along with 27 co-sponsors from both parties) introduced a bill (H.R. 3999) to prohibit the manufacturing, possession, and transfer of devices that increase the rate of fire on semi-automatic weapons. By the end of 2017, the bill had not been voted on by the House of Representatives.
Gun violence is a public health issue, but politics has interfered with research to determine how to reduce suicides or homicides caused by guns. Research is necessary for legislators to create effective gun control policy.
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
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- To amend title 18, United States Code, to prohibit the manufacture, possession, or transfer of any part or combination of parts that is designed and functions to increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but does not convert the semi-automatic rifle into a machinegun, and for other purposes, H.R.3999, 115th Congress. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/115thcongress/housebill/3999q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22hr+3999%22% 5D%7D&r=1. Accessed on Oct. 20, 2017.