As one of the most disputed areas of political debate in the USA , the question of gun control illustrates some key issues about the rights and responsibilities of individuals, the states and the federal government.
The 'right of the people to keep and bear arms' was written into the US Bill of Rights and is protected under the American Constitution. Since then, different laws have restricted the conditions under which guns can be bought, sold and used. There are presently more than 20,000 gun laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local level. These limit the original 'right to bear arms'.
Those in favour of gun control believe that the mention of 'the people' in the Constitution refers to states, not individuals. They argue that those who drafted the Constitution intended to ensure the official agencies of the states could be legally armed, not every individual citizen. This is the subject of an ongoing debate but there is little chance of the Supreme Court being asked to rule on the question.
Individuals and organisations who consider themselves to be anti gun control argue that, if everyone had the ability to defend themselves with guns, then their illegal use would decline. Those in favour of gun control argue that the opposite is true and that more gun ownership means people are more at risk from gun crime and violence. They believe that government should place restrictions on the selling, ownership and storage of weapons.
The pro-gun lobby maintains that most, if not all, gun control laws are ineffective and fail to achieve their aims. Their position is that the promotion of responsible gun ownership is more effective than legal penalties.
Many people fall somewhere between the two opposing views on gun control, believing in the right to own a gun, but happy with some form of governmental control on their sale and use. They support one or more gun control laws, but not all of them.
For example, some people support laws which might help reduce the number of guns used in crime. Such laws might involve making background checks on anyone wanting to buy a gun and enforcing a waiting period while this is done.
Others argue that semi automatic rifles, which are seen as more deadly than handguns, should not be readily available to buy. These people support laws which prohibit their general sale but might not go so far as to agree with laws which would restrict access to 'adults only'.
"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."
Second Amendment to the Constitution. 1791
The Gun Control Act (1968) withdrew firearm possession rights from certain categories of criminal; drug addicts; people who have been committed with some severe mental disorder; illegal aliens; people who’ve been dishonourably discharged from the armed forces or who have renounced their United States citizenship.
In 2004 a federal law, sometimes called the Liability Bill, was proposed. This was designed to protect companies involved in the manufacture or sale of guns and would have meant that these companies could not be held responsible for their illegal use. Victims of gun crime would not be able make claims against them.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) supported this bill and it had the support of the Republican majority in the House. However, several changes, or amendments, made to this bill when it was brought before the Senate in 2004, meant that it was voted down. What happened illustrates how complicated the American political system, with its checks and balances, can make it difficult to pass legislation.
About the same time as the Liability Bill was going through Congress, a ten year ban on assault weapons (semi-automatic weapons) was due to expire. Two Democratic Senators introduced an amendment to the Liability Bill which proposed an extension to this ban. The Republicans were against this. They decided they would rather lose the main bill than concede the amendment.
So, when it was time for a vote, the Bill's chief sponsor, Republican Senator Larry Craig, Idaho, urged his colleagues to kill the legislation because of the amendment. "It is so dramatically wounded that it should not pass'', said Craig, who is also on the board of the National Rifle Association.
With no other move in Congress to support the assault weapons ban, it expired on 13th September 2004.
There’s another twist to the story. The events appeared to put President Bush in a difficult situation. He had said he would veto the Liability Bill if it contained any amendments, but he had also publicly pledged to sign a renewal to the assault weapons ban if it reached his desk. His support for the ban placed him in conflict with the NRA, which had strongly supported him during the 2000 Presidential campaign.
The decision by Republican Senators to defeat their own bill removed the need for the President to fulfil his pledge to renew the assault weapons ban. This also removed any test of Mr Bush’s trustworthiness –would he or wouldn’t he fulfil his pledge- and some potentially difficult publicity. Just as well for the president, since this was all happening just before the 2004 presidential election.
The following year (2005), the US Senate passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. This Act ensures the gun industry cannot be held legally responsible for the criminal use of their weapons while adding the requirement that handguns be supplied with childproof trigger locks.
In the Senate, 65 Senators backed the Bill (50 Republicans, 14 Democrats and 1 Independent). 31 voted against (2 Republicans and 29 Democrats). Then, in October of 2005, the House of Representatives also voted in favour of the law.
Individual states differ in their attitudes to gun control. In general, there are more restrictions on ownership in the north eastern states ( Massachusetts and New Jersey ) than the southern states ( Texas and Alabama ), which are traditional supporters of the gun lobby.
Nineteen states have laws which are designed to prevent child access to guns. In these states, owners who do not take reasonable care to securely store or lock a gun can be held criminally responsible if it is obtained by a minor.
" When our ancestors forged a land "conceived in liberty", they did so with musket and rifle. When they reacted to attempts to dissolve their free institutions, and established their identity as a free nation, they did so as a nation of armed freemen. When they sought to record forever a guarantee of their rights, they devoted one full amendment out of ten to nothing but the protection of their right to keep and bear arms against governmental interference."
Orrin G. Hatch, Chairman Subcommittee on the Constitution January 20, 1982
Traditionally, Republicans have been seen as pro-gun. Democrats have had the reputation as being pro gun control. However, the pro-gun lobby represents a wealthy and highly influential element of American society and some Democrats think their anti-gun stance is losing them valuable votes. They think this may have happened to Democratic candidate Al Gore, who lost votes in key states in the presidential elections in 2000.
Many Democrats in the Southern states in particular are convinced that the perception of being pro gun control is damaging to their party. They do not always follow the party line on the gun issue.
During the 2004 elections, for example, the pro-gun Democrat, Joe Manchin, won his first term as Governor in West Virginia . And the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada , differs with his Democratic colleagues in opposing gun control.
Lobby groups have formed in support of the different arguments.
The National Rifle Association is the major pro-gun group. This organisation is extremely well funded and campaigns effectively. The Brady Campaign is the largest group working to ensure that there are laws restricting the use of guns.
Other interested parties are firearms manufacturers, importers, distributors, dealers and collectors. They make up what is known as the gun industry.
"The gun lobby exists because it is successful at polarizing the issue – pro-gun, anti-gun. Of course most of us want sensible regulations that insure that firearms don't land in the wrong hands - fugitives, felons, kids, terrorists, etc. It's not a matter of taking guns away from the law-abiding citizens - we must keep emphasizing that and try to reduce the polarization."
Sarah Brady, Chair of Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, taking part in an online debate at washingtonpost.com. June 10th 2003.