BBC World Service
I have a right to...

Article 29: Each person has responsibilities to the community and others as essential for a democratic society

  • The United States constitution, which was written over two hundred years ago, enshrines an individual's right to keep and bear arms.
  • In 2000, the FBI estimated that 66% of the 15,517 murders that year were committed with firearms.
  • Fatal shootings in recent years, many involving teenagers, has made the issue of gun control a key debate in US politics.


The United States has the largest number of guns in private hands of any country in the world with 60 million people owning a combined arsenal of over 200 million firearms.

The US constitution, which was written in 1787, enshrines the people's right to keep and bear arms in its Second Amendment.

It reads: '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.'

Although guns are permitted everywhere, the laws governing gun use vary considerably from state to state.

Gun Control, Not Prohibition

Amending the Constitution to prohibit guns is rarely discussed as many Americans view the right to bear arms as an important civil liberty.

Instead, the issue is whether or not it is lawful to impose stricter controls on gun usage.

Proposed gun control legislation has concerned child-proof locks, background checks on gun purchasers, the outlawing of some types of assault weapons and, most recently, the creation of a nationwide database of ballistic fingerprints in order to track the movement of the nation's guns.

American opinion is divided between those who insist on the universal right to bear arms and those who advocate stricter controls.

The influential firearms lobby, headed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), believes gun ownership to be a personal and moral right and dismisses the link between gun ownership and high gun violence with its slogan 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.'

Advocates of firearm control argue that the Second Amendment is anachronistic belonging to the long-gone days of the frontier. They point to the high levels of gun-related murder and violent crime in the US to stress the need for reform.

The issue of removing the number of guns that are already in circulation is rarely discussed.

More Controls

In the past decade, public opinion has been gradually moved in favour of stricter gun control laws. In January 2001, 59% of the respondents in an ABC News/Washington Post survey said they favoured stricter gun control laws.

After the horrific events in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado when two students shot dead 13 fellow students and each other, polls showed that two-thirds of Americans supported greater gun control measures. Moreover, 15 state legislatures passed significant gun control bills.

The case of the Washington Sniper, who terrorised the suburbs of the nation's capital in late 2002 in a month-long shooting spree, killing 10 people and seriously wounding three, swiftly brought the issue of gun control onto the table once again.

However, any new gun control legislation that comes before the Congress is sure to be vetoed by President George W. Bush, who is a long-time ally of the NRA.

While he was governor of Texas, the President signed laws making it legal to carry concealed weapons and difficult for citizens to sue gun manufacturers.