The History of Gun Control in America, Part Four: 1980 to Now
The History of Gun Control in America, Part Four
The Late 1970’s - Organized Factions Form
(Continued from The History of Gun Control in America, Part Three)
In 1974, the National Council to Control Handguns (NCCH) was founded by armed robbery victim Mark Borinsky with Republican marketing manager Pete Shields, whose son had been a victim of murder by handgun, joining shortly thereafter. By 1980 they would change the name of the group to Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI). For a short time, they partnered with the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH), although this partnership did not last long. The NCBH soon decided that the HCI did not share their fervor to promote anti-gun legislation, and renamed themselves in 1990 as the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). This split seems unfortunate for the CSGV, as the HCI has had considerably more traction following the assassination of John Lennon in 1980.
By 1981, HCI's membership had grown beyond 100,000; in 1983, the HCI spawned the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence (CPHV) as an educational outreach project, and in 1989, CPHV established the Legal Action Project to push for anti-gun legislation in the courts. In 2001, the HCI renamed itself again to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which was instrumental in the passing of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Bill).
At about the same time as the formation of the NCCH / HCI / Brady Campaign, in 1975, despite the change in tone and direction of the NRA during the 1970’s away from any attempts at compromise or appeasement with the advocates of Gun Control, and towards a previously unseen level of political activism, some gun rights activists felt a that a more unified group of gun owners strictly against the anti-gun movement was called for, and formed the Gun Owners of America (GOA).
H. L. Richardson, a state Senator from California and the founder of GOA and the Gun Owners of California, still serves as its chairman after 42 years. Richardson has gone on record publicly criticizing the NRA on multiple occasions for what the GOA considers to be an attitude of compromise on gun rights issues and for selling out the gun rights movement in general. Retired Congressman Ron Paul further describes the GOA as “the only no-compromise gun rights lobby in Washington.” For more than 30 years, GOA has been building an active network of attorneys who sole aim is to challenge any anti-gun legislation in the courts.
The Dawn of the 1980’s
(All We Are Saying, Is Give A Piece A Chance)
On the evening of December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was shot dead at point-blank range by Mark David Chapman in the archway of his home in New York City. This was the first major news event to affect the issue of gun rights in the 1980’s. For this senseless act, Chapman was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison at the Wende Correctional Facility, where he has remained ever since, being denied parole 9 times already.
Lennon’s murder in 1980 renewed interest in stricter gun control laws. “John Lennon’s death appears to have done more to center attention on handguns than any recent event,” reported the Washington Post. Still, the notion of any new gun control legislation was rejected by then President-elect Ronald Reagan. Ironically, Reagan’s own assassination attempt merely 3 months later would eventually spur the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993.
On Monday, March 30, 1981, new President Ronald Reagan was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. As Reagan got into his limousine, John Hinckley, Jr. opened fire from just a few feet away with his revolver. Incredibly, despite the extremely close range, Hinckley’s six shots almost hit everything but President Reagan. The first hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head, actually causing the most damage of any bullet Hinckley fired that day; Brady suffered brain damage and was permanently paralyzed. The second round hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck as he turned to protect Reagan, wounding him moderately. Delahanty later recovered completely.
With Delahanty out of the way, Hinckley had a clear shot at Reagan but missed again anyway and hit the window of a building across the street. As the Special Agent In Charge Jerry Parr frantically shoved Reagan into the back seat of the armored limousine, his fourth shot hit Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen, who also later recovered completely. The fifth bullet hit the bullet-resistant glass of the window on the open limo door, and the sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the armored side of the limo and hit the president under his left arm, grazing one rib and lodging in his lung, stopping almost an inch from his heart. Reagan’s injury proved to be relatively minor; he was able to speak to reporters and sign legislation the next day and was out of the hospital less than two weeks later. It is generally acknowledged that Parr’s quick reaction is what saved the President’s life.
In the aftermath of the shooting, amazingly, no new strong voice for Gun Control rang out immediately. It would take years for the passage of the Brady Bill. Reagan retained his strong stance for gun rights, although after his presidency he did support the background checks enumerated in the Brady Bill.
Late 1980’s Reagan-Era Legislation
(The Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act, The Firearm Owners Protection Act and the Undetectable Firearms Act)
There were three pieces of significant legislation related to gun rights during the Reagan administration. The first was the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986, which illegalized the manufacture or import of armor piercing ammunition, or "cop-killer bullets," which are designed to penetrate bullet-resistant clothing.
This relatively minor act was quickly overshadowed by the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. On May 19, 1986, President Reagan signed this bill, which amended the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, repealing parts of the FGCA that were declared by studies to be unconstitutional. This was something that the NRA had long lobbied for, and it was generally declared a victory for gun rights. This act accomplished several things; it was now easier to transport long rifles across the United States, it ended federal record keeping of ammunition sales, and it prevented the prosecution of someone passing through states with strict gun control with firearms in their vehicle as long as the gun, or guns, were properly stored. The act, however, also contained a provision outlawing ownership of any fully automatic firearms that were not registered by May 19, 1986. This provision was cleverly slipped into the legislation as a last-minute amendment by Rep. William J. Hughes (D) of New Jersey. Reagan has been roundly criticized by some gun rights groups and gun owners for signing the legislation with the Hughes amendment intact.
On November 10, 1988, President Reagan signed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which HCI supported Congress in passing. The United States Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 makes it illegal to manufacture, transport, sell or possess any firearm that is undetectable by walk-through metal detectors, or any firearm whose major components do not generate a recognizable, accurate image before standard airport imaging machines. This bill was designed to ban firearms that could foil standard metal detection, and also required handguns to assume the traditional shape of a handgun so that imaging machines could recognize them easily. It began as an attempt to ban handguns like the Glock 17 that had much less metal content than other handguns in the mid-1980s. This particular bill might have faded into obscurity, but in recent years the advent of 3D printing with high-grade plastics (and now, even as metal parts) has given this measure a new degree of relevance.
The NRA originally chose not to fight this bill, because its restrictions did not affect any guns being made at the time, but this may prove to have been a short-sighted decision with the advent of 3D printing. Also, the passage of this bill was seen as a major victory by the anti-gun crowd; it seems to have added an air of legitimacy to HCI, who was instrumental later as The Brady Campaign in passing the Brady Bill. The UFA originally had a ten-year lifespan, but when it came up for renewal in 1998, it was endorsed by the NRA. Further renewals in 2003 and 2013 were similarly endorsed, and this 30-year-old law is now making new headlines against the possibility of 3D printing technology.
A final event of the 1980’s would prove to impact further gun laws. On January 17, 1989, at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, Patrick Purdy, a man with a long criminal history, shot and killed five schoolchildren and wounded 32 others before committing suicide. This incident immediately received national news coverage and was cause for renewed calls for regulation of semiautomatic weapons. Time magazine asked, “Why could Purdy, an alcoholic who had been arrested for such offenses as selling weapons and attempted robbery, walk into a gun shop in Sandy, Oregon, and leave with an AK-47 under his arm?" The state of California soon passed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which banned anything they considered an assault weapon. The federal government was more divided on this issue, but this event is considered to be the catalyst for the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act and the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 prohibits any individual from possessing a firearm anywhere within 1000 feet of any place that is defined as a school zone. First introduced in the Senate in February 1990 by Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, it was then incorporated into the Crime Control Act of 1990, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. In 1995 the Supreme Court subsequently maintained that the Act was an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional authority, but then-Attorney General Janet Reno found a loophole to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling; in the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997 she buried an exception that if the firearm in question "has moved in or otherwise affects interstate commerce" it is still subject to the GFSZA, which affects nearly all firearms.
In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, commonly referred to as the Brady Bill, was the culmination of almost 20 years of the efforts of the Brady Campaign, formerly known as the National Council to Control Handguns (NCCH), then known as Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI). The Brady Bill mandated federal background checks on anyone purchasing a firearm in the United States and instituted a five-day waiting period before any purchase could be claimed. The waiting period was replaced in 1998 by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This system determines whether prospective firearms or explosives buyers' identification and birth date match those of a person who is listed as ineligible to buy. The Brady Bill was quite restrictive, yet it was overshadowed by the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
The Brady Campaign also lobbied for the passage of this ban, which used rather ambiguous terms to define an 'assault weapon'. Nonsensical characteristics, such as the color of the weapon in some cases, were used to outlaw some rifles, pistols, and shotguns. (There were actually a detailed and complex set of rules for whether a specific firearm would be banned, such as the inclusion on the gun such features as folding stocks, flash suppressors, pistol grips, and detachable magazines, but a complete list of features and the rules for banning firearms based on them is outside the scope of this article.)
This law, officially called the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, is merely a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, barely passed by Congress on September 13, 1994 (52–48 in the Senate), and signed immediately that day by President Clinton. It was enacted with a ten-year lifespan, and due to lobbying efforts on behalf of the NRA, it was failed to be renewed in 2004. In October 2003, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report about the effectiveness of gun violence prevention strategies which concluded, "Evidence was insufficient to determine the effectiveness of any of these laws.” A similar survey of firearms research by the National Academy of Sciences arrived at nearly identical conclusions in 2004. None of the renewal bills have left committee, and, despite the stated intentions of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to re-enact the ban, no movement was made on this until the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. On January 24, 2013, Senator Diane Feinstein introduced S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, basically a copycat of the 1994 AWB but without an expiration date. This bill failed its vote in the Senate 40 to 60. To date, this is the closest the 1994 AWB has come to renewal.
The 21st Century
This century so far has been much kinder to gun owners than the heyday of the anti-gun sentiment of the 1960’s and 70’s. Increased public awareness about gun rights issues, courtesy of the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, and other groups like them, as well as lobbying efforts on behalf of the NRA, can all be thanked for that.
In 2003, The Tiahrt Amendment, proposed by Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), prohibited the ATF from publicly releasing data showing where criminals purchased their firearms, with the stipulation that only law enforcement officials could access such information. The Washington Post indignantly declared of this law in 2010, “The law effectively shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study, and public scrutiny. It also keeps the spotlight off the relationship between rogue gun dealers and the black market in firearms.” Gun owners and lobbying groups have steadily maintained that public release of this information would unfairly target certain gun shops. There have been efforts to repeal this amendment, but none have come to fruition as of yet.
In 2004, The Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act was enacted. This law allows qualified law enforcement officers, current and retired, to carry a concealed firearm anywhere in the United States, regardless of state or local laws, with certain exceptions. Later amended by the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act Improvements Act of 2010, this expansion of scope specifically extended its coverage to include officers of the Amtrak Police, Federal Reserve Police, and police officers of the executive branch of U.S. Government. On January 2, 2013, LEOSA was again expanded by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by President Obama, furthering the law’s scope to include military police and civilian police officers within the Department of Defense.
On June 6, 2005, Gun Owners of America helped in lobbying the House of Representatives to vote against the Moran Amendment, by a vote of 278 to 149. The amendment would have banned .50 caliber weapons from being licensed for export. This bill started with another media event: On January 9, 2005, CBS's "60 Minutes" show demonized .50-caliber rifles. The CBS/VPC storyline was that a .50 caliber weapon is "too dangerous to be in the hands of private citizens." As if on cue, anti-gun zealot Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) immediately introduced his "50 Caliber Sniper Rifle Reduction Act" in Congress.
In effect since October 26, 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, signed by President George W. Bush, prevents gun manufacturers from being held liable in federal or state civil suits by crime victims involving guns made by that company. Gun manufacturers and even dealers can still be subject to a lawsuit for damages from defective equipment, breaches of contract, or any other criminal actions that they may be directly responsible for, just as any other U.S. company can (and should) be.
This law stemmed from the backlash of several lawsuits, perhaps the most notable of which was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1998 lawsuit targeting gun makers and dealers. He was quoted as saying: "You can't expect the status quo on businesses which make money and then have no responsibility to us as citizens." Mayor Joseph Ganim of Bridgeport, Connecticut stated flatly that their tactic of pursuing gun manufacturers with litigation was the route that he and his city’s administration would take from now on.
In the legislative aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, On Jan. 8, 2008, President Bush signed H.R. 2640 into law. This was New York Senator Chuck Schumer's NICS Improvement Amendments Act, designed to address loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence, Democratic gun control advocates, some mental health experts, and the NRA all supported the NICS Improvement Amendments Act (also known as the School Safety And Law Enforcement Improvement Act), but the GOA took issue with a portion of the bill, which they termed the "Veterans' Disarmament Act." This portion of the bill famously put many veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or combat fatigue), or even anyone who had applied for Social Security Disability benefits on a “no-buy” list, prohibiting them from purchasing any firearms.
On June 26, 2008, District of Columbia vs. Heller (554 U.S. 570) was decided. This landmark case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an individual’s right to possess a firearm is the central issue of the Second Amendment, and was the first case in which the Supreme Court declared that an individual’s right to have firearms for home defense was a fundamental freedom. It further declared that Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban was unconstitutional and would be abolished, and the requirement that legally-owned rifles and shotguns should be kept "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock" violated Second Amendment rights. It did, however, declare that the right to keep and bear arms was not unlimited and that it would continue to be regulated.
It should be noted that this case essentially reversed the almost 70-year precedent set by the United States vs. Miller case of 1939. Also, it redefined the focus of the Second Amendment in favor of individual rights and away from that of a “well-regulated militia”.
Decided June 28, 2010, McDonald vs. Chicago (561 U.S. 742) is another landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the rights of the individual to "keep and bear arms" as protected via the Second Amendment is incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against the states. This decision cleared up any uncertainty left after the District of Columbia v. Heller decision as to the scope of an individual's gun rights in regard to the states.
Whereas Heller was about citizens gun rights as pertaining to federal law, this case was all about the state’s ability to interfere with those rights. In this case, several suits against Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois challenged their gun bans after the District of Columbia vs. Heller decision. The suits, including one by Chicago resident Otis McDonald, a 76-year-old retired janitor, were thrown out of court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit later affirmed their appeal, which then went to the US Supreme Court and on to a victory for Otis McDonald and for all American gun owners.
In early 2013, President Obama proposed sweeping changes to Gun Control, after the massacres of 20 first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, and 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. Throughout his presidency, upon news of any mass shooting, he would publicly scold the American People about the dangers of guns (I’ll take a moment to note that not at any time did he adequately lay the blame on the wackos who did the shooting, but instead blame it on the easy availability of firearms) and introduce proposals to tighten Gun Control laws. His plans included universal background checks for gun sales, the reinstatement and strengthening of the assault weapons ban, limiting ammunition magazines to a 10-round capacity, and other measures. These measures all failed at the national level, but some individual states did begin enacting tighter legislation to encroach on Second Amendment rights, flouting the precedent set by the McDonald vs. Chicago decision just three years earlier.
On Sept. 10, 2013, The normally left-leaning (but liberty-minded) State of Colorado recalled two pro-Gun-Control State Senators. Voters in the state threw out of office Democrats John Morse and Angela Giron for supporting recently enacted Gun Control laws that require background checks on private gun sales and limit magazine clips to 15 rounds. The election became a media storm, drawing national attention not only for the removal of the officials but also for the mass influx of money from both sides of the political aisle, from the National Rifle Association and from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a noted Gun Control advocate.
In February 2017, the Trump administration signed into law a bill that rolled back the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, returning Second Amendment rights to approximately 75,000 individuals who were receiving Social Security disability and had representative payees. This new Trump administration bill was supported by the ACLU, the National Association for Mental Health, The American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Council on Disability, and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, as well as other disability rights advocates.
And, finally, in 2018, in the political aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a number of students who survived this incident took to the national stage to call for tighter gun control. One student named David Hogg seized the opportunity to declare himself as a spokesman for the anti-gun crowd, leading the students in chants of “We call BS!” (I’m sure Barbara Streisand changed her phone number shortly after this battle cry was heard.) Though Congress’ reaction varied, Florida state legislators promptly prepared new rounds of legislation. This is one more Gun Control scenario that will likely be playing itself out in courtrooms and more (unconstitutional) legislation.
This is part four in this series and the conclusion of our History of Gun Control in America.