Spurred by the bloody “Tommy gun” era ushered in by Al Capone, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde, seen at right, President Franklin D. Roosevelt mounts a “New Deal for Crime.” One part of it is the National Firearms Act of 1934, the first federal gun-control law, which levies a restrictive $200 tax on the manufacture or sale of machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. All sales were to be recorded in a national registry.
Roosevelt wins approval of the National Firearms Act of 1938, which requires the licensing of interstate gun dealers, who must record their sales. It prohibits sales to individuals under indictment or convicted of crimes of violence.
Spurred by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson renews the fight for gun control. He wins passage of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which becomes the primary federal law regulating firearms. It prohibits all convicted felons, drug users and the mentally ill from buying guns; raises the age to purchase handguns from a federally licensed dealer to 21; and expands the licensing requirements to more gun dealers and requires more detailed record-keeping.
Prompted by complaints that the federal government has been abusing its power to enforce gun laws, Congress passes the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. The law limits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from inspecting gun dealers more than once a year, with follow-up inspections allowed only if multiple violations are found. An amendment is also passed banning civilian ownership of machine guns manufactured after May 19, 1986. Weapons made and registered before that date are not affected. The law specifically forbids the government from creating a national registry of gun ownership.
The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 mandates background checks of gun buyers in order to prevent sales to people prohibited under the 1968 legislation. Checks would eventually occur through a new system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), maintained by the FBI. But records of such checks cannot be preserved because federal law prohibits the creation of a national registry of gun ownership. Sales by unlicensed private sellers who are not engaged in gun dealing as a business are not subject to the checks under federal law, though they are required by some states.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 produces a 10-year federal ban on the manufacture of new semi-automatic assault weapons. The law specifies 19 weapons that have the features of assault rifles, including the AR-15, certain versions of the AK-47, the TEC-9, the MAC-10 and the Uzi, several of which had become the preferred weapon of violent drug gangs. The act also bans large-capacity ammunition magazines, limiting them to 10 rounds. The law does not apply to weapons that were already in legal possession, and there are easy ways to adapt new weapons to avoid the prohibitions.
In a victory for the NRA, Congress passes the Tiahrt Amendment to a federal spending bill. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), prohibits law enforcement from publicly releasing data showing where criminals bought their firearms.
The 10-year sunset provision of the assault weapons ban runs its course, and the law is not renewed by Congress. Repeated efforts to renew the ban fail.
President George W. Bush signs the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which grants gun manufacturers immunity from civil lawsuits filed over crimes committed with firearms. The law killed a legal strategy being pursued by gun-control advocates to hold manufacturers responsible for the negative effects of their products. A similar strategy had proved effective against tobacco companies.
The Supreme Court in the District of Columbia v. Heller holds that Americans have an individual right under the Second Amendment to possess firearms in federal enclaves “for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” The ruling strikes down a local law banning handguns in the District.
Eighteen years after the Brady law is passed, the 156 millionth background check is performed under the law. The number of gun sales rejected through federal denials reaches nearly a million. President Obama vows to impose new limits on guns and ammunition in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting.