What Is Gun Control? - Facts, Laws, Pros & Cons

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

The topic of gun control often sparks furious debate, even among the closest of friends. This lesson explores the concept of gun control, the history of gun control legislation, and the arguments for and against restrictive gun laws.

What Is Gun Control?

'I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!' These were the words of actor Charlton Heston as he delivered a speech at a pro-gun convention in 2000. Depending on your opinion of gun control, Heston's sentiment is either celebrated or reviled. But, what does 'gun control' mean? And, why do people react so passionately to the subject of gun control?

Gun control refers to policies and laws established to regulate the manufacture, sale, and use of firearms. It should come as no surprise that the topic of gun control spurns great debate. While gun control advocates demand more gun laws, those in favor of gun rights lobby for less restriction. Gun rights advocates rely on the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution as a general basis for their argument for less restrictive gun laws. The Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to 'keep and bear arms.'

The Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment as a limited prohibition on government infringement on gun ownership. This means that while a person has the right to own a gun, that right is not absolute. Both the federal and state governments may establish gun control laws and policies to ensure public safety. So, when it comes to making gun control laws, think of the Second Amendment as 'the rock' and public safety as 'the hard place' that we are all stuck between.


Gun control laws vary from country to country and from state to state. In the United States, both federal and state laws govern civilian gun use. As a result, conflicts between federal and state laws may arise. Conflicts are often settled by the court system or through legislative reforms.

History of Gun Control Laws

Here is a list of some of the most notable or influential gun control laws in the United States over the last 80 years or so:

  • The first federal gun control law was the National Firearms Act of 1934, passed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 1934 law required that all gun sales be recorded, and also imposed a tax on gun manufacturers. A later version of the same law prohibited those convicted of violent crimes from purchasing guns.
  • The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 outlawed gun ownership for all convicted felons, and placed more stringent record-keeping provisions on gun dealers. These laws also raised the age to purchase handguns to 21.
  • The tide of restrictive gun laws began to shift in the mid-1980s with the passage of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986. This law limited government agency inspections of gun shops to once a year, and banned the creation of a national gun registry.
  • Mandatory background checks for gun buyers was established by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993.
  • The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 imposed a ten-year ban on the manufacture and purchase of semi-automatic assault weapons. The assault weapon ban ended in 2004.
  • In 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a Washington, D.C. law prohibiting the possession of handguns. A similar law banning handgun ownership in Chicago, Illinois was struck down in 2010.

'Stand Your Ground' Laws

45 states have adopted the 'castle doctrine,' a legal principle which states that an individual is not required to retreat from their home if they are under attack. As a result, many states have implemented so-called 'stand your ground' laws which permit homeowners to legally defend themselves (some times with deadly force) in their own home.

States with some form of a 'stand your ground' law include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Nonprofit Groups

The National Rifle Association, or NRA, is the most influential pro-gun rights nonprofit group in the United States. Founded in 1871, the NRA didn't begin its lobbying efforts until 1975. Since then, the NRA has contributed funds to the elections of pro-gun candidates, as well as legislative reforms aimed at defeating new gun control laws.

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