Gun law in the United States

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This article is about federal gun laws. For state and local gun laws, see Gun laws in the United States by state.

Gun laws of the United States are found in a number of federal statutes. These laws regulate the manufacture, trade, possession, transfer, record keeping, transport, and destruction of firearms, ammunition, and firearms accessories. They are enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The right to keep and bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Major federal gun laws

Most federal gun laws are found in the following acts:[1][2]


Under United States law, any company or gunsmith which in the course of its business manufactures guns or gun parts, or modifies guns for resale, must be licensed as a manufacturer of firearms.[3]

Second Amendment

The right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

While the Founding Fathers of this country were developing the system of government as set forth in the Constitution many feared that a standing army controlled by a strong central government would leave them helpless. The Federal Constitution contained no provisions to prohibit a standing army or allow states to create their own militias. The Constitution was signed by thirty-nine men from the twelve states represented at the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787. Three delegates refused to sign because of the absence of a bill of rights.

Two years later, the First Congress agreed on twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution. During this time, debate focused on a standing army versus a state militia and citizens' rights, and even obligations, to carry arms. Before addressing arms and the militia in the Bill of Rights, however, two militia clauses were included in the Constitution. The militia clauses say that Congress shall have power to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions; to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.[4]

In the United States the individual right to keep and bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. There has been vigorous debate on the nature of this right. Two relatively recent United States Supreme Court cases codify the federal and local individual right to possess a firearm.

An individual right to own a gun for personal use was affirmed in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008, which overturned a handgun ban in the Federal District of Columbia. In the Heller decision, the court ruled that "the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home."[5] Further, this ruling held in the court's majority opinion that the Second Amendment protects "the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home."[6]

In delivering the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:

There seems to us no doubt, on the basis of both text and history, that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms....

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.[5][7]

The four dissenting justices said that the majority had broken established precedent on the Second Amendment,[8] and took the position that the Amendment refers to an individual right, but in the context of militia service.[9][10][11][12]

In the McDonald v. City of Chicago decision in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that, because of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights, the guarantee of an individual right to bear arms extends to state and local gun control laws and not just federal laws.[13]

The Supreme Court has not ruled on whether or not the Second Amendment protects the right to carry guns in public for self-defense, turning down a case concerning a New York State law that requires people seeking permits for carrying guns in public to demonstrate that they have a special need for self-protection.[14] Federal appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings on this point. For example, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that it does, saying, "The Supreme Court has decided that the amendment confers a right to bear arms for self-defense, which is as important outside the home as inside."[15] But the Tenth Circuit Court ruled in 2013 that it does not, saying, "In light of our nation's extensive practice of restricting citizen's freedom to carry firearms in a concealed manner, we hold that this activity does not fall within the scope of the Second Amendment's protections."[16]

Eligible persons

The following persons are eligible to possess and own firearms within the United States: US citizens, permanent resident aliens or non-immigrant aliens admitted into the United States for lawful hunting or sporting purposes or if they fall under one of the following exceptions: possesses a valid hunting license or permit issued by any US state, an official representative of a foreign government who is accredited to the United States Government or the Government’s mission to an international organization having its headquarters in the United States or is en route to or from another country to which that alien is accredited, an official of a foreign government or a distinguished foreign visitor who has been so designated by the Department of State, or a foreign law enforcement officer of a friendly foreign government entering the United States on official law enforcement business [17]

See also


  1. "Federal Gun Control Legislation - Timeline". Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  2. "Crime Control: The Federal Response". Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  3. "Firearms - Frequently Asked Questions - Manufacturers". 2015. Archived from the original on July 10, 2014. Retrieved February 24, 2015. 
  4. Bijlefeld, Marjolijn (1997). The Gun Control Debate: A Documentary History. Westpor, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 2. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Scalia, Antonin (June 26, 2008). "District of Columbia et al. v. Heller, Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, No. 07–290. Argued March 18, 2008" (PDF): 2. Retrieved February 25, 2013. 
  6. Greenhouse, Linda (June 27, 2008). "Justices Rule for Individual Gun Rights", The New York Times. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  7. Cooper, Matthew (January 19, 2013). "Why Liberals Should Thank Justice Scalia for Gun Control: His Ruling in a Key Supreme Court Case Leans on Original Intent and Will Let Obama Push His Proposals". National Journal. National Journal Group. Archived from the original on January 20, 2013. Retrieved October 9, 2015. 
  8. Linda Greenhouse (2008-06-27). "Justices Rule for Individual Gun Rights". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-27. 
  9. See "District of Columbia v. Heller: The Individual Right to Bear Arms" (PDF) (comment), Harvard Law Review, Vol. 122, pp. 141-142 (2008): "Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion, agreeing with the majority that the Second Amendment confers an individual right, but disagreeing as to the scope of that right….Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined Justice Stevens’s opinion."
  10. Bhagwat, A. (2010). The Myth of Rights: The Purposes and Limits of Constitutional Rights. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 9780195377781. Justice Stevens begins his opinion by conceding Justice Scalia's point that the Second Amendment right is an 'individual' one, in the sense that '[s]urely it protects a right that can be enforced by individuals.' He concludes, however, that all of the historical context, and all of the evidence surrounding the drafting of the Second Amendment, supports the view that the Second Amendment protects only a right to keep and bear arms in the context of militia service. 
  11. Bennett, R.; Solum, L. (2011). Constitutional originalism : A Debate. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. p. 29. ISBN 9780801447938. In both dissents, the clear implication is that if the purpose of the Second Amendment is militia—related, it follows that the amendment does not create a legal rule that protects an individual right to possess and carry fire arms outside the context of service in a state militia. 
  12. Schultz, D. A. (2009). Encyclopedia of the United States Constitution. New York: Infobase Publishing. p. 201. ISBN 9781438126777. Justice John Paul Stevens argued that the debate over the Second Amendment was not whether it protected an individual or collective right but, instead, over the scope of the right to bear arms. 
  13. Liptak, Adam (June 28, 2010). "Justices Extend Firearm Rights in 5-to-4 Ruling", The New York Times. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  14. Liptak, Adam (April 15, 2013). "Justices Refuse Case on Gun Law in New York", The New York Times. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  15. Long, Ray; Sweeney, Annie; Garcia, Monique (December 11, 2012). "Concealed Carry: Court Strikes Down Illinois' Ban", Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  16. Associated Press (February 23, 2013). "Court Finds No Right to Conceal a Firearm", The New York Times. Retrieved February 15, 2015.

External links