After going virtually unchallenged for more than one hundred years, Americans’ right to own guns was one of the hottest political topics of the second half of the 20th Century. The issue has calmed somewhat in the early days of the 21st Century, but if history is our guide, the debate is going nowhere until an inevitable and definitive ruling is handed down by the nation’s courts: does the Second Amendment apply to individual citizens?
1791: The Second Amendment is Ratified
The ink had hardly dried on the ratification papers of the Constitution before a political movement was undertaken to amend the framing document to declare gun ownership as a right.
A select committee assembled to review amendments proposed by James Madison authored the language that would become the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights: “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.”
1871: NRA Founded
The National Rifle Association was founded by a pair of Union soldiers in 1871, not as a political lobby but as an effort to promote the shooting of rifles. However, the organization would grow to become the face of America's pro-gun lobby in the 20th Century.
1822: Bliss v. Commonwealth Brings ‘Individual Right’ Into Question
The Second Amendment’s intent for individual Americans first came into question in 1822, in Bliss v. Commonwealth. The court case arose in Kentucky after a man was indicted for carrying a sword concealed in a cane. He was convicted and fined $100.
Bliss appealed the conviction, citing a provision in the Commonwealth’s constitution that states: “The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state, shall not be questioned.”
In a majority vote with just one judge dissenting, the court overturned the conviction against Bliss and ruled the law unconstitutional and void.
1856: Dred Scott v. Sandford Upholds Individual Right
The Second Amendment as an individual right was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in its decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1856. With the rights of slaves in question, the nation’s highest court opined on the intent of the Second Amendment for the first time, writing that affording slaves full rights of American citizenship would include the right “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
1934: National Firearms Act Brings About First Major Gun Control
The first major effort to eliminate private ownership of firearms came with the National Firearms Act of 1934. A direct response of the rise of gangster violence in general, and the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre in particular, the National Firearms Act sought to circumvent the Second Amendment by controlling firearms through a tax excise ($200 for each gun sale).
The National Firearms Act targeted fully-automatic weapons, short-barreled shotguns and rifles, pen and cane guns, and other firearms defined as “gangster weapons.”
1938: Federal Firearms Act Requires License for Dealers
The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 required anyone selling or shipping firearms to be licensed through the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Federal Firearms License (FFL) stipulated that guns could not be sold to persons convicted of certain crimes and required sellers to log the names and addresses of anyone they sold guns to.
1968: Gun Control Act Ushers In New Regulations
Thirty years after America’s first sweeping reform of gun laws, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy helped to usher in new federal legislation with wide-ranging implications. The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibited mail order sales of rifles and shotguns, increased license requirements for sellers and broadened the list of persons prohibited from owning a firearm to include convicted felons, drug users and the mentally incompetent.
1994: Brady Act and Assault Weapons Ban
Two new federal laws passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 became the hallmark of gun control efforts of the latter 20th Century.
The first, the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, required a five-day waiting period and background check for the sale of handguns, while also requiring a National Instant Criminal Background Check System to be created. The second, the Assault Weapons Ban (officially entitled the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) banned a number of rifles defined as “assault weapons,” including many semi-automatic, military-style rifles such as the AK-47 and SKS.
2004: Assault Weapons Ban Sunsets
A Republican-controlled Congress refused to pass a reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004, allowing the ban to expire. President George W. Bush was criticized by gun control supporters for not actively pressuring Congress to renew the ban, while gun rights supporters criticized him for indicating that he would sign a reauthorization if Congress passed it.
2008: D.C. v. Heller is a Major Setback for Gun Control
Gun rights proponents were thrilled in 2008 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment extends gun ownership rights to individuals. The decision affirmed an earlier decision by a lower appeals court and struck down handgun bans in Washington D.C. as unconstitutional.
The case was lauded as the first Supreme Court case to affirm the right of an individual to keep and bear arms in accordance with the Second Amendment. However, the ruling applied only to federal enclaves, such as the District of Columbia. Justices did not opine on the Second Amendment’s application to the states.
2010: Gun Owners Score Another Victory in McDonald v. Chicago
Gun rights supporters scored their second major Supreme Court victory in 2010, when the high court affirmed the individual right to own guns in McDonald v. Chicago.
The ruling, which was an inevitable follow-up to D.C. v. Heller, marked the first time that the Supreme Court ruled the provisions of the Second Amendment extend to the states. The ruling overturned an earlier decision by a lower court in a legal challenge to Chicago’s ordinance banning the possession of handguns by its citizens.