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State Gun Control Laws

Today, any discussion of state gun laws includes whether they infringe on citizens' gun rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Second Amendment provides an individual constitutional right to keep and bear arms for traditional purposes, such as self-defense in the home. The ruling impacted local and state efforts to enact gun control laws. The Court's decision overthrew a D.C. law that banned handgun ownership. It also required lawful owners of rifles and shotguns to follow regulations for safe storage.

The Heller decision stated that an individual's right to bear arms was not absolute. Since Heller, challenges to state and local laws have been ongoing. Courts are interpreting what gun regulations are reasonable exercises of state police power.

Gun control is a controversial topic, sparking strong opinions from both advocates and opponents. The brutality of continued mass shootings in the U.S. brings gun violence and gun safety to the forefront of political discussions. Consensus on how to reform gun laws is hard to come by. As a result, gun laws in the U.S. represent a patchwork of federal laws and state laws.

Federal Laws

Federal firearms laws trace their history back to the National Firearms Act (NFA) of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act (FFA) of 1938. These laws taxed the making and transfer of firearms and set up the first licensing scheme for dealers. These acts also included early prohibitions on the types of weapons (like sawed-off shotguns) that Americans could purchase and own. They also outlawed ownership by felons.

In 1968, Congress passed the Gun Control Act (GCA). This law created new regulations focusing on interstate commerce in firearms. Most purchases moved to federally licensed dealers. It banned the mail-order sale of rifles and shotguns. It also expanded categories of persons prohibited from owning firearms, including felons, drug users, and the mentally incompetent.

In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Act amended the GCA. It banned gun ownership for other persons, including the following:

  • Those who received a dishonorable discharge from the military
  • Fugitives from justice
  • Those convicted of domestic violence
  • Those under certain court-issued protection orders

The Brady Act also required federally licensed dealers to conduct background checks to verify whether a purchaser was in a prohibited category. It set up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to assist in this task.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Criminal Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expired in 2004. This law included a ban on 19 types of assault weapons. Since that time, Congress has failed to find a consensus to pass major new gun control measures.

One exception was the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022. This law added prohibitions on gun ownership for those convicted of domestic violence against a dating partner. It tightened language regarding which sellers must obtain a federal license. It provided enhanced background checks for purchasers who are under the age of 21. It also provided funding to states to assist with crisis intervention and red flag laws.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) oversees federal firearms licensing and regulation. Along with the FBI, the ATF provides key leadership in federal efforts to enforce gun laws and prevent gun violence. The ATF also investigates federal crimes involving firearms, arson, and bombings. The agency falls under the authority of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

State Laws

States have often served as the testing ground for new laws. This holds true in balancing the rights of gun owners with the right to public safety. As far back as the 1800s, states enacted laws that addressed concealed weapons. In light of decades of political stalemate on gun policy at the federal level, states continue to experiment with their own gun control measures. From setting up procedures for concealed carry or open carry to the administration of red flag laws, states pass new regulations every year.

State gun control laws regulate the possession, purchase, and use of firearms. They may limit the types of guns that may be owned. They can include waiting periods required for purchase. Like their federal counterparts, these laws often provide categories of persons who are prohibited from owning and carrying firearms. Unlike the federal government, some states have authorized universal background checks for all gun purchases. Certain states have also instituted their own bans on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines.

In light of these differences, a gun owner who wants to carry their gun out of state needs to know what impact another state's laws will have on their actions. In some states, different regulations may also be imposed within certain cities. State public safety websites often provide information on reciprocity between state gun laws.

You can choose a link from the list below to find state-specific information on each state's gun control laws. If you have further questions, consider seeking legal advice from an attorney familiar with firearms law in your area.

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