US guns: what is the law, what is wrong, and what can be done next?

Sat, 2017/10/07
Ethan Castro

This article must begin with a preface: The loss of human life due to gun violence in the United States is fundamentally tragic and should absolutely not be our reality. Studies upon studies have been conducted to compile the statistics on gun violence in this country, and they speak of horrifying volumes. The tragedy that occurred in Las Vegas at the hands of shooter Richard Paddock is now among the far too many examples of the failures of U.S. gun control. However, it is not my place to dictate what action should be taken or what policy should be enacted to address these failures. I lack the political knowledge and the public experience to be a credible force for such change. Instead, what I do aim to achieve with this article is to lay down the foundational knowledge necessary to facilitate such a change; I hope to provide a layman’s explanation of U.S. federal laws on guns, how tragedies such as the one that occurred in Las Vegas still plague us despite the presence of such laws, and what can possibly be done with this knowledge to work towards an actionable solution.

Before diving into individual laws, I will first attempt to clarify some common terminology that appears during debates and discussions on guns. First and foremost, the terms “gun” and “firearm” are both their own distinct terms. On a purely definitional basis, a gun is any device that is used to discharge projectiles. Therefore, a pistol is a gun, but so is the cannon on a naval battleship. So, the term “firearm” is used to refer to a portable gun -- a gun that can be carried and operated by a single person. For the sake of simplicity, the term “gun” will be used for the remainder of this article (it is also the term used by U.S. federal law).

Another distinction must be made between the terms “assault rifle,” “assault weapon,” and “semi-automatic rifle.” The U.S. Department of Defense defines an assault rifle as a gun that is capable of selecting burst or automatic fire modes (modes where a single pull of the trigger leads to more than one bullet being fired). Such guns are relatively rare among the civilian population, being relegated mainly to military and law enforcement purposes. However, exceptions to this generalization exist, as will be discussed later. The term “assault weapon” is a purely political term with a nebulous definition that varies among jurisdictions, but it is mainly based upon the presence of visible features on a gun, including a detachable magazine (the feeding mechanism that stores ammunition for the gun to fire), or a pistol grip (the portion held by the shooter’s dominant hand). Because this term has no clear technical definition, its usage can oftentimes lead to further confusion and improper legislation. Finally, a semi-automatic rifle is a long gun held with two hands that fires a single bullet with each pull of the trigger. It should be noted that (at the time of this writing) all of Paddock’s guns are confirmed as semi-automatic. Many of his rifles were derivatives of the Colt AR-15 platform, a civilian semi-automatic rifle. (Note that the “AR” does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle,” its original developer.)

U.S. gun laws begin with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, which declares the right to bear and keep arms. Influenced by the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the creators of the U.S. Constitution based this right on the belief that civilians of the new United States had a fundamental human right to defend themselves against tyrannical governments and potentially take up arms against or in defense of their state, should the need arise. The nature of judicial review in the U.S. and the evolution of gun technology since the 1700s means that this right has, time and time again, been subject to academic reevaluation and constant debate.

The next major federal law on guns is the 1934 National Firearms Act. This act placed taxes on the manufacture and transfer (as well as requiring registration) of what are known as Title II weapons, which includes machine guns (“any weapon which shoots… more than one shot without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger”), short-barreled shotguns (shotguns with a barrel less than 18 inches in length), short-barreled rifles (a rifle with a barrel less than 16 inches in length), destructive devices (explosive, incendiary, or poisonous ordinances as well as projectiles exceeding half an inch in diameter), silencers (more technically known as “suppressors”), and disguised or improvised guns. This act arose out of the rising gang violence of the Prohibition Era in the 1920s and 1930s, with high-profile crimes and rampant gun use across the country. Currently, this act falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and it represents the first concerted effort to address the growing technical complexities of guns and the issues of civilians having ready access to them. This was a period in U.S. history where an automatic gun could be bought at a store, but a bottle of wine was illegal.

The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 placed a requirement that the manufacture, importation, and sale of guns requires individuals to have a Federal Firearms License. Holders of these licenses are required to maintain customer records, and convicted felons cannot be the recipients of gun transfers. The Gun Control Act of 1968 added on to this law by stipulating that interstate transfers of guns can only occur among licensed manufacturers, dealers, and importers.

The next significant piece of federal gun legislation is the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act, which prohibits the sale of automatic guns manufactured after 1968 to any civilian. Owning an automatic rifle requires completing an extensive ATF process with numerous layers of application, taxes, background checks, and certifications. So, while it is not impossible, civilian ownership of fully automatic guns is made rare by this law. Finally, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons was a piece of legislation based on the nebulous term “assault weapon,” and it banned semi-automatic weapons, but it simply defined such guns as possessing two or more certain aesthetic features without necessarily having to be fully automatic. Notably, the Colt AR-15 was still legal under this law, which expired in 2004.

Two Supreme Court decisions are also important in framing the legal background of the U.S. gun debate. The 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller ruled that the Second Amendment protects “the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.” The 2010 case McDonald v. City of Chicago ruled that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms also applies to state and local governments. It is also vital to include the fact that a very complex network of varying laws on purchasing and owning guns exists on a state and local basis, so varied between jurisdictions that it is impossible to summarize in this article.

So then, how does this legal framework account for the tragedy in Las Vegas? Currently, it is known that Paddock legally purchased the semi-automatic guns he used in his shooting. His stockpiling of multiple rifles was under no legal obligation to be reported (only multiple handgun purchases require ATF review). Paddock passed all federal background checks, and the lack of automatic weapons used in the attack mean that federal laws presented little obstacle in his rampage. Simply put, in the eyes of federal U.S. gun laws, there was nothing wrong with Paddock stockpiling more than 30 semi-automatic rifles, many of which were bought within the same year.

If this is the legal reality, then what can possibly be done to finally take appropriate actions to prevent such horrors from plaguing this country in the future? One possibility is a minute technical consideration of Paddock’s arsenal. It has been reported that many of his guns used a modification device known as a bump-stock that allows a semi-automatic rifle to mimic an automatic one (a bump-stock is a weapon modification held against the dominant shoulder that lets the gun freely slide back and forth when firing and harnesses its recoil to bump the trigger back and forth against the shooter’s trigger finger), and these devices are currently perfectly legal to buy. Targeted legislation against these specific devices can at least prevent the exact volume of fire that Paddock utilized from occurring again (at least from a legally purchased device), but the root cause of the issue is still yet to be addressed.

American gun legislation and gun culture currently demonstrates a notable disparity between the original intent of the Second Amendment and the current nature of gun ownership. If America hopes to see a future free of tragedies such as the one in Las Vegas, gun legislation must be updated to reflect the technical and societal realities of gun ownership, illegal gun trades must be cracked down upon, and the American public must let their elected representatives know that they want informed action to be taken. An understanding of the failures of current laws is a mere preliminary step in addressing this poison that is currently infecting America. This knowledge must now be put into action, and that begins at the individual level. Americans can find and contact their local representatives at I implore all reading this article to familiarize themselves with the current state of this country's gun problem and rise up together to take the action necessary to finally bring an end to it.