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“NOW with Bill Moyers”

International Gun Laws

The movement of guns across borders has become a major focal point for the War on Terrorism. Some of these efforts depend on national information on gun production and transfer. Below you can compare U.S. guns registration requirements with those of other nations.

The law enforcement agency INTERPOL has stepped up its efforts with a new tracking system, Interpol Weapons and Explosives Tracking System (IWETS). IWETS is currently the only international analytical database designed to collate information on illegal firearms trafficking. IWETS provides current indexes of firearms manufactures and other information that facilitates the identification of firearms. IWETS is also the only international system for stolen and recovered weapons.
The UN General Assembly established a Terrorism Prevention Branch (TPB) in 1999 as an arm of the Vienna-based UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP). The group aims to combat the illegal traffic in arms — as noted in GUN LAND, 11 percent of illegal guns recovered worldwide came from the state of Florida. Check their Web site to see a list of the most common weapons used by terrorists and lists gunmakers.
There are also several firearms-related bills in front of the U.S. Congress.


Licensing of gun owners?

Registration of firearms?

Other Restrictions

Households with firearms (%)

Total Intentional Gun Death Rate per 100,000




Prohibits handguns with few exceptions

0.6 %





Most handguns and rifles prohibited






Prohibits handguns

4.0 %





1.9 %





Some handguns and rifles are prohibited

13.1 %





8.9 %















Banned semiautomatics unless good reason

16.0 %




All guns by 2003

Assault weapons and some handguns





Yes, except sporting rifles

22.6 %





27.2 %

5.74 6.2




50 %



in some states

Handguns in some states

Some weapons in some states



Source: W. Cukier, "Firearms Regulation: Canada in the International Context," Chronic Diseases in Canada, April, 1998 (statistics updated to reflect most recent figures, January 2001).

Pro-Gun Rights

Pro-Gun Control

"Besides the advantage of being armed, which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate [State] governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit to. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms."

-James Madison, Federalist Papers, Article 46 January 29, 1788

"In the 20th century, the Second Amendment has become an anachronism, largely because of drastic changes in the militia it was designed to protect. We no longer have the citizen militia like that of the 18th century. Today's equivalent of a "well-regulated" militia - the National Guard - has more limited membership than its early counterpart and depends on government-supplied, not privately owned, firearms. Gun control laws have no effect on the arming of today's militia, since those laws invariably do not apply to arms used in the context of military service and law enforcement. Therefore, they raise no serious Second Amendment issues."

- Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, The Second Amendment

"Mightn't it be better in those areas of high crime to arm the homeowner and the shopkeeper, teach him how to use his weapons and put the word out to the underworld that it is no longer totally safe to rob and murder? One wonders indeed if the rising crime rate isn't due as much as anything to the criminal's instinctive knowledge that the average victim no longer has any means of protection. No one knows how many crimes are committed because the criminal knows he has a soft touch. No one knows how many stores have been left alone because the criminals knew them to be guarded by a man with a gun."

- President Ronald Reagan, Letter to the Editor, GUN & AMMO, 1975

"Assault weapons in the hands of civilians exist for no reason but to inspire fear and wreak deadly havoc on our streets"

- President Bill Clinton, Weekly Radio Address to the Nation, Saturday, November 15, 1997; As quoted in THE WASHINGTON POST, Nov. 16, 1997 on Page A12.

"The job of the anti-gun think tanks is to come up with headlines that will change public opinion. If they have to fudge the numbers, they will do so."

- Joseph P. Tartaro, Second Amendment Foundation President and GUN WEEK Executive Editor

"The Bushmaster XM15 M4 A3 assault rifle used by the Washington, DC-area sniper provides a clear illustration of how and why the federal assault weapons ban needs to be strengthened and renewed…"

- Violence Policy Center press release

"Ownership of weapons makes genocides more difficult to commit...but it takes effective weapons to stop genocide entirely." (original italics)

- From in reference to the Nazi Holocaust perpetrated against the Jews.

"Fear, physical pain, and death are just part of the price Americans pay for the easy access of handguns. It is estimated that the total costs to Americans of gun violence (the vast majority of which involves handguns) is measured in tens of billions of dollars.3 In comparison, the wholesale value of the 1.3 million handguns manufactured in America in 1998 totaled only $370 million."

- Josh Sugarmann from the introduction to EVERY HANDGUN IS AIMED AT YOU

"The danger inherent in this mindset [banning guns because of the possibility of potential harm] is why those very wise men we call the Founding Fathers instilled the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." Such a principle prevents the grouping of people into perceived-dangerous groups, and forces us to deal with people as individuals, with individual motives and morals. It is the only way to live in a free society."

- Michael Mitchell of

"Homicides, suicides, and unintentional injuries committed with guns take a staggering human and economic toll on our society every day. The number of injuries and deaths has risen dramatically since the nation's founding in 1776. Currently, nearly 30,000 Americans die from firearms each year."

- Join Together Online, Overview from the Constitution to Today,

"But, women are the fastest growing segment of gun owners and NRA members. And, what motivates these daughters, mothers and grandmothers to purchase firearms? The answer is elementary; keeping themselves and their loved ones safe."

- Letter to Editor from James Jay Baker, NRA Institute for Legislative Action, in response to an LA TIMES Editorial arguing Republicans should court women voters by supporting gun control measures.

"With nearly one thousand unintentional deaths each year — and perhaps 17,000 nonfatal, unintentional gunshot wounds — redesigning weapons in order to reduce the number of unintentional incidents is reasonable, prudent and has nothing to do with "gun control." It has to do with public safety."

- Doctors Against Handgun Injury, "The Issues: Treating Guns as Consumer Products"

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Website: News Batch

What are the latest developments in the U.S. gun control controversy?

In a major victory for gun control opponents, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2008 that the 2nd Amendment does protect the strictest forms of gun control by rejecting the argument of a more narrow interpretation - that the right is limited to militias. The ruling does not prevent reasonable efforts at gun control but it does prohibit the kind of outright ban of handguns that has existed in Washington D.C..

Gun control was not a major issue in the 2004 Presidential campaign nor does it appear to be a prominent issue in the 2008 campaign. The percentage of Americans who consider "gun control" as an important issue has declined from 3% to 1%. Fewer Americans are supportive of gun control in general and handgun control in particular. While the issue has dropped in overall public concern, it remains what politicians consider a "wedge issue" as many opponents of gun control are passionate about their right to unfettered gun ownership and may make voting decisions on this issue alone. Gun control opponents raise far more money than do gun control advocates.
The 2008 Democratic platform affirms the 2nd Amendment right of Americans to own weapons while supporting the extension of the assault weapon ban and closing the "gun show" loophole. The Republican Platform contains a strong affirmation of the right to own guns and supports the June 2008 Supreme Court decision.
What is the present level of gun control in the United States?

Like many other aspects of public policy, gun control is a matter of federal, state and even local legislation.

Federal Gun Control

The first major gun control initiative was enacted by Congress in 1934 which regulated the sale of fully automatic firearms like machine guns. This legislation was followed in 1938 by a new federal law which required gun sellers to be licensed and which prohibited persons convicted of violent felonies from purchasing guns. No further legislation was passed by Congress until 1968. The Gun Control Act of 1968 regulated imported guns, expanded gun-dealer licensing requirements, and expanded the list of persons not eligible to purchase guns to include persons convicted of any non-business related felony, minors, persons found to be mentally incompetent, and users of illegal drugs. In 1986, federal legislation established mandatory penalties for the use of a gun in the commission of a federal crime. Also prohibited were "cop killer" bullets capable of penetrating bulletproof clothing. In 1990, legislation was passed which banned the manufacturing and importation of semi-automatic assault weapons.

In 1994, Congress passed what has been regarded as the most comprehensive effort at national gun control. The "Brady Bill" named for the press aide who was seriously injured in the assassination attempt on President Reagan imposed a five day waiting period for purchasers of handguns and required local law enforcement authorities to conduct background checks of all purchasers. The Supreme Court held that the background check provision was unconstitutional because it infringed on state's rights. Presently, the law has been revised so that the background check is instantly accomplished by gun dealers through a national computer system and there is no longer a waiting period. Also in 1994, Congress passed a ban on certain types of assault weapons. This ban expired in 2004. By a narrow margin, the Senate voted to extend the ban but the House did not take action and the ban was allowed to expire. Efforts to revive the ban have been unsuccessful.

State and local gun control

Guns are additionally regulated by state and local legislation and there is little uniformity among the states. The major regulatory issues are:

  • Child Access Prevention laws

Many states have passed legislation making it a crime to leave a loaded weapon within easy access of a minor.

  • Concealed weapon laws

About seven states prohibit concealed weapons. Many others require an individual to show a need prior to obtaining a license to carry a concealed weapon. In over half the states, all non-felons are able to obtain licenses to carry concealed weapons. Only one state, Vermont, has no licensing or permit requirement.

  • Regulation of private sales to minors

Under federal law, minors under 18 are prohibited from possessing guns and minor under 21 are prohibited from purchasing guns from dealers. However, unless regulated by state law, minors 18 and over are able to freely purchase weapons through private sales. Currently 21 states either prohibit or substantially regulate this secondary market for minors.

  • Regulating all secondary market sales

Over twenty states regulate all secondary sales through registration or licensing requirements. In the states that have no such regulation, the secondary market allows minors and criminals to easily obtain weapons. This is the so-called "gun show" loophole.

  • Ban on "assault" weapons

In 1989, California was the first state to ban certain types of automatic weapons. More extensive bans have been enacted in New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut and Maryland.

  • "One handgun a month" laws

Many purchasers (felons and minors) have circumvented federal law by purchasing firearms from individuals who have legally made bulk purchases of handguns. Four states (South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and California) have laws that limit legal purchases of handguns to one a month per buyer.

  • Ban on "Saturday Night Specials" and other "junk guns"

These are small, easily concealed lightweight guns which are unreliable but have appeal to criminals because of their portability. A minority of states have laws which regulate the purchase and use of these weapons. Additionally, local laws in a number of cities outlaw the possession of these weapons.

  • Preemption

The majority of states have laws which prohibit local authorities from passing local gun control ordinances. These "preemption" laws have been supported by the opponents of gun control. Officials in cities which are able to pass such ordinances, such as New York, credit their existence to a dramatic reduction in violent crime.

  • Waiting periods

Although background checks are no longer necessary under federal law, about half the states still use state data in addition to federal data to conduct background checks prior to issuing a handgun permit. Eleven of these states impose waiting periods as well.

How many guns are there?

According a 1994 Department of Justice survey, about 35% of American households own 192 million firearms of which handguns constituted 35% of the total. Polling data shows that the actual household ownership rate is higher but also that it declining slightly. Gun sales, has evidenced by Brady background check data, have significantly increased in 2008 and there are reports that they have increased further in 2009 based on concerns that a Democratic administration and Congress would bring in a new era of regulation. Slightly less than half of gun owners own both handguns and shotguns or rifles. The typical gun owner is male, middle class, college educated and lives in a small town or rural area. Gun ownership varies greatly by region and there is a significant correlation between the percentage of handgun ownership and the rate of gun-related homicide.

How effective have gun control efforts been?

It is possible that recent gun control legislation has accomplished some of its goals. Although less than 3% of gun applications have been denied since the enactment of the Brady bill, most of the denials have kept guns from felons. The total amount deaths due to guns significantly decreased in the 1990's but has the rate of decrease has leveled off in this decade. Handgun use is the overwhelming cause of such injuries and fatalities. Because most gun injuries and deaths result from criminal assault and homicide, part of the decrease is certainly due to the overall decrease in the crime rate. It is difficult to obtain statistical data regarding the current popularity of handguns in the United States. One indicator, the domestic production of handguns, shows that production decreased in the early years of the 21st century but that it has now again increasing. Overall, handgun ownership in the United States has remained relatively constant in the past three decades. Another indicator is the number of approved Brady background checks.

But gun control activists still believe that it is far to easy for criminals to obtain guns and that an alarming proportion of the population remains armed. Their concern has been fueled by an unprecedented recent rash of school shootings and fatalities. Many experts are blaming this phenomena on violent video games and poor parenting but in each case the youths involved had easy access to the weapons that they used. Gun control advocates support measures which would require trigger locks on all guns and which would apply the provisions of the Brady bill to gun shows. Gun control advocate groups also advocate a federal law authorizing only one handgun purchase per month and raising the age for gun ownership from 18 to 21.
On the other hand, opposition to gun control led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) remains fierce and passionate. These gun owners maintain that an unregulated right to bear arms is guaranteed to citizens by the 2nd amendment and this position received support in a Supreme Court decision issued in 2008 which disallowed a Washington D.C. complete ban on handguns. Opponents of gun control argue that gun owners often use their weapons to deter crime and that handguns are most commonly used for this purpose. Some studies have shown that such defensive use of weapons occurs at a much greater rate than the extent to which weapons are used in criminal activity although the validity of these studies is in dispute. Gun control opponents are generally law abiding citizens who put greater trust in individualism than in the government to protect their safety. They are concerned that each step toward greater gun control will lead to the eventual confiscation of all firearms. Gun control opponent groups spend far more than gun control supporters on campaign contributions.

How do other countries regulate guns?

Almost all major countries have systems for registration of firearms. Most major countries do permit the ownership of handguns. Many countries ban ownership of certain types of weapons although some have no restrictions. No country has anywhere near the rate of gun ownership as in the United States and there is a correspondingly high gun homicide rate. But other countries such as Canada have a significant degree of gun ownership yet a low rate of gun homicide. The Mexican gun homicide rate reflects the drug trafficking problem in that country. Most of the guns involved have been smuggled in from the neighboring United States.

How do Democrats and Republicans differ on gun control?

Generally, Democrats support gun control proposals and Republicans do not although the votes on the Brady bill in 1993 show that this is not a strictly partisan issue. The partisan divide on this issue is somewhat reflected by public opinion. Democrats overwhelmingly support gun control and Republicans are divided on the issue. During the 2000 Presidential campaign, President Bush indicated his support for a trigger lock requirement, raising the age limit, and requiring background checks at gun shows. But no legislation on these issues has been initiated by the White House. In 1999 the Senate narrowly voted to regulate gun shows and more substantially supported a measure for trigger locks but no action was taken by the House with respect to either proposal. In April 2004, the Senate again voted for handgun locks but the House did not consider the measure and the issue has not recently been resurrected. Supporters of gun control measures are instead on the defensive as more recent Congressional votes have increased rather than restricted gun rights. For example, continued Amtrak funding was conditioned on a provision allowing guns to be in checked luggage.

Gun Control Charts
Public Support of Stricter Gun Control 1999-2009

Percentage of Americans Favoring Handgun Ban 1959-2008

Political Funding on Gun Issues

Extension of Assault Weapon Ban

Evaluation of State Gun Control Laws 2008

Gun Ownership in 1994

Households Reporting Gun Ownership 1999-2009

Types of Guns Owned

Rate of Firearm Deaths and Firearm Ownership By State

Reasons for Denial of Gun Purchase Applications By FBI, 1999-2003

Violence-Related Firearm Death Rates per 100,000

Type of Weapon Used in Firearm Deaths in 2003

Cause of Firearm Injury or Death

Handgun Production in the U.S.

Brady Background Check Approvals 1998-2008

International Comparison of Gun Ownership and Gun Homicide Rate

Congressional Vote on the Brady Bill 1993

Senate Vote on Regulating Gun Shows

Senate Vote on Handgun Locks

Permitting Firearms on Checked Amtrak Luggage

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