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Why are there fewer federal gun control laws today than before?

For half a century, presidential responses to gun violence have called for action. But those calls rarely have resulted in gun control.
Attorney General Merrick Garland
Posted at 11:56 AM, May 15, 2024

For more than 50 years, presidents have taken to televised podiums following incidents of gun violence, vowing to make changes.

At the state level, those changes run the spectrum, from arming teachers to attempting to ban the sale and trade of assault weapons. Amid the web of rules inside state lines, on the federal level, there are fewer gun control laws today than a generation ago.

For most of American history, gun control laws weren't controversial. For example, a 1934 ban on civilians owning machine guns didn't meet a lot of resistance. The National Firearms Act of 1934 came during Prohibition-era gang violence.

But as gun culture, lobbying efforts and technology evolved, the debate intensified.

Let's look at three significant moments for federal gun control laws in the United States.

The Gun Control Act of 1968, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, came after the high-profile assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy.

The act created the federal firearm license system, began rolling out background checks, and gave the government the ability to prosecute federal firearms crimes.

It's still the foundation for federal regulation of firearms.

Fast forward to 1994. President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This act contained a lot of measures, including ones that had major impacts on the criminal justice system.

Combination photo shows Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden.

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The law banned assault weapons and limited high-capacity magazines. One of the provisions in the act allowed the ban to expire in 10 years, giving Congress the option to renew it. Congress didn't renew it, and in 2004, it became legal to buy, sell, trade and manufacture assault rifles and large-capacity ammunition devices.

Many Democrats and a few Republicans are still trying to reinstate it.

Despite the lapse, polling shows most Americans want stricter gun laws.

A Gallup poll shows that in 2023, 56% of Americans said they wanted stricter gun laws. In 2018, that number was 67%. It's a view reflected again following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

President Donald Trump said he might support raising the minimum age for buying military-style weapons from 18 to 21 and expanding background checks. But under pressure from the National Rifle Association, he shifted his focus to mental health.

He did, however, ban bump stocks after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the devices that increase the firing rate of semi-automatic weapons should be classified as machine guns.

A series of court challenges overturned the ban. The Biden administration appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States in April 2023. The court is expected to make a ruling in June.

Another move toward bipartisan compromise is the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2021, or "red flag" laws. The policy is designed to allow courts to take guns from people deemed dangerous. It's not a federal requirement, and laws vary from state to state. Twenty-one states have adopted the policy.

President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in 2022. The act enhanced background checks for buyers under 21, expanded the definition of who is considered a licensed gun dealer, and increased funding for mental health and violence prevention programs.

This year, the Biden administration mandated about 20,000 previously unlicensed gun dealers to get licensed. That would require them to perform a background check on buyers.

In the leadup to the 2024 presidential election, President Biden is pushing for stricter gun control laws, saying: "There are already too many empty seats around family tables. It is fully within our power to stop this epidemic."

Former President Trump said in February that he would roll back "every single Biden attack on gun owners."

No matter who wins the presidency, the fight over gun laws will remain.