Congress continues to debate the efficacy and constitutionality of federal regulation of firearms and ammunition. Various federal laws have been enacted since 1934 to promote such regulation.
Gun control advocates argue that they curb access by criminals, juveniles, and other “high-risk” individuals. They contend that only federal measures can successfully reduce the availability of guns. Some seek broad policy changes such as near-prohibition of non-police handgun ownership or the registration of all firearm owners or firearms. They assert that there is no constitutional barrier to such measures and no significant social costs. Others advocate less comprehensive policies that they maintain would not impede ownership and legitimate firearm transfers.
Opposition to federal controls is strong. Gun control opponents deny that federal policies keep firearms out of the hands of high-risk persons; rather, they argue, controls often create burdens for law-abiding citizens and infringe upon constitutional rights provided by the Second Amendment. Some argue further that widespread gun ownership is one of the best deterrents to crime as well as to potential tyranny, whether by gangs or by government. They may also criticize the notion of enhancing federal, as opposed to state, police powers.
The two most significant federal statutes controlling firearms in the civilian population are the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968. The 1934 Act established strict registration requirements and a transfer tax on machine guns and short-barreled long guns. The 1968 Act prohibits mail-order sales and the interstate sales of firearms, prohibits transfers to minors, limits access to “new” assault weapons, and sets forth penalties and licensing requirements for manufacturers, importers, and dealers.
Crime and mortality statistics are often used in the gun control debate. The number of homicides committed annually with a firearm by persons in the 14- to 24-year-old age group increased by 173% from 1985 to 1993, and then decreased by 47% from 1993 to 1999. Firearm fatalities from all causes and for all age groups decreased by 22%. For juveniles, they decreased by 40%, from 1993 to 1998.