25 terms you should know to understand the gun control debate
In a country where three in 10 adults own a gun, 100 Americans die every day from gunshot wounds. Nearly half of all U.S. adults grew up in a household with guns, more than half have friends who own guns, and nearly three-quarters have fired a gun. The prevalence of gun violence and gun ownership has made gun control among the most hotly (and frequently) contested issues in the United States.
Advocates for gun control want tighter restrictions on the sale, possession, and use of firearms, while advocates of gun rights see ownership as an essential right protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The debate heats up each time a mass shooting—defined as a shooting involving the death or injury of four or more people—occurs, which now happens, on average, every day in the United States. Six of the 10 deadliest U.S. shootings have happened in the past decade.
Reform advocates point to evidence showing fewer people die from gun violence in states with strong gun laws. Case in point: Alaska has the highest gun death rate and some of the weakest gun laws, while Hawaii has the lowest gun death rate and some of the strongest gun laws. Advocates for reform have steadily gathered momentum: Some young survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, for example, have proposed a blueprint for comprehensive gun control. Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has spent millions of dollars to promote gun control through ballot initiatives and state elections. From 2017 to 2019, there was a rise in the amount of Americans who support stricter gun laws.
Meanwhile, more hardline groups such as Gun Owners of America fight hard in Washington D.C. for lawmakers’ support. Gun advocates argue that more guns, not less, will help to prevent or stop shootings—and that stricter gun-control laws will only keep guns out of the hands of honest people.
As gun violence has recently spread to protests and the presidential election draws closer, the national conversation over guns in the United States has only amplified. Gun control is likely come up during the presidental debate series between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, which kicked off on Sept. 29, but it will continue being a major legislative issue for years to come. Here are 25 terms critical to understanding and participating in the conversation about gun control, and what you should look out for during the debates.
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Gun Control Act of 1968
The Gun Control Act of 1968 set the legal precedents for the sale of guns in the United States. It determined licensing requirements, restrictions on who could purchase firearms, and regulation of interstate trading.
Firearm Owners Protection Act
Enacted in 1986, the Firearm Owners Protection Act addressed aspects of the 1968 law that were seen by many as going too far. It loosened regulations of interstate transfers, some gun sales, and record keeping.
Title II, NFA weapons
By federal law, Title II and National Firearm's Act weapons are heavily regulated. They include short-barreled shotguns and rifles, automatic shotguns, submachine guns, machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenade launchers. The acquisition of these weapons requires approval by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Assault weapons ban
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994 aimed to get certain semiautomatic weapons off the streets. It expired 10 years later. Gun control advocates complained that the act was weak, marred by loopholes that allowed manufacturers to evade the law with minor changes, and failed to ban all semiautomatic weapons. Gun rights advocates said it infringed on their constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms and did little to deter violence.
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Seemingly endless debates revolve around its intent, what comprises such a militia, and the extent of its protection of individual rights to own guns.
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National Rifle Association
The NRA was founded following the Civil War by Union Army veterans to promote and encourage rifle marksmanship. The modern-day NRA claims 5 million members, and its lobbying arm fights for guns rights and against gun restrictions. The NRA spent more than $30 million to support Donald Trump's bid for the presidency in 2016.
March for Our Lives
Survivors of the 2018 mass school shooting created the March for Our Lives organization at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It has called for a reduction in the number of firearms in civilian hands by 30%, a mandatory federal gun buyback program for assault weapons, an Internal Revenue Service investigation into the National Rifle Association, and a re-examination of the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing handguns to be kept in homes.
Gunowners of America
Founded in 1975, the Gunowners of America (GOA) calls itself the “no compromise” gun lobby. It believes that “gun control of all forms is ineffective and unconstitutional." The GOA positions itself as a rival to the NRA which it claims is weak at protecting the Second Amendment. The GOA is suing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and is leading the legal challenge to a ban on bump stocks, an attachment sometimes used with assault weapons.
An assault rifle can fire in fully automatic mode, meaning when the trigger is pulled and held down, the weapon will shoot continuously until the trigger is released or the gun runs out of ammunition. Machine guns are assault rifles. It is a politically laden term, as major gun groups say it was made up by the anti-gun lobby and that guns don’t assault people.
An automatic weapon loads another round mechanically after the first round has been fired. It can be semiautomatic, firing one shot per single pull of the trigger, or fully automatic, loading and firing ammunition until the trigger is released, the ammunition is exhausted, or the weapon jams.
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