Gun Control in America: A Historic Guide on Major State Acts
The Second Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to bear arms, but both federal and state governments determine how citizens may legally exercise that right. And while both federal and state gun control laws regularly change, laws at the state level change more frequently and often without the media coverage that surrounds changes at the federal level.
This results in a constant challenge for gun owners to keep up with the latest state laws, especially for those who carry their weapons across state lines. Because while some states have more restrictions than others, state gun control policies across the country are diverse and can change quickly – too easily putting responsible gun owners on the wrong side of the law.
This guide is a timeline of major state gun control acts throughout the history of the United States – not only to help gun owners understand the state laws that have influenced our nation, but also to showcase how one state’s gun laws can set an example for others, creating a domino effect of gun control policy for the entire country.
Colonial America: Slavery Versus The Second Amendment
Pre-Constitution, the original Articles of Confederation established that “every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia.” The Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment holds that “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.” However, those rights were at that time granted specifically to white males.
Fear of slave and Native American uprisings prompted many colonial states to establish laws banning “free Mulattos, Negroes and Indians” from having firearms. By the antebellum period, southern states like South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi and even Delaware all had various laws denying guns to people of color and allowing search and seizure of weapons as well as punishment without trial. Crucial to all of this was the Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford.
Previously a slave, Dred Scott sued for freedom based on the fact that he’d lived in the free state of Illinois and a free area within the Louisiana Territory for a decade. When his suit was unsuccessful in Missouri, he appealed to the federal courts. The contention was whether “a free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves,” was a citizen with protections under the Constitution. The Supreme Court decision on Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857 denied “a free negro of the African race” citizenship – a milestone its issuer cited as “the most momentous event that has ever occurred on this continent,” excluding the Declaration of Independence. In that moment, those denied citizenship were also excluded from any of the rights associated with it.
After The Civil War: The Postbellum Era, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Black Codes
While President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, President Andrew Johnson’s failing leadership brought with it all the struggles of the Reconstruction Era. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision still denied people of African descent citizenship.
Former Confederate states enacted Black Codes to define and restrict freedmen’s positions within society. Along with mandating legal responsibilities, land ownership rights, contract labor wages and harsh criminal laws, nearly all the Black Codes effectively and pointedly banned “persons of color” – anyone “with more than one-eighth Negro blood” – from possessing firearms. Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee all enacted Black Codes, attempting to maintain the status quo and deny weapons to people of color.
The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments banned slavery, provided all citizens equal protection under the law and ensured voting rights for all citizens. The 14th Amendment was particularly important, as it defined citizenship as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” overturning the Dred Scott decision, establishing people of color as citizens and overriding state statutes denying them the right to possess firearms based on their heritage.
Jim Crow South: The Supreme Court Cedes Gun Control to the States
In the following decades, a second civil war ensued as freed slaves sought to embrace their citizenship and formed freedmen militias to protect black communities and maintain political footing. The Jim Crow South, however, was equally intent on keeping firearms out of the hands of black Americans. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was founded in 1866 as a “social club,” and the Knights of the White Camelia and the White Brotherhood quickly followed. These white supremacist groups swept the South, their foremost demand that freedmen surrender their firearms.
Despite attempts to pass a federal law making the specific seizure of firearms “without due process of law, by violence, intimidation, or threats” a felony, the language of the resulting Enforcement Acts was instead diluted to encompass obstructing civil rights, and the terror continued.
Tensions came to a head in 1873 in Louisiana, when armed white Democrats overpowered Republican freedmen militia at the Grant County Courthouse in what came to be known as the Colfax Massacre. Three whites died, but estimates indicate as many as 150 freedmen were killed – possibly more – most in the hours after they’d surrendered. Initially, three white men were prosecuted under the Enforcement Acts. But in 1876, the Supreme Court decision on the case – United States v. Kruikshank – dropped all charges, ruling that the power to protect citizens from private actions like those of the KKK resided with the states, not the federal government.
Southern states were quick to pass Saturday night special laws limiting handgun ownership through financial requirements that retained a racial bias. Tennessee had already enacted “An Act To Preserve the Peace and Prevent Homicide” in 1870, but simply reworked it for 1879’s “An Act to Prevent the Sale of Pistols.” It set the precedent by banning all handgun sales except expensive Army and Navy model handguns.
Arkansas followed in 1882 with an identical law, while in 1893, Alabama placed a heavy tax on handgun sales. In 1902, South Carolina limited handguns to law enforcement – often Klan members – while Mississippi followed a subtler path, requiring firearms dealers to maintain records available upon demand for handgun and handgun ammunition sales (with the intent to allow race-based confiscation). In 1907, Texas, like Alabama, decided to adopt a tax aimed at preventing both poor whites and blacks from being able to buy handguns.
Prohibition Era: Immigration, Organized Crime and Concealed Carry Laws
Concealed weapons of any kind have long been a controversial issue. As early as 1813, Kentucky law controlled concealed weapon carry, to include Bowie knives, sword canes and pocket pistols. Laws in Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee, for example, also retained language to control “how arms may be borne.” In 1897, the Supreme Court case Robertson v. Baldwin determined that laws controlling concealed carry did not violate the Second Amendment, stating "the right of the people to keep and bear arms (Art. II) is not infringed by laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons." Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court once again confirmed that ruling in Peruta v. County of San Diego.
The New York City of the early 1900s had no such laws, but was marked by European immigration, Tammany Hall, extensive organized crime and gun violence of all kinds. A newspaper article from the time cited the example of a grief-stricken Italian father fatally shooting the truck driver who’d accidentally run over his son. However, January 23, 1911, proved the tipping point when Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough used a concealed .32-caliber automatic pistol to assassinate novelist David Graham Phillips midday in Gramercy Park for an imagined slandering of his sister.
Supported by the Tammany Hall apparatus and effective August 31, 1911, the resulting Sullivan Act of 1911 mandated discretionary police-issued licenses to possess a handgun and made carrying an unlicensed concealed weapon a felony. While gun violence in fact escalated right into Prohibition, these two criteria formed the basis for many other states’ “may issue” gun laws requiring discretionary police-issued licenses to restrict gun ownership.
By 1987, only one state had unrestricted concealed carry – while eight were “shall issue," 25 “may issue” and 16 “no issue.” In 2016, 10 states have unrestricted concealed carry, while 32 are “shall issue” and eight “may issue.” New York remains one of the few “may issue” states, and the Sullivan Act remains on the books as New York Penal Code Section 400.00 after more than a century.
Civil Rights Movement: The Black Panthers and Loaded Carry Laws
Ironically, the event that is ultimately credited as the cause of banned loaded carry took place in California without a single shot being fired. In 1960s America, civil rights issues were escalating. The assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in 1965 left black communities fearful, and torn between peaceful resistance and self-defense “by whatever means necessary.” Abusive, racially motivated policing practices in Oakland, California, gave rise to the Black Panther Police Patrols and their mission to monitor and challenge that brutality. Since citizens were by law permitted open loaded carry of registered guns, the Black Panthers patrolled armed.
When a predominantly white jury ruled the police killing of Denzel Dowell a justifiable homicide, it was perhaps the last straw. The first issue of The Black Panther Black Community News Service on April 25, 1967, focused not only on the killing of Denzel Dowell, but also other police atrocities. It questioned how a previously injured Denzel could have fled a police officer who knew him well enough to call him by name, why he was shot 10 times, and why the newspaper announced the verdict two hours before the jury did. It also listed three other police murders of black men and two police-administered beatings of a black woman and a 14-year-old black girl.
Meanwhile, dubbed the Black Panther Bill, the Mulford Act sought to ban loaded carry specifically to end Black Panther armed patrols. However, on May 2, 1967, 30 Black Panthers – 24 men and six women armed with a written manifesto and loaded weapons – gathered on the California State Capitol steps and entered the building, their destination the General Assembly to protest the impending legislation. They were admitted only to the legislature’s official viewing area and then were asked to leave, but they left with their guns still loaded.
While the event remained nonviolent, cities across the nation were experiencing intense race riots. The California legislature fast-tracked the Mulford Act, and then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed it into law on July 28, 1967, as California Penal Codes 25850 and 142-181. It prohibited individuals from publicly carrying a loaded firearm on their person or in a vehicle in an incorporated city or other prohibited areas. The act authorized peace officers to examine any firearm to determine whether it was loaded and deemed any refusal to comply as probable cause for arrest. It also prohibited anyone but law enforcement from possessing loaded firearms or deadly weapons within the Capitol.
The Cold War and the Advent of “Assault Weapons”
The latter half of the 20th century brought with it global conflicts – Vietnam, Korea and Iraq – and assault rifles. The easily recognizable AK-47s, AR-15s and Uzis became the weapons of choice for military forces around the globe, their characteristics highly desirable to firearms enthusiasts.
While the guns take a lighter caliber bullet and typically fire with less range and power than a rifle, they offer valued traits like folding stocks, pistol and forward grips, large-capacity removable magazines and the capability of switching firing modes. With time, semi-automatic rifles have appeared as many different makes and models, often surprisingly affordable. Most notable is that with each ban and limitation, semi-automatic rifles become more popular.
The 1989 Stockton Massacre and California’s AWCA Response
Out of all the states, California is recognized as having the most restrictive gun laws. One of the primary catalysts was the Cleveland Elementary School shooting on January 17, 1989, during which Patrick Purdy used an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle to spray a playground full of children, killing five and wounding 32 before killing himself. Despite former weapons and robbery offenses, Purdy had easily bought the assault weapon in Sandy, Oregon, and brought it across state lines to the Stockton, California, schoolyard.
The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989 (AWCA), effective January 1, 1990, was California’s response and the first assault weapons act. It ultimately defined assault weapons within three categories, banned any transfer of the listed prohibited assault weapons, and required registration of any already in possession by the end of 1992. Any weapons not registered by that date were to be surrendered to law enforcement.
The 1993 101 Massacre and California’s Firearms Safety Act
Despite the legislation, on July 1, 1993, Gian Luigi Ferri entered the law firm of Pettit & Martin on 101 California Street in San Francisco to avenge his alleged loss of $300,000 in a land deal. Armed with two 9mm semi-automatic machine pistols, a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, Ferri killed eight and injured six in a 16-minute rampage before killing himself.
While the event was the impetus for the 10-year Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 to 2004, in California, the effects have lasted much longer. Seeking to end gun manufacturer workarounds like changing model numbers, the state amended the Roberti-Roos Act’s assault weapons categories in 1999 by banning the manufacture, import or sale of semi-automatic rifles or pistols with certain characteristics as well as the transfer of magazines able to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, effective January 1, 2000.
That same year, California limited handgun purchases to one during any 30-day period; Maryland, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have similar laws. It also passed the Aroner-Scott-Hayden Firearms Safety Act of 1999 to require child-safety locks on all guns, set handgun safety standards that dealers must meet, and repealed the immunity previously protecting gun manufacturers from victim lawsuits.
The 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre and New York’s SAFE Act
Reminiscent of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, appalled the nation as an armed gunman once again took out his rage on school children. Adam Lanza killed his mother at home and then fatally shot 20 children and six staff members at the school before killing himself. He was armed with his mother’s AR-15 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle and two of her handguns – a Glock and a Sig Sauer.
On January 16, 2013, New York became the first U.S. state to act after the shooting when its legislature passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act. It required universal background checks for all firearms purchases, expanded its definitions of assault weapons, created a state database for handguns, and banned the sale or purchase of magazines that could hold more than seven rounds of ammunition.
On April 4, 2013, Connecticut and Maryland both enacted new restrictions to their existing gun laws: An Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children's Safety and the Firearm Safety Act of 2013, respectively. Connecticut, too, required universal background checks for firearms purchases and banned magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Maryland banned assault weapons and magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
The 2012 Aurora Massacre and Colorado’s Response
On July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes fired into an Aurora, Colorado movie theater showing of The Dark Knight Rises premier, killing 12 and injuring 70 amid tear gas from grenades he’d launched. He was armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 semi-automatic rifle fitted with a 100-round magazine, and a .40-caliber Glock. Holmes had bought all three guns legally between May 22 and July 6, from three different firearms stores – two Gander Mountains and One Bass Pro Shop.
Following other states’ earlier actions, on March 20, 2013, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper also signed into law three bills to prevent another mass shooting event. HB 13-1224 banned large-capacity magazines that can hold more than 15 rounds of ammunition. HB 13-1229 required universal background checks for all firearms sales, and HB 13-1228 directed that applicants pay for the cost of the checks.
2013: 10 New California Gun Control Laws
Also in 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed 10 more different firearms-related bills:
- AB-500 Firearms: DOJ checks.
- AB-48 Firearms: Large-capacity magazines.
- SB-683 Firearms: Firearm safety certificate.
- SB-140 Firearms: Prohibited persons.
- AB-1131 Firearms: Mental conditions.
- SB-127 Firearms: Mentally disordered persons.
- AB-231 Firearms: Criminal storage.
- SB-363 Firearms: Criminal storage: Unsafe handguns: Fees.
- AB-170 Assault weapons and .50 BMG rifles.
- AB-539 Firearm possession: Prohibitions: Transfer to licensed dealer.
These bills extended weapon transfer waiting periods, added storage safety conditions and strengthened storage negligence laws, banned conversion kits for large-capacity magazines, required safety certificates for long guns, extended mental health-related prohibitions for firearms from six months to five years, made assault weapon permits individual-issue only, and prohibited individuals denied firearms from storing them with dealers.
SB-140 also appropriated $24 million to the Department of Justice to address the backlog in the Prohibited Armed Persons File database tracking more than 20,000 individuals prohibited from owning firearms.
2016: California’s “Gunpocalypse”
As 2015 drew to a close and the holidays approached, the tragic San Bernardino shooting stunned California residents and the nation. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and injured 22 more at a Christmas party thrown by Farook’s employer at the Inland Regional Center on December 2.
Farook and Malik were armed with two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles – a DPMS A-15 and a Smith & Wesson M&P15 – two 9mm semi-automatic pistols, at least four high-capacity magazines, well over a thousand rounds of ammunition and a pipe bomb. The incident ended with the homegrown terrorists’ sworn loyalty to ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a police vehicle chase, and a final shootout that left both perpetrators dead.
While Farook had legally purchased his handguns, another individual, Enrique Marquez, had purchased the rifles legally in 2011 and 2012, as Farook had reportedly feared he wouldn’t pass the background check needed for them.
The two rifles, however, were altered after the purchase in flat violation of California law: the Smith & Wesson for automatic fire and the DPMS to accept large-capacity magazines. Investigation of the couple’s home yielded a stockpile of another 4,500 rounds of ammunition, a dozen pipe bombs, and tools for making them.
Almost immediately, California assemblymen and senators introduced a packet of legislation. On July 1, 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed six new gun control bills into state law, each seeking to close a firearms loophole: Assembly Bills 1695, 1511 and 1135 as well as Senate Bills 880, 1446 and 1235.
AB 1695, also known as “The Stop Illegal Gun Sales Act,” was an effort to stop the practices of “straw purchasers” – individuals able to pass background checks who procure guns for ineligible individuals, then report the firearms as lost or stolen to avoid accountability.
California’s penal code already listed falsely reporting to a member of law enforcement as a misdemeanor or felony. However, the bill specifically makes falsely reporting a firearm as lost or stolen a misdemeanor and imposes a 10-year ban on firearm ownership for those convicted of the offense. Violation of the 10-year period carries up to $1,000 in fines and up to a year in prison.
While the vast majority of firearms loaned from one person to another must go through a licensed dealer under AB 1511, prior to this bill Californians could lend a firearm to individuals they knew personally for infrequent periods of less than 30 days. The new bill has the same loan period limitations, but it restricts the lending of firearms to “a spouse or registered domestic partner, or to a parent, child, sibling, grandparent, or grandchild” related by “consanguinity, adoption, or steprelation.”
SB 880 & AB 1135
California passed two bills, SB 880 and AB 1135, that are substantively the same with minor wording differences like “specified attributes” as opposed to “several specified attributes.” Essentially, the new law closes the bullet button loophole. First, it redefines a “fixed magazine” as “an ammunition feeding device” that “cannot be removed without disassembly of the firearm action.” Then, it extends the definition of assault weapons banned to any “semiautomatic centerfire rifle or a semiautomatic pistol that does not have a fixed magazine,” and has at least one of the previously established assault weapon attributes – such as a thumbhole stock for rifles or a second handgrip for handguns.
Much like previous legislation, the law prohibits the sale or transfer of assault weapons lacking a fixed magazine and mandates that all weapons already in possession up to and including December 31, 2016, must be registered with DOJ by January 1, 2018, for up to a $20 fee. Violation of the law is a felony punishable by up to one year in jail.
While the previous law prohibited the sale, gift or loan of large-capacity magazines, SB 1446 bans them altogether. Any manufacture, sale, transfer, gift or loan of a magazine able to hold more than 10 rounds is punishable by up to a year in jail. Possession of a large-capacity magazine entails a $100 fine for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for the third.
In addition, regardless of when the magazine was purchased, the owner cannot keep it in California. The magazine must be moved out of state, sold to a licensed dealer, destroyed or surrendered to law enforcement.
An interim and supersession measure prior to voter adoption of the Safety for All Act of 2016, SB 1235 is legislation to control all ammunition through an Automated Firearms System. Starting July 1, 2019, all sales and transfers of ammunition will be subject to checks of the purchaser's presented identification against the Prohibited Armed Persons File as well as the Automated Firearms System, and must be reported to the Attorney General.
The legislation also requires, with some sporting club exceptions, a vendor license for all ammunition sales. Prior to this, controls – including mandatory face-to-face transactions – had been limited to handgun ammunition. However, handgun ammunition was changed to ammunition, and ammunition was redefined to be all-inclusive with “one or more loaded cartridges consisting of a primer case, propellant, and with one or more projectiles.” Any person or business who transfers ammunition to someone ineligible to receive it is subject to $1,000 in fines and up to a year in prison.
Governor Brown did, however, veto four submitted bills:
- AB 2607 would have expanded the pool of individuals able to petition for a gun violence restraining order.
- AB 1674 would have applied the 30-day handgun delivery limit to all firearms.
- AB 1673 would have redefined firearm as any “frame or receiver blank, casting, or machined body” clearly part of a functional weapon.
- SB 894 would have tightened reporting regulations for lost or stolen firearms.
The Second Amendment Stands Strong
Since 2013, successful federal gun legislation has been limited to the renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act, and states have taken note. While more restrictive states have continued to identify and attempt to close every loophole, many others have instead passed laws to strengthen the Second Amendment.
In 2015, the Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence tracked “1,323 bills related to firearms in the states.” Many of these laws related to hotbed social issues of today: domestic violence, background checks, guns in schools and on campuses, and concealed carry.
Domestic terrorism is another serious concern driving the debate about gun control. If history is any guide, attacks by “homegrown” terrorists will lead to stricter gun control measures as legislators try to calm the nation’s outrage and sense of vulnerability with more laws – despite terrorists already breaking existing laws.
The challenge for lawmakers at all levels is to ensure that rational wisdom prevails over emotion. We can close every loophole. We can regulate and litigate. But ultimately, unbalanced malcontents or violent terrorists may still win simply because they don’t play by any rules. And even the most well-intentioned laws may have unintended consequences.
Meanwhile, the Second Amendment, crafted by America’s Founding Fathers, stands quiet and powerful, with 27 simple words worthy of defining billions of others in our nation’s Supreme Court:
“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."