Understanding Gun Rights and Laws in Light of the Las Vegas Tragedy, Part 2: Gun Control Laws

The recent shootings in Las Vegas were the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Mass shootings are not always well defined, some definitions require deaths, some injuries. Regardless of how you define them, the U.S. has more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world. When defined as incidents where more than four persons are shot and/or killed in a single incident, there have been over 270 incidents in the U.S. in 2017 alone–close to one per day. Statistics like these, in the face of such a devastating tragedy, have naturally given rise to questions about gun laws in the U.S.

Earlier this week, we’ve discussed the rights granted by the Second Amendment-and especially how the last few years of Supreme Court rulings have drastically expanded the individual right to bear arms. Essentially completely reinventing the constitutional right from an extremely limited one–basically just limiting the federal government–into something that applies to both individual citizens and the separate states.

Gun violence is a serious problem in the U.S. However, these recent changes have had an enormous impact on the type of gun control laws deemed constitutional. Steven Paddock, the perpetrator of the Las Vegas shootings, had dozens of legally purchased guns in the hotel room from which he opened fire on concert-goers. He tried to buy tracer ammo–pyrotechnic ammunition which leaves an illuminated trace of its path–at a gun show just a few weeks before the shooting. Mr. Paddock was prevented from using this ammo for his massacre not by gun control laws, but because the vendor he attempted to purchase the ammunition from had already sold out.

gun controlAuthorities have no motive for the shootings, but believe Paddock had serious undiagnosed mental issues. However, with no documented mental health issues and no criminal history, the gun laws of California and Nevada allowed Paddock to purchase all of these guns, over one and a half thousand rounds of ammunition, and fifty pounds of explosives. With this in mind, it’s no surprise gun control laws have been in the spotlight. Let’s take a look at how gun control laws are currently handled across the U.S., newer developments in gun control, and steps that might help prevent another Paddock.

Common Gun Control Laws

First and foremost, how gun control is handled will often vary substantially from state to state. Federal laws cover a fair bit–limiting the sale of some types of firearms as well as how firearms can be sold. For example, there are federal limitations on sales across borders and through the mail. There are also federal limitations on sale of firearms to people with mental illness, felons, non-citizens, and minors. These laws can also punish somebody for a sale where they have reason believe the purchaser falls into one of these categories. However, every state except for California, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York have an independent right to bear arms in their state constitution and their own set of laws that effect the sale, ownership, and carrying of guns–often even expanding on the federal restrictions discussed above. That being said, despite the variations in gun control laws, there are some common rules that a large portion of the states have in force.

Permit and registration requirements are one of the most common limitations placed on gun purchase and ownership. Some states even require gun safety classes prior to purchase and ownership. Waiting periods, a delay between purchase and picking up a gun, are another common restriction with the goal of avoiding heat of the moment crimes. Some states also require a background check before allowing somebody to purchase or own a gun. While federal laws limit sale and ownership of assault weapons–generally defined as semi-automatic weapons capable of holding more than 10 rounds–state laws have also commonly limited some types of assault weapons along with sawed-off shotguns and silencers.

Many states also don’t allow people to carry concealed weapons in public, although that’s far from a hard and fast rule. What is a rule in almost every state, however, is a ban on use and possession of guns in and around schools and government buildings. Some states ban guns in areas that serve alcohol.

It is also common for states to have laws which make it a crime to purchase a gun for somebody else–usually known as straw purchase laws.

These are common laws, but it really only scratches the surface-each state has its own complicated set of laws. What’s more, the changes in the Second Amendment have led to an unprecedented number of constitutional challenges to gun control laws. The Supreme Court expanded the rights of the Second Amendment to individuals and applied them to the states as well as the fed just in the last few years. This has seen a good number of changes in established gun control laws.

Gun Control After Recent Supreme Court Rulings

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s changes D.C., the area whose laws first got overturned by the Supreme Court, has revisited many of their gun control laws. While they found that registration procedures, bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, required safety training courses, as well as fingerprinting and photo id requirements did not violate the Second Amendment, they knocked out a slew of other requirements–making guns available for inspection once every three years and making gun owners pass tests on firearms laws among other things. Just a few months ago, D.C. ruled unconstitutional its requirement that limited concealed carry permits for handguns to those who could demonstrate a good reason to the chief of police.

This sort of limitation on concealed carry has been a fairly common target for constitutional challenge in the last several years. For instance, the Seventh Circuit has fairly recently ruled that the Second Amendment protects individual citizens right to bear arms in public as an extension of the right to self defense–ruling a concealed carry ban in Illinois was unconstitutional. On the other hand, the Second Circuit and the Fourth Circuit have both upheld permit-only concealed carry laws.

Other gun control rules that have been upheld in the face of constitutional challenge include prohibitions on minors owning or receiving guns, restrictions on guns in schools or government buildings, straw purchase laws, and restrictions on felons owning guns.

On the other hand, courts have overturned convictions for possessing a firearm after a conviction of misdemeanor domestic violence–challenging long-held limitations on owning guns after felonies and violent misdemeanors. The Ninth Circuit has also extended the new Second Amendment rights to the ability to buy and sell firearms–ruling unconstitutional limits on opening gun stores within 500 feet of residentially zoned districts, schools, day cares, liquor stores, or other gun stores.

There has also been some debate over exactly how strong the new Second Amendment right is. In constitutional law, laws facing constitutional challenge are held up to different levels of scrutiny. Where basically no constitutional right exists rational basis–an extremely low bar–applies. More powerful rights face intermediate or strict scrutiny–requiring narrow tailoring and important government purpose behind a law. Courts have been split over exactly which level of scrutiny to apply, intermediate or strict scrutiny. Regardless of the level of scrutiny the courts ultimately decide on, the changes over the last few years have seen specific targeting of provisions that limit the sale of guns as well as background check and permitting requirements–the sort of limitations that could potentially slowed down somebody like Mr. Paddock.

Limiting Gun Control in the Face of Gun Violence

The changes in how the Second Amendment works in recent years have given rise to an enormous number of challenges to gun control laws across the nation, while the vast majority have not succeeded the challenges that have succeeded call into question limitations on sale and ownership beyond the most well established such as mental disability. This is unfortunate, because these are potentially the most effective types of gun control in the face of a situation such as the shootings in Las Vegas. With a shooter with no recorded mental disability or criminal record, you have to rely on background checks, safety tests, licensing requirements, reporting and registration requirements, etc to help identify potentially dangerous patterns of purchasing firearms and identify people who might be dangerous with a firearm in their hands. Even the restrictions on types of guns, while important, wouldn’t have helped in this case as Paddock modified otherwise legal guns with illegal modifications which made his guns fully automatic.

The obvious flip side to the importance of reporting and permitting requirements is that, given the existence of an individual Second Amendment right which applies to the states, putting this sort of yes or no power in the hands of the government has serious constitutional concerns. That being said, the U.S. has a gun violence problem–period. We need to consider the steps that can be taken to avoid another Las Vegas. We need to focus on what will be most effective at encouraging responsible gun sales and ownership, as well as cracking down on illegal gun running and modification.

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