Timeline of Gun Control in the United States

Gun control protest
Proponents of increased gun control laws demonstrate in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The gun control debate in the United States goes back to the nation's founding, when the framers of the Constitution first wrote the Second Amendment, allowing private citizens to "keep and bear arms."

Gun control became a much bigger topic shortly after the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's death increased public awareness of the relative lack of control over the sale and possession of firearms in America.

Until 1968, handguns, rifles, shotguns, and ammunition were commonly sold over the counter and through mail-order catalogs and magazines to just about any adult anywhere in the nation.

However, America's history of federal and state laws regulating private ownership of firearms goes back much farther.

1791

The Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, gains final ratification.

The Second Amendment reads:

"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."

1837

Georgia passes a law banning handguns. The law is ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and is thrown out.

1865

In a reaction to emancipation, several southern states adopt "black codes" which, among other things, forbid black persons from possessing firearms.

1871

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is organized around its primary goal of improving American civilians' marksmanship in preparation for war.

1927

The U.S. Congress passes a law banning the mailing of concealable weapons.

1934

The National Firearms Act of 1934, regulating the manufacture, sale and possession of fully automatic firearms like sub-machine guns is approved by Congress.

1938

The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 places the first limitations on selling ordinary firearms. Persons selling guns are required to obtain a Federal Firearms License, at an annual cost of $1, and to maintain records of the name and address of persons to whom firearms are sold. Gun sales to persons convicted of violent felonies were prohibited.

1968

The Gun Control Act of 1968 is enacted for the purpose of “keeping firearms out of the hands of those not legally entitled to possess them because of age, criminal background, or incompetence.”

The act regulates imported guns, expands the gun-dealer licensing and record-keeping requirements, and places specific limitations on the sale of handguns. The list of persons banned from buying guns is expanded to include persons convicted of any non-business related felony, persons found to be mentally incompetent, and users of illegal drugs.

1972

The federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is created, listing as part of its mission the control of illegal use and sale of firearms and the enforcement of Federal firearms laws. The ATF issues firearms licenses and conducts firearms licensee qualification and compliance inspections.

1977

The District of Columbia enacts an anti-handgun law which also requires registration of all rifles and shotguns within the District of Columbia.

1986

The Armed Career Criminal Act increases penalties for possession of firearms by persons not qualified to own them under the Gun Control Act of 1986.

The Firearms Owners Protection Act (Public Law 99-308) relaxes some restrictions on gun and ammunition sales and establishes mandatory penalties for use of firearms during the commission of a crime.

The Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act (Public Law 99-408) bans possession of "cop killer" bullets capable of penetrating bulletproof clothing.

1988

President Ronald Reagan signs the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, making it illegal to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver, possess, transfer, or receive any firearm that is not as detectable by walk-through metal detectors. The law prohibited guns not containing enough metal to trigger security screening machines found in airports, courthouses and other secure areas accessible to the public.

1989

California bans the possession of semiautomatic assault weapons following the massacre of five children on a Stockton, Calif., school playground.

1990

The Crime Control Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-647) bans the manufacturing and importing semiautomatic assault weapons in the United States. "Gun-free school zones" are established, carrying specific penalties for violations.

1994

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act imposes a five-day waiting period on the purchase of a handgun and requires that local law enforcement agencies conduct background checks on purchasers of handguns.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 prohibits the sale, manufacture, importation, or possession of several specific types of assault-type weapons for a 10-year period. However, the law expires on September 13, 2004, after Congress fails to reauthorize it.

1997

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Printz v. United States, declares the background check requirement of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act unconstitutional.

The Florida Supreme Court upholds a jury's $11.5 million verdict against Kmart for selling a gun to an intoxicated man who used the gun to shoot his estranged girlfriend.

Major American gun manufacturers voluntarily agree to include child safety trigger devices on all new handguns.

June 1998

A Justice Department report indicates the blocking of some 69,000 handgun sales during 1997 when the Brady Bill pre-sale background checks were required.

July 1998

An amendment requiring a trigger lock mechanism to be included with every handgun sold in the United States is defeated in the Senate.

But the Senate approves an amendment requiring gun dealers to have trigger locks available for sale and creating federal grants for gun safety and education programs.

October 1998

New Orleans becomes the first U.S. city to file suit against gunmakers, firearms trade associations, and gun dealers. The city's suit seeks recovery of costs attributed to gun-related violence.

Nov. 12, 1998

Chicago files a $433 million suit against local gun dealers and makers alleging that oversupplying local markets provided guns to criminals.

Nov. 17, 1998

A negligence suit against gunmaker Beretta brought by the family of a 14-year-old boy killed by another boy with a Beretta handgun is dismissed by a California jury.

Nov. 30, 1998

Permanent provisions of the Brady Act go into effect. Gun dealers are now required to initiate a pre-sale criminal background check of all gun buyers through the newly created National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) computer system.

Dec. 1, 1998

The NRA files suit in federal court attempting to block the FBI's collection of information on firearm buyers.

Dec. 5, 1998

President Bill Clinton announces that the instant background check system had prevented 400,000 illegal gun purchases. The claim was called "misleading" by the NRA.

January 1999

Civil suits against gunmakers seeking to recover costs of gun-related violence were filed in Bridgeport, Conn., and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

April 20, 1999

At Columbine High School near Denver, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shoot and kill 12 other students and a teacher, and wound 24 others before killing themselves. The attack renews debate on the need for more restrictive gun control laws.

May 20, 1999

By a 51-50 vote, with the tie-breaker vote cast by Vice President Al Gore, the U.S. Senate passes a bill requiring trigger locks on all newly manufactured handguns and extending waiting period and background check requirements to sales of firearms at gun shows.

Aug. 24, 1999

The Los Angeles County, Calif., Board of Supervisors votes 3-2 to ban the Great Western Gun Show, billed as the "World's Largest Gun Show" from the Pomona fairgrounds where it had been held for the last 30 years.

Sept. 13, 2004

After lengthy and heated debate, Congress allows the 10-year-old Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 banning the sale of 19 types of military-style assault weapons to expire.

December 2004

Congress fails to continue funding for President George W. Bush’s 2001 gun control program, Project Safe Neighborhoods.

Massachusetts becomes the first state to implement an electronic instant gun buyer background check system with fingerprint scanning for gun licenses and gun purchases.

January 2005

California bans the manufacture, sale, distribution or import of the powerful .50-caliber BMG, or Browning machine gun rifle.

October 2005

President Bush signs the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act limiting the ability of victims of crimes in which guns were used to sue firearms manufacturers and dealers. The law includes an amendment requiring all new guns to come with trigger locks.

January 2008

In a move supported by both opponents and advocates of gun control laws, President Bush signs the National Instant Criminal Background Check Improvement Act requiring gun-buyer background checks to screen for legally declared mentally ill individuals, who are ineligible to buy firearms.

June 26, 2008

In its landmark decision in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment affirmed the rights of individuals to own firearms. The ruling also overturns a 32-year-old ban on the sale or possession of handguns in the District of Columbia.

February 2010

A federal law signed by President Barack Obama took effect allowing licensed gun owners to bring firearms into national parks and wildlife refuges as long as they are allowed by state law.

Dec. 9, 2013

The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, requiring that all guns must contain enough metal to be detectable by security screening machines was extended through 2035.

July 29, 2015

In an effort to close the so-called “gun show loophole” allowing gun sales conducted without Brady Act background checks, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduces the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2015 (H.R. 3411), to require background checks for all gun sales, including sales made over the internet and at gun shows.

June 12, 2016

President Obama again calls on Congress to enact or renew a law prohibiting the sale and possession of assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines after a man identified as Omar Mateen kills 49 people in an Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub on June 12, using an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. In a call to 911 he made during the attack, Mateen told police he had pledged his allegiance to the radical Islamic terrorist group ISIS.

September 2017

A bill titled “Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act,” or SHARE Act (H.R. 2406) advances to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. While the main purpose of the bill is to expand access to public land for, hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting, a provision added by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) called The Hearing Protection Act would reduce the current federal restrictions on purchasing firearm silencers, or suppressors.

Currently, the restrictions on silencer purchases are similar to those for machine guns, including extensive background checks, waiting periods, and transfer taxes. Duncan’s provision would eliminate those restrictions.

Backers of Duncan’s provision argue that it would help recreational hunters and shooters protect themselves from hearing loss. Opponents say it would make it harder for police and civilians to locate the source of gunfire, potentially resulting in more casualties.

Witnesses to the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, reported that the gunfire coming from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Resort sounded like “popping” that was at first mistaken as fireworks. Many argue that the inability to hear the gunshots made the shooting even more deadly.

Oct. 1, 2017

Barely over a year after the Orlando shooting, a man identified as Stephen Craig Paddock opens fire on an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas. Shooting from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, Paddock kills at least 59 people and wounds more than 500 others. 

Among the at least 23 firearms found in Paddock’s room were legally-purchased, semi-automatic AR-15 rifles which had been fitted with commercially-available accessories known as “bump stocks,” which allow semi-automatic rifles to be fired as if in fully-automatic mode of up to nine rounds per second. Under a law enacted in 2010, bump stocks are treated as legal, after-market accessories.

In the aftermath of the incident, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for laws specifically banning bump stocks, while others have also called for a renewal of the assault weapons ban.

Oct. 4, 2017

Less than a week after the Las Vegas shooting, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduces the “Automatic Gunfire Prevention Act” that would ban the sale and possession of bump stocks and other devices that allow a semiautomatic weapon to fire like a fully-automatic weapon.

The bill states:

“It shall be unlawful for any person to import, sell, manufacture, transfer or possess, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, a trigger crank, a bump-fire device or any part, combination of parts, component, device, attachment or accessory that is designed or functions to accelerate the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle but not convert the semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun.”

Oct. 5, 2017

Sen. Feinstein introduces the Background Check Completion Act. Feinstein says the bill would close a loophole in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.

Feinstein said:

“Current law allows gun sales to proceed after 72 hours—even if background checks aren’t approved. This is a dangerous loophole that could allow criminals and those with mental illness to complete their purchase of firearms even though it would be unlawful for them to possess them.”

The Background Check Completion Act would require that a background check be fully completed before any gun buyer who purchases a gun from a federally-licensed firearms dealer (FFL) can take possession of the gun.

Feb. 21, 2018

Just days after the February 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump orders the Justice Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to review "bump fire stocks"—devices that allow a semi-automatic rifle to be fired similar to a fully-automatic weapon.

Trump had previously indicated that he might support a new federal regulation banning the sale of such devices. 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters:

“The President, when it comes to that, is committed to ensuring that those devices are—again, I'm not going to get ahead of the announcement, but I can tell you that the president doesn't support use of those accessories.”

On February 20, Sanders stated that the president would support “steps” to raise the current minimum age for buying military-style weapons, such as the AR-15—the weapon used in the Parkland shooting—from 18 to 21.

“I think that's certainly something that's on the table for us to discuss and that we expect to come up over the next couple of weeks,” Sanders said. 

July 31 2018

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle issued a temporary restraining blocking the release of blueprints that could be used to produce untraceable and undetectable 3D-printable plastic guns.

Assembled from ABS plastic parts, 3D guns are firearms that can be made with a computer-controlled 3D printer. The judge acted partly in response to a lawsuit filed against the federal government by several states to block the release of blueprints for 3D-printed plastic guns.

Judge Lasnik’s order banned the Austin, Texas-based gun rights group Defense Distributed from allowing the public to download the blueprints from its website.

“There is a possibility of irreparable harm because of the way these guns can be made,” Lasnik wrote.

Before the restraining order, plans for assembling a variety of guns, including an AR-15-style rifle and a Beretta M9 handgun could be downloaded from the Defense Distributed website.

Shortly after the restraining order was issued, President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump) tweeted, “I am looking into 3-D Plastic Guns being sold to the public. Already spoke to NRA, doesn’t seem to make much sense!”

The NRA said in a statement that "anti-gun politicians" and certain members of the press had wrongly claimed that 3D printing technology "will allow for the production and widespread proliferation of undetectable plastic firearms."

August 2019

In the wake of three mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif.; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio in the span of two weeks that left a total of almost three dozen people dead, a new push was made in Congress for gun control measures. Among the proposals were stronger background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines. "Red flag" laws also were proposed to allow police or family members to file a court petition to remove firearms from individuals who might pose a danger to themselves or others.

August 9, 2019

President Donald Trump indicated he would support new legislation requiring “common-sense” background checks for gun purchases. “On background checks, we have tremendous support for really common-sense, sensible, important background checks,” Trump told reporters at the White House. Noting that he had spoken to National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, the president said the issue “isn't a question of NRA, Republican or Democrat. We will see where NRA will be, but we need meaningful background checks.”

The House of Representatives had previously passed the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which would ban most person-to-person firearm transfers without a background check, including firearm transfers at gun shows and between individuals. The bill passed 240-190, with eight Republicans joining almost all Democrats in voting for the bill. As of September 1, 2019, the Senate had taken no action on the bill.

August 12, 2019

President Trump voiced his support for red flag gun confiscation laws. “We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process," he said in televised remarks from the White House. “That is why I have called for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders.”

August 20, 2019

After speaking with NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre, President Trump seemed to back away from supporting expanded background checks for firearm purchases. “We have very strong background checks right now,” he said, speaking from the Oval Office. “And I have to tell you that it is a mental problem. And I've said it a hundred times it's not the gun that pulls the trigger, it's the people.” Trump also stressed his support for the Second Amendment, stating that he would not want to go down the “slippery slope” of infringing on the right to bear arms.