A Look at Gun Control Laws

Students learn about efforts by youth activists to challenge U.S. gun laws, and discuss the range of gun reform proposals under consideration. 


Ask students to read the information below, either silently or out loud.


Gun homicide rates are 25 times higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries. About 40,000  Americans die in gun-related deaths each year – and there are more public mass shootings in the U.S. than in any other country.  Americans also own more guns per capita than any other country in the world (89 firearms for every 100 people)

After each mass shooting, the public, the media, and the lawmakers engage in very predictable discussions about whether stricter gun laws should be enacted, usually resulting in little or no action. 

But the determined leadership of young people has changed the usual storyline in 2018.  After a February 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students and their allies have begun what may be the most powerful effort yet to strengthen U.S. gun laws.

They have already brought results that established gun control organizations have been unable to accomplish:

  • meetings with the president and congresspeople
  • legislators flipping on the issue
  • legislative action in at least two states
  • major corporations cutting ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and restricting gun sales at stores
  • inspiring student walkouts across the country
  • raising millions of dollars for the fight
  • crushing the politicians and NRA in the media and social media (#NeverAgain, #DouglasStrong, #ParklandTownHall, #KilltheNRA, etc.

And on March 9, 2018, Florida, one of the most gun-friendly states in the country and a “pioneer” in pro-gun laws, approved the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. Under intense pressure from Parkland students, the Florida state legislature and governor defied the NRA to pass a law that:

  • raises the minimum age to buy firearms to 21
  • funds mental health assistance in schools
  • bans “bump stocks” (which allow semi-automatic rifles to operate automatically)
  • requires a 3-day waiting period for gun sales
  • increases the power of police to seize guns from people with mental health issues

The bill also includes some provisions that students did not advocate, including funding to arm school staff and requirements for “hardening” schools with metal detectors, bullet-proof glass, and better locks.

Despite their victories, the young people are facing mighty opposition. The Republicans now in control of the House, Senate, and White House are staunchly opposed to significant gun reform. They are backed by the NRA, which provides powerful support for pro-gun politicians. They also have strong support from pro-gun constituents, who fight what they view as encroachments on their fundamental Second Amendment right to own guns. Though polls consistently show that most Americans favor some kinds of gun control, most of these voters don’t feel as strongly about gun control as do the supporters of gun rights.

But, pushed by young organizers, passion is growing for gun control. And students have said that they are in the fight for the long haul.


For Discussion

  1. Why do you think the U.S. is so prone to gun violence compared to the rest of the world?
  2. What do you think of the Douglas High School students’ campaign for more gun control?
  3. Congress and the White House are currently controlled by gun reform opponents. How could a movement for gun control win?



Small Group Reading & Discussion

Tell students that today we’ll consider the different kinds of gun reform laws that have been proposed. 

Ask students to break into six groups. Give each group one of these six handouts (the handouts are also included below) and some chart paper.  

Each handout covers a different category of gun legislation and specific proposals within that category. Most of these proposals have been enacted into law in at least a few states. The six categories are:

1.  Background checks, licensing, and tracking of gun sales

2.  Limiting who can purchase guns

3.  Banning certain types of weapons

4.  Requiring gun safety

5.  Restricting where and how guns are carried

6.  Pro-gun laws supported by the NRA

Give each group a few minutes to read their handout. Then give each group 5-10 minutes to discuss the following questions:

  • What do you think of this kind of gun law? Does it make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • Do any of the proposals stand out for you as especially important to support?  Why?
  • Do you strongly oppose any of the proposals? Why?

Now give each group 5 minutes to decide on how they will present their information to the class, using the chart paper.  Groups should:

1)  give the class an overview of the laws in their category and

2) share with the class a few of their thoughts on these laws


Whole Group Presentations & Discussion

Bring the whole class together, and ask each group to share what they’ve learned. 

Next, engage the class in discussion using some or all of the questions below.

  1. What kind of gun control laws would be most effective in protecting people from harm? Why?
  2. How do we balance the individual rights of people to own guns with the rights of people to be safe?
  3. Do you think some of the laws being proposed would be appropriate in cities but not in rural areas?  If so, what does that suggest to you about gun reform laws?
  4. What can young people do to voice their opinions on this issue? How can they influence policy?


View handouts as PDF


Handout 1: Background checks, licensing & tracking of gun sales

These proposals require people to have a background check or get a license to purchase a gun, and give law enforcement agencies information on who owns the guns.

Some states require people to get a permit before purchasing a handgun, and sometimes require a mandatory training course. A few states require permits for all firearms—including rifles (or “long guns”).  Federal law requires gun makers and sellers to have a gun dealers’ license.

Legislation has been proposed to:

  • Close the gun show loophole that currently exempts private sellers and buyers of guns from having to perform background checks on their buyers. The same loophole permits private online sales without back ground checks or licenses.
  • Create a ballistics database that would match bullets with the guns that fired them
  • Establish a national firearms registry
  • Require permits and mandatory training in all states
  • Require periodic renewals of gun licenses
  • Establish a waiting period  after purchasing a gun, when you can actually take possession (time for an angry person to cool down)
  • Require states to provide information to the national databases on individuals that might prevent them from buying a gun
  • Require manufacturers to stamp a traceable code onto ammunition
  • Require gun dealers to record details of ammunition sales

Handout 2:  Limits on who can purchase a gun

These are laws that exclude some people from being able to buy a gun. The 1968 Gun Control Act prohibits the sale of guns to people who have served time (over one year) in prison, fugitives, people who are addicted to drugs, undocumented immigrants, those under restraining orders, and other specified persons.

Proposed laws would:

  • permit local police, with a court order,  to temporarily seize guns from people who are judged to be a danger to themselves or others
  • prevent minors (under the age 21) from purchasing guns
  • ban gun sales to mentally ill people (beyond those already excluded because their illness was adjudicated)
  • require psychotherapists, law officers, and schools to report people who are demonstrating violent behavior to the national database
  • expand the list of conditions that  would exclude gun ownership to include some lesser crimes (misdemeanors) involving violence, to some juvenile offenses and also to those addicted drugs or alcohol
  • deny gun permits to those on the terrorist watch list
  • mandate that current gun owners surrender their weapons if they become ineligible for ownership of firearms for any reason
  • expand the existing ban on domestic abusers to include stalkers, abusive dating partners, and more family members than just partners and children
  • allow police to remove firearms from the scene of a domestic violence incident
  • extend prohibitions on weapons purchases to ammunition purchases



Handout 3:  Banning certain weapons

Certain weapons are designed to shoot many bullets easily and extremely quickly. Owning fully automatic machine guns (along with sawed-off shotguns and some other weapons) has been illegal since the 1930s.

 New laws have been proposed to ban the sales of:

  • semi-automatic rifles that load the next bullet automatically after a bullet is fired (allowing the shooter to fire almost 100 bullets in a minute)
  • kits that convert semi-automatic rifles to fully automatic (“bump stocks” for example)
  • high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to fire up to 100 rounds of ammunition without reloading. The federal ban on these expired in 2004.
  • silencers
  • ultra-compact (very concealable, semi-automatic) guns
  • assault weapons—though the term has no precise definition. Since the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban, states have banned these guns based on how many military features the semi-automatic guns  have. These features include things like detachable magazines, and the ability to accept a bayonet or flash suppressor
  • particular ammunition like armor-piercing bullets

Handout 4: Requiring gun safety

Federal law only requires that gun dealers provide their customers with some means of locking or securely storing the weapon. There is no requirement that the purchaser actually secures the weapon.  Congress has effectively blocked the National Institutes for Health and Centers for Disease Control from spending any money on firearms as a health issue—despite the large number of firearms deaths and injuries. States have had to pass their own laws to promote safety—especially for children.

 Gun safety laws include:

  • making it a crime to have guns unsecured with children around (some states make it a crime only if the child has actually shot someone)
  • requiring that all firearms be stored with locking devices
  • permitting lawsuits against parents who give their children access to guns and the child then shoots someone
  • encouraging (and eventually requiring) handgun manufacturers to develop “smart guns” that can only be fired by the owner
  • providing for federal regulation of safety standards for firearms (Guns are specifically excluded from the products regulated by the Consumer Products Safety Commission)
  • ensuring that all guns have some indicator that shows that a bullet is ready to be fired
  • making home manufacture of guns with 3D printing illegal
  • including guns that use compressed gas (rather than gunpowder) in gun laws



Handout 5: Restricting where and how guns are carried

Some of the fiercest fights over gun control have been about limiting where guns may be taken and the rights of localities to exclude guns certain institutions. Similarly, there is the issue of whether the guns may be hidden.

 Laws that reflect these concerns include:

  • requiring a permit for a concealed weapon (sometimes with conditions)
  • prohibiting concealed weapons in places like schools or sporting events
  • regulating the carrying of guns in the open in public places
  • excluding specific buildings, institutions, or places like schools, colleges, hospitals, bars, casinos,  election polling places, government buildings  or churches
  • prohibiting concealed guns (even with a permit) in schools

Handout 6: Pro-gun laws supported by the NRA

The NRA and other gun lobbyists work hard not just to defeat gun control efforts, but to loosen the restrictions that are already law. Since the school shooting in Newton Connecticut, in which 26 people were killed, almost 600 gun laws have been passed.  According to USA Today, two thirds of these laws were supported by the NRA. Some of the issues the NRA has been working on include:

  • “State preemption”:  These state laws that prohibit cities and towns from enacting gun controls that are counter to state laws. Forty states have such laws—some with penalties for cities which pass strict gun laws
  • "State reciprocity”:  These laws allow gun permits of one state to be recognized by other states. In December 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill mandating that all states have reciprocity, and attaching it to a larger bill to fix holes in the background check database.
  • “Peaceable journey”: These laws allow legal guns to be transported through states in which they are illegal.
  • Gun license confidentiality: These laws that exempt gun permits and licenses from open records laws.