An unusual thing happened on Capitol Hill recently. A number of Democratic lawmakers held a sit-in protest in the House of Representatives. They promised not to move until the House took up gun control legislation. This protest was motivated by the recent mass shooting in Orlando that left 49 dead. The protesters made it impossible for any work to get done in the House. They chanted, read out statistics about gun violence, and held up signs bearing the names of the Orlando victims.
Eventually, after 25 hours of protest, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan declared a recess without a vote on gun control. Ryan, a Republican, called the sit-in a “publicity stunt.” But the protest got attention all over the world. The protest was led by Georgia Representative John Lewis, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Lewis said, “The time for silence and patience is long gone. We’re calling on the leadership of the House to bring commonsense gun control legislation to the House floor.”
The protesting lawmakers wanted the House to vote on two gun control measures. One of these measures would prevent anyone on the Terrorist Watchlist from being able to purchase a firearm, something they are currently allowed to do. The other measure would expand background checks for people purchasing guns.
The sit-in was just the latest action in the debate over gun control in Congress. The week before, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy led a 15-hour filibuster in the Senate demanding that four gun control measures be brought up for a vote by Republican Senate leaders. That led to Senate Republicans agreeing to a vote on these bills. However, the bills were all quickly voted down in the Republican-led Senate.
The first ten amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution because the founding fathers wanted to protect the freedoms they saw as most important. These ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights. The debate over gun control always comes back to words in the Second Amendment that say: “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.”
For years, legal experts have argued about what the Second Amendment really means. The word “militia” means an army made up of regular people, not professional soldiers. When the Constitution was written more than 200 years ago, the country was new, and had no real military. Ordinary people had to be ready to take up “arms”—meaning guns—to defend their country.
Some people think that the Second Amendment protects only the rights of certain groups to own guns. Two hundred years ago, this would include militias. Today it would include the military and the police. But others believe the Second Amendment was meant to protect the right of every U.S. citizen to own a gun. The Supreme Court agrees; it has ruled that this amendment protects the rights of individuals—not just the police or the military—to have guns.
But others say this does not mean that this right should be unlimited. For example, they say that the founding fathers could never have imagined assault weapons, which have been used in a number of the deadliest mass shootings. When the Second Amendment was written, guns were muskets and rifles that had to be loaded by hand. Gun control advocates also say that the Second Amendment doesn’t have any language that prevents regulations on guns.
Since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, there have been many arguments about what the Second Amendment means. But before the last 50 years, the right to own a gun was never really challenged. Since then, some very important laws have been passed. None of these laws have taken guns away from law-abiding citizens, but they do regulate who can own guns and the kind of guns they can own, to some extent.
For years, people could buy guns with no restrictions. But some of the violent events of the 1960s, including the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, prompted new laws. One of the first national laws regulating weapons was the Gun Control Act of 1968. This law banned the sale of guns to criminals and the mentally ill.
The 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan prompted the Brady Act of 1993. The Act got its name from James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary who was shot and permanently disabled in the attack. After the shooting, Brady worked for stricter gun control laws. The Brady Act required that background checks be done on people who want to buy guns and imposed a five-day waiting period.
The Clinton administration passed the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, an attempt to ban civilian ownership of guns that could fire hundreds of shots in a minute. However, this ban expired in 2004. The Senate voted to extend the ban, but the House did not hold a vote to renew it, so the law expired. Last December, Democratic lawmakers introduced a new bill to ban assault weapons, but it is unlikely to pass as long as Republicans have control in Congress.
Do you think more gun control laws are needed? What should they look like? Tell us in the comments!
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