It wasn’t uncommon for private citizens to own and field their own cannons throughout the time period from the founding of the country until at least the Civil War. In the Civil War, the first gatling guns fielded were bought by individual generals using their personal funds in a private transaction which left them the proud, private owner of said guns. If the gun survived the war, they could just as easily take them home with them and store them in a barn as they could donate them to the US military. The US Army didn’t actually adopt them and make government purchases of them until after the Civil War was over. And you could still privately own cannons. Literally any weapon that was available to the government was available to private citizens if they were willing to spend the money. That didn’t start to change until the 20th century.
In 1934, the National Firearms Act was passed, which regulated the sale of machine guns and required the buyer to also purchase a $200 tax stamp that, at the time, was unaffordable to all but the rich. It also regulates the ownership of what it calls Destructive Devices. Things such as cannons, grenades, gasses, etc. Then in 1938 it was expanded with the Federal Firearms Act, which implemented the licensing and registration of firearms dealers. 1968 saw the Gun Control Act, which technically repealed the 1938 FFA but reimplemented pretty much all of it, and banned mail-order sales of firearms and required all interstate transfers to go through licensed dealers. 1986 saw the Firearms Owners Protection Act which, despite the name, was more to prevent abuse of dealers by the ATF, who had been harassing some dealers by requiring excessive compliance checks despite never finding them out of compliance, but which also implemented a ban on sales of any automatic weapons manufactured after the law went into effect to non-law enforcement, non-military purchasers. Which means no automatic weapon manufactured after 1986 can legally be in private hands. 1993 saw the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which implemented background checks for purchases and mandated the development of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System(NICS), which launched in 1998 and is maintained by the FBI, and which is used to perform background checks to this day.
NICS requires the buyer to fill out some paperwork with pertinent information, namely their name, date of birth, social security number, and address. The dealer can then call that information in over the phone or use a website to run the background check, and the result usually only takes a few minutes. The background check very literally runs the same checks that every police officer in the country can run within minutes at a traffic stop or for whatever reason, automatically checking for specific flags, so its results are usually returned quickly. The FBI can take up to 3 days to return a result, but if no result is returned after 3 days the sale can proceed regardless.
Unless you’ve got $10,000+, you’re not gonna legally own an assault rifle. Because that’s how much a pre-1986, legal to transfer, assault rifle runs. Semi-automatic rifles are, by definition, not assault rifles, regardless of how similar they may look. And that’s not even going into the fact that the word “arms” as used in the Constitution simply means weapons, not just some types of weapons. Longswords are arms, cannons are arms, etc. To arm yourself is to equip yourself with a weapon. If you’re one of the people who say that it was written only to mean muskets and the like, then the freedom of the press was written to mean only hand-operated, hand-configured printing presses, not the automatic ones that we use today. You can’t interpret one thing to modern standards while interpreting another part of the same document as only applying to the standards of its own time.
But I’m not arguing for private ownership of automatic weapons. Personally, I like things the way they are. If I could change anything, it would be to require background checks for all purchases, because currently they aren’t required for sales between individuals. I’ll support laws that require responsible storage. I’ll support laws that require safety courses. If there was a way to be 100% sure, with no margin of error, that someone was a loony who would shoot up some crowded area should they have a gun, and we could test for that prior to gun purchase, I’d support that, but there isn’t and probably never will be.
I also think that the ATF needs to start doing compliance checks on dealers on a regular basis. They’re legally limited to once a year by the 1986 FOPA unless they’ve found previous non-compliance, so they should be doing those checks on every dealer every year. But the ATF has been hamstrung by the NRA, who lobbied for and backdoored a bit of legislation into the 2006 Patriot Act reauthorization that requires Senatorial confirmation of all future ATF directors. And then they’ve lobbied senators to block nearly every nominee since. For 7 years it had acting directors only, then there was a one and a half year period where one of the acting directors was confirmed, but as of March 2015 he’s resigned and we’re now back to acting directors again for who knows how long. There’s also the fact that the NRA has been attempting, and largely succeeding, at blocking government-funded gun violence research beyond basic crime statistics. Needless to say, I don’t like the NRA. I want research done, and I want permanent ATF directors, and I don’t think that any and all gun laws are the end of the world. And if research is being done, I’d rather have it be done by the government, who should be an impartial observer, as opposed to either the NRA or somewhere like the Brady Center, who both have their own agendas on opposite extremes of the spectrum.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - I don’t like people who want to legislate based on looks alone. I’ll have a discussion, and I’ll listen to people’s viewpoints so I can make informed counter-arguments. When their viewpoint can basically be summed up as “it looks scary, so I don’t like it” I’ll try to illustrate the differences between form and function. But when they fail to see past the similar forms to see the dissimilar functions, and ignore evidence to the contrary of their belief that form equals function, that’s when I’ll throw my hands up and walk away. Because at that point they’re usually ignoring the fact that the law is already doing the things they say they want done, like banning automatic weapons, and they’re focusing only on looks. We had a law like that for 10 years, 1994-2004, called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. They created a term(assault weapon) specifically to confuse the issue and refer to guns that looked similar to assault rifles but weren’t, and banned them if their form met certain criteria while completely ignoring function. The end result? A change so small as to be a statistical anomaly, because those types of weapons are used in crime so rarely that it wouldn’t matter either way. Well, that and getting people to think things that aren’t assault rifles actually are assault rifles because they’ve been called “assault weapons” by law, and who cares about what terminology we use, amirite?
You want to make a real difference towards gun crime? Tighten restrictions on handguns. They’re used in the majority of gun crimes, while long guns such as rifles and shotguns of all types are used in something like a combined 15% of them.
I know, I’ve ranted. And it may seem like I’m some crazy gun nut. But I’m really not. I’m someone who enjoys bow hunting more than rifle hunting, and I dust off my guns and go to the target range once or twice a year for a day of shooting holes in targets taped to cardboard boxes or bits of plywood and that’s it. I’m just trying to point out that confusion exists about what is and isn’t currently allowed, and that a lot of what people think is allowed actually isn’t. To me, it’s along the same lines as this blog posting by Neil Gaiman about free speech and how you need to defend it even if you don’t agree with it. It’s not quite to that level, but it’s similar in my mind. If someone is allowed to ban something without actually knowing what they’re really banning, or to add more laws without knowing what existing laws cover, it’s a bad thing. It’s something that shouldn’t happen. And it’s my duty to at least attempt to educate people.
I certainly hope that I’m not coming off as screaming like a madman, or that I’m specifically yelling at one person or another in this thread.