Controversial Topic: Gun Control

Gun Control refers to legislation aimed at curbing gun violence in America. The gun control controversy centers on disagreement between sectors of the American public, as well as their political representatives, over the legal implications of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which grants Americans the right to bear arms. Some argue that the ongoing public health crisis of gun violence necessitates more restrictions around gun manufacturing, sales and ownership while others argue that such regulation is unconstitutional or disagree that stricter rules would lower the occurrence of gun violence.

Controversial Topic: Gun Control

Today, legal gun ownership is widespread in the United States. According to a Briefing Paper from the Small Arms Survey, American civilians own roughly 393 million firearms, with gun ownership penetrating between 35% and 42% of homes. With roughly 120.5 firearms for every 100 residents, the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of gun ownership per capita.

The United States is also home to widespread gun violence. Rates of gun violence vary from year to year. According to the Pew Research Center, “Taking overall population changes into account, there were 12 firearm-related deaths for every 100,000 people in 2017, a 14% increase from five years earlier. Despite the recent increase, however, the rate of gun-related deaths was considerably higher during the early and mid-1990s: In 1993, for example, there were 15.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people.”

In any given year, guns claim tens of thousands of American lives in the form of mass shootings, suicides, police shootings, domestic violence, urban crime, and more. While many Americans recognize that gun violence is a problem, there is heated disagreement over how to confront this issue.

  • On one side, gun control advocates argue that more regulatory oversight is needed in areas such as universal background checks, restrictions for those with mental illness, limitations on the types of firearms and ammunition that can be sold, and other measures that they believe might stem the tide of gun violence. This position is more likely to be held and advocated for by individuals who lean to the left of the political spectrum, including Democratic and progressive independent voters and their elected leaders.
  • On the other side, gun rights advocates argue that the Second Amendment provides expansive liberties surrounding gun ownership and that many of the limitations called for by gun control advocates would constitute an infringement on those rights. Some gun rights advocates also argue that stricter regulations would not be an effective measure in reducing the occurrence of gun violence. This position is more likely to be held and advocated for by individuals who lean to the right of the political spectrum, including Republican and Conservative Independent voters and their elected leaders.

Many Americans also hold more moderate views, striking a balance between belief in the Constitutional right to bear arms and belief in the need for sensible gun laws. However, the gun debate engenders strong emotions both because so many Americans have been the victims of or have lost loved ones to gun violence and because gun rights advocates view gun ownership as a foundational American civil liberty.

A Brief History of the Issue

It’s no accident that the right to bear arms was built so prominently into the Constitution. Frontier-life in Colonial America necessitated the ownership and ability to use firearms. The dangers of wildlife and violent clashes with indigenous tribes made guns a critical survival tool in the pre-Revolutionary territories. Moreover, in the absence of a central army, colonial militias were a required line of defense. Every man was not only required to be part of their local militia, but was required to be in possession of a firearm and ammunition. To this extent, gun ownership was then, and for many is still seen today, as a feature rooted in the cultural fabric of the United States.

The Revolutionary Era and The Second Amendment (1775-1791):

Several major confrontations which precipitated the War for American Independence centered on British attempts to disarm the colonists. In response to colonial resistance over taxation, the British imposed an embargo on gunpowder. Their goal was to limit the ability of colonists to defend against British encroachment into local affairs.

This was followed by several major confrontations over British attempts at seizure. In April of 1775, British forces attempted to confiscate the cannon belonging to the Concord and Lexington Militias. This led directly to the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19th. The next day, in a separate incident, British forces attempted to confiscate gunpowder stores held in the Williamsburg, Virginia armory. The resulting “Gunpowder Incident” saw a militia led by Patrick Henry face off with Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia.

These early events on the path to war would figure heavily into the psyche of the Founding Fathers who, 15 years hence, would keep the right to bear arms foremost in their minds when writing the Bill of Rights. The phrasing used in the resulting Second Amendment underscores the important role played by colonial militias prior to the establishment of a traditional military.

As authorized in 1791, the Second Amendment states that “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.”

While informal militia groups do remain active in various states today, these are neither regulated nor organized in any central way. Thus, the more consequential aspect of the Second Amendment concerns the presumed right (one which has been frequently debated in court) of civilians to bear arms as a means of protecting both individual and collective liberties.

Bliss v. Commonwealth (1822)

The state of Kentucky was the first on record to impose some measure of “gun control” in the early part of the 19th Century. The measure in question actually had nothing to do specifically with guns, and instead concerned the right to carry a concealed sword in a cane. The measure was passed in 1813, and was intended to “curb the practice of carrying concealed weapons.”

The regulation prompted fierce disagreement in the Kentucky State Congress, and ultimately led to a legal confrontation over the meaning of the right to bear arms. While the language of the Second Amendment largely emphasized the practical role of militias, this case over the right to carry concealed arms was the first to address the question of the “individual right” to bear arms.

In the case of Bliss v. Commonwealth, Kentucky’s concealed weapons ban was challenged on the basis that both the state’s Constitution and Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protected the individual liberty to bear arms. The challenge was effective. The Kentucky court found that the right to bear arms “is not only a part of the right that is secured by the constitution; it is the right entire and complete, as it existed at the adoption of the constitution; and if any portion of that right be impaired, immaterial how small the part may be, and immaterial the order of time at which it be done, it is equally forbidden by the constitution.”

This would prove a far-reaching precedent. While Kentucky would, in 1850, ratify an amendment to the state constitution outlawing concealed weapons, the court’s discussion helped to set in motion the legal debate which persists today. Bliss v. Commonwealth offered an encompassing interpretation of the right to bear arms which proposed that any restrictions around this right would be inherently unconstitutional. Certainly, this position has been, and continues to be challenged in both legislative efforts and court decisions. However, the court’s recognition of an expansive individual right to bear arms would provide gun rights advocates with the basis for a great many of the legal arguments mounted since.

State v. Buzzard (1842)

To the extent that the decision in Bliss v. Commonwealth provided a legal framework for gun rights advocates, so would the decision in State. v. Buzzard provide a precedent for advocates of gun control. As with Kentucky, this Arkansas case initiated over a state law prohibiting concealed carry.

In this case, a man charged with the crime of carrying a concealed weapon claimed that the existing statute violated his right to bear arms. Agreeing with his claim, an Arkansas Trial Court struck down the law. The state appealed the finding to the Arkansas State Supreme Court, which overturned the lower court’s finding, concluding that “the words ‘a well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free State’, and the words ‘common defense’ clearly show the true intent and meaning of these Constitutions [i.e., Arkansas and the U.S.] and prove that it is a political and not an individual right, and, of course, that the State, in her legislative capacity, has the right to regulate and control it: This being the case, then the people, neither individually nor collectively, have the right to keep and bear arms.”

Known as the Arkansas Doctrine, this finding refutes the earlier Kentucky court’s finding, and instead emphasizes the primacy of militias in the intended meaning of the right to bear arms. This position concludes that regulations around individual rights are within the purview of the state and do not violate the conditions of preserving a “well-regulated militia.”

As with the conclusion of Bliss v. Commonwealth, this doctrine has been challenged many times in court with varying outcomes. However, it remains a foundational legal precedent for arguments in favor of gun control.

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868)

The end of the Civil War brought about the Reconstruction Era in which the federal government took steps to integrate former slaves and freedmen into American life. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 availed “equal protection of the laws” to all natural born and naturalized citizens of the United States including all freed former slaves.

Upon its drafting, the phrase “privileges and immunities of citizens” was included in the Fourteenth Amendment as a means of including the first Eight Amendments of the Bill of Rights among those equal protections. This move prompted particularly heated Congressional debate as Southern states undertook their own internal efforts to suppress the rights of freed slaves. Reconstruction leaders feared that Southern states intended to deprive former slaves of their right to bear arms as a measure of continuing to suppress them.

This concern would prove well-founded. Southern resistance to Reconstruction ultimately brought this period to an unceremonious end by 1876, and with it, brought an end to efforts aimed at extending Constitutional protections to freed slaves.

For some insight into how that year’s presidential election helped to bring about the end of Reconstruction, check out our look at the controversy over America’s Electoral College.

The United States v. Cruikshank (1876)

A major court case would play a significant role in ending the Reconstruction Era and setting the South on a path toward Jim Crow and segregation. In the case of United States v. Cruikshank, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “privileges or immunities clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment was meant only to apply in restricting federal government powers, and that the rule was not meant to limit the powers of state governments. The Second Amendment proved a central point of dispute, with the Supreme Court ultimately finding that this protection “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.”

Beyond simply giving Southern states the authority to restrict the right to bear arms for freed slaves, the decision gave the former states of the Confederacy expansive authority to restrict the freedoms of Black Southerners writ large. The consequence was a century of legally sanctioned deprivation of federal Constitutional rights for Black Americans.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is Formed (1871)

Another noteworthy event that coincided with the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras was the emergence in the 1860s of a national marksmanship club. Chartered as the National Rifle Association (NRA) in New York in 1871, its original impetus was to improve training among Union soldiers. Indeed, its first president was Union General Ambrose Burnside; it’s eighth president was former Union General and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.

For the first several decades of its existence, the NRA was focused entirely on improved marksmanship as well as the establishment of sport and hunting clubs for engagement in domestic and international competition. In the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries, the NRA was not focused on policy issues. In fact, while the NRA is largely associated today with advocacy for gun rights, its earliest ventures into the political fray saw it lending its support to the first federal gun control regulations.

National Firearms Act (1934)

Indeed, the National Rifle Association (NRA) did actively endorse the nation’s first federal gun control law. During the era of Prohibition, gangland activity proliferated widely throughout the United States, especially in major urban centers like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. As the underworld grew around the control and sales of bootleg alcohol, so too did the occurrence of violent turf wars.

These turf wars reached a fever pitch in the late 1920s, peaking in visibility with the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Chicago had become the site of a fierce conflict between the Irish North Side gangs and the Italian South Side gangs, the latter helmed by the notorious Al Capone. While the actual perpetrators were never apprehended, it is widely believed that Capone, in collaboration with the Chicago Police Department, conspired to execute seven North Side gang members on February 14th, 1929.

The bloody episode brought about the call for more responsive federal oversight of firearms, especially the Thompson submachine gun (Tommy gun) and sawed-off shotgun, which had both become preferred tools of the trade for the era’s gangsters. The call for some measure of federal legislation reached its peak with the 1933 assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The following year, Congress adopted the National Firearms Act, which called both for the registration of firearms and what was at the time a fairly prohibitive $200 tax on the purchase of firearms. At the time of its passage, the law defined firearms largely as machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, and concealed weapons but stopped short of regulating pistols and revolvers.

United States v. Miller (1939)

1939 saw the first major legal challenge to the National Firearms Act and, in the decision produced by the U.S. Supreme Court, provided precedent for advocates on both sides of the debate.

The case involved two men with known gangland affiliation who were apprehended for transporting a sawed-off shotgun across state lines for the purposes of commerce without registering the weapon in accordance with the NFA. One defendant, Jack Miller, argued before a U.S. District Court that the NFA was a violation of his 2nd Amendment rights.

The District Court upheld the claim, deeming the apprehension unconstitutional. However, context is important in this case. It is said that Justice McReynolds, who wrote the majority opinion, was actually in favor of the gun control law. However, Miller was known to be targeted by his mob associates for testifying to authorities about their activities. Deducing that Miller would ultimately go into hiding after the case, and thus be unable to appear in the Supreme Court to argue his defense, the judge viewed this as the best way to pass the case up to the higher court for the establishment of a gun control precedent.

He deduced correctly. Miller was found murdered in April. The Supreme Court heard the case in May and, in the absence of defense representation, concluded “that possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length’ at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.”

The interpretations yielded in the long aftermath of this decision are mixed, with gun control advocates viewing this as a precedent establishing the right of the federal government to impose limitations on gun ownership rights without being said to violate the conditions of the Second Amendment. By contrast, gun rights advocates view the language of the opinion as evidence that the courts accept the concept of individual rights as being implied by the maintenance of a well-regulated militia, and that the ruling was only decided thusly because presiding judges lacked knowledge that sawed-off shotguns were actually employed by the military at the time. To this end, gun rights advocates view the finding as support for individual gun rights (as opposed to supporting rights only for militias).

Gun Control Act of 1968 (1960s)

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet. The event signaled the beginning of a shift in the public’s attitude toward gun ownership. This moment began a multi-year effort to create more restrictive federal laws around interstate gun commerce. It was claimed that alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had purchased the weapon used to murder Kennedy through an interstate magazine mail order.

Scrutiny of the event led to a proposal that would prohibit interstate firearms transfers unless between manufacturers, dealers, and licensed importers. Debate over the conditions of the law persisted for several years. But in 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in close succession further moved public opinion in favor of gun control regulation.

During Congressional hearings, the Executive Vice-President of the NRA, Franklin Orth threw his support behind the regulation, arguing that “we do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”

The Gun Control Act (GCA) was passed in 1968, placing restrictions on interstate trade of firearms, restricting interstate gun sales by mail, and establishing categories of individuals who could be restricted from making gun purchases, including convicted felons. The Act would also largely absorb and expand on the conditions of the National Firearms Act as well as establishing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as an American law enforcement agency.

This would also be the beginning of a sea change for gun rights advocates. The new federal regulations would place the gun rights community in an increasingly defensive posture. And as the next several years wore on, this shifting attitude would seep into the NRA as well.

Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986)

In the decade immediately following passage of the Gun Control Act, the NRA underwent a fundamental shift in orientation. Previously a non-partisan group, the 1970s saw the NRA increasingly solidifying its connection to the Republican Party. By the mid-1970s, the NRA had become an explicitly political organization with a focus on lobbying and building coalitions with conservative office-holders.

Its primary imperatives were to see the GCA overturned and to weaken the power of the ATF. While they were unable to fully overturn the GCA, the NRA achieved a growing level of effectiveness during the Republican-dominated Reagan Era. In 1982, a Republican-led Senate subcommittee built to study the Second Amendment concluded that “the history, concept, and wording of the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States, as well as its interpretation by every major commentator and court in the first half-century after its ratification, indicates that what is protected is an individual right of a private citizen to own and carry firearms in a peaceful manner.”

The same subcommittee also argued that 75% of enforcement actions by the ATF were aimed at harassing ordinary and law-abiding citizens. These findings served as an imperative to create and pass the Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986). The legislation effectively blunted the sweeping impact of the GCA and undercut the authority of the ATF. The bill did add a ban on civilian ownership of machine guns manufactured after the date of its passage, but otherwise rolled back laws which previously restricted interstate sales of firearms, prohibited the shipment of ammunition by U.S. mail, and required registration of ammunition. The new standards also added federal protection for transporting firearms through states where such weapons would otherwise be illegal.

The NRA celebrated the legislation as a victory while it was broadly opposed by law enforcement groups.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Action (1993)

The next several years would see a growing political polarization around the issue of gun rights vs. gun control. The NRA’s affiliation with the Republican Party was almost total by this juncture, as its legal and lobbying interests connected closely with the conservative agenda. In turn, the Republican Party became increasingly focused on protecting expansive Second Amendment rights.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was originally introduced to Congress in 1987. Named for James Brady, a White House Press Secretary wounded and permanently disabled by a would-be assassin’s bullet intended for then-President Reagan, the Brady Act called for background checks on prospective gun buyers as well as the establishment of a five-day waiting period on all gun purchases.

The NRA strongly opposed the bill, and worked to derail its passage through its affiliation with the Republican Party. The lobby group succeeded to the extent that the Bill could only be effectively passed during the very brief window of time where Democrats possessed control over both the White House and Congress. With Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, the Brady Act picked up enough momentum to pass through Congress.

However, even this effort required compromise. One major concession to the NRA was a 1998 sunset on the five-day waiting period. That condition was never renewed, which means the five-day waiting period requirement ceased to exist in 1998.

The brief period of momentum for gun control also contributed to the passage of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. A subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Ban applied to the manufacturing of certain specified semi-automatic firearms for civilian use as well as large capacity ammunition magazines. The ban was passed with a narrow majority in the Senate and included a 2004 sunset.

Court cases raised against various conditions of the ban failed to gain traction. So too did Congressional efforts to renew the ban. Thus, it reached its sunset in 2004. All efforts at reestablishing a ban on federal assault weapons have failed since that time.

*It’s also worth noting that the 1990s saw major growth in the modern militia movement. Two major incidences involving violent confrontation between fringe citizen groups and federal law enforcement—Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993)—sparked growing fear of domestic government overreach. As a consequence, this period of time saw the emergence of numerous homegrown and heavily armed domestic militias. For more on these incidences, and the modern militia movement, check out our take on the Extremism Crontroversy.

CDC Restriction (1996)

During the 1990s, the NRA grew in presence and power, rising to visibility as one of Washington’s most powerful lobby groups. Its power was particularly apparent in 1996, when conservative members of Congress successfully inserted into that year’s appropriations bill that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

The condition was established, according to its supporters, to ensure that the CDC did not fund politically-motivated research aimed at justifying additional gun control legislation.

Columbine Shooting (1999) and the Continued Rise of Mass Shooting in the U.S.

Gun violence largely trended downward through the 1990s. However, the end of the decade would see the emergence of a new pattern, with mass casualty events growing in visibility and frequency. The Columbine High School massacre would prove a dark landmark. The shooting on April 20th, 1999 saw two heavily armed students rampage through their Littleton, Colorado high school, murdering 12 students and one teacher before taking their own lives.

The nation was collectively shocked by the young age of the perpetrators and victims. However, in the two decades that have followed, Columbine stands less as an aberration and more as a template for countless future school shootings. Prominent among them are Virginia Tech (2007), Sandy Hook (2012), Marjorie Stoneman Douglass (2018), and countless others.

While the pattern of mass casualty events gained greater visibility in the context of school shootings, a spate of high profile mass shootings have highlighted the permeation of this danger in nearly every context of public life including Fort Hood (2009), the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado (2012), the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston (2015), Orlando’s Pulse nightclub (2016), the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest music festival (2017), the Sutherland Springs church (2017), Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue (2018), an El Paso Walmart (2019), a King Soopers supermarket in Boulder, Colorado (2021), a FedEx facility in Indianapolis (2021) and countless others.

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

Remarkably, though debate has persisted for two centuries over the exact implications of the Second Amendment, it wasn’t until the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller that a lasting precedent was established. The landmark Supreme Court decision struck down a handgun ban in the District of Columbia as well as a rule that would require rifle and shotgun owners to keep their weapons unloaded and disassembled, or else secured using a trigger lock.

The court’s decision held that such regulations were in violation of the Second Amendment, and indicated that while the government does have a right to place regulatory controls over gun ownership, the individual right to bear arms is essentially unlimited. Such is to say that, for the first time, the courts established a precedent stating that gun rights are not strictly reserved for state militias, and that the conditions of the Amendment are intended to extend to individual owners for the purposes of self defense.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Gun Control Debate

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of gun control in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our Rankings produced a list of influencers with particular clout in the world of conservative politics, including those who have held leadership positions in the NRA, who have served on the judiciary, or who have established visible media personae among conservative supporters. Also included are a number of researchers and political figures who have been instrumental in supporting or creating gun control legislation.

Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Gun Control Debate
Rank Person
1 Wayne LaPierre
2 Gary Kleck
3 Alex Jones
4 Antonin Scalia
5 Ron Barber
6 Dave Kopel
7 Carolyn McCarthy
8 John Lott
9 James Brady
10 Rush Limbaugh

Most Influential Books About Gun Control

Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of “gun violence” in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is dominated by popular non-fiction aimed at advocating for gun rights but also includes a few texts by researchers and journalists which advocate for sensible gun control laws.

The Most Influential Books About Gun Control
Rank Book Title
1 More Guns, Less Crime
2 The Bias Against Guns
3 Freedomnomics
4 Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America
5 Private Guns, Public Health
6 Columbine
7 Freakonomics
8 Culture Warrior

The Current Controversy

According to Business Insider, 2020 marked the highest total of gun-related deaths in the U.S. in more than two decades. Gun violence claimed 19,379 lives even as a pandemic disrupted so many other aspects of American life. Suicide by gun claimed an additional 24,090 lives in 2020.

Moreover, in recent years, the United States has faced what some would term an epidemic of mass shootings—which are defined as incidents in which a shooter claims the lives of at least four victims. According to this definition, nearly one-third of the world’s public mass shootings between 1966 and 2012 occurred in the United States.

The Gun Violence Archive uses a more expansive definition for mass shooting, identifying such incidences as those where at least four people are shot, including both fatalities and survivors. According to this definition, 2020 saw 611 mass shooting incidents, up from 417 in 2019.

Each of these mass shootings typically provokes a renewed debate in public and in Congress over the role of the federal government in restricting gun ownership. In spite of their visibility, mass shootings account for only a small fraction of the gun-related deaths in the United States. As the numbers above demonstrate, the vast majority of gun-related deaths are suicides, with urban crime, gang activity, domestic violence, police shootings, and accidental deaths making up the majority of non-self-inflicted, gun-related casualties.

Citing these patterns of violence, advocates for stronger gun control measures call for policies such as a universal background check for all gun sales, including those made at gun shows, restrictions for gun buyers with mental illness, and bans on the sale of certain large-capacity magazines and assault weapons, among other conditions. Gun rights advocates remain steadfastly opposed to many of these restrictions, though there is some bipartisan agreement on the use of background checks.

According to a Gallup poll from 2020, roughly 55% of surveyed Americans believe gun laws should be stricter; 35% believe gun laws should be kept as they are now; and 10% believe gun laws should be less strict. Views remain sharply partisan, with far more left-leading independents and Democrats favoring stricter gun control legislation and far more right-leaning independents and Republicans opposing stricter gun control legislation. Lobby groups on both sides also play a major role in fueling this political divide, though it bears noting that the NRA filed for bankruptcy in January 2021 as a consequence of fraud within its own senior leadership. Its ability to remain a dominant entity in gun politics is somewhat in question today.

There has been some movement toward stricter gun measures at the state level, including assault weapons bans in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. However, efforts at responding either to mass shooter events or broader gun violence with federal legislation have all fallen short.

A Quick Overview of Our Method

Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.

On the subject of gun control, this requires us to consider some of the key terms that are typically deployed as part of this conversation, including the phrases “gun control,” “gun rights,” “gun violence,” and the “Second Amendment.” We also considered key groups invested in the ongoing policy battle including the “NRA” and “March for Our Lives.”

Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the gun control issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.

For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.

Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:

Key Terms:
  • Gun Control
  • Gun Rights
  • NRA
  • March For Our Lives
  • 2nd/Second Amendment
  • Mass shootings
  • Gun Violence
  • Gun Control

    The catch-all phrase for the broader movement to create stricter regulations around the manufacturing, sales, and ownership of firearms in the United States, “gun control” may refer to measures such as universal background checks, purchase waiting periods, stricter limitations on who may purchase a gun, and bans on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Influencers in this area include activists and legal experts focused on advancing meaningful gun policy reform.

    Influencers

  • Tom Diaz is an American writer, lawyer, and public speaker on the gun industry and gun control issues. He was formerly senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center and is one of the more prominent advocates for a strict system of federal gun control in the United States. Learn more…
  • Emma González is an American activist and advocate for gun control. As a high school senior she survived the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and in response co-founded the gun-control advocacy group Never Again MSD. Learn more…
  • Josh Sugarmann is an American activist for gun control in the United States. He is the executive director and founder in 1988 of the Violence Policy Center , a non-profit advocacy and educational organization, and the author of two books on gun control. He has written a blog on these issues for the Huffington Post and publishes opinion pieces in the media. Learn more…
  • Gun Rights

    The phrase “gun rights” is a catch-all for the array of protections for gun owners that advocates believe are written into the Constitution. Influencers in this area include pro-gun lobby group leaders and activists, as well as legal experts and academics who have objectively examined the implications of Constitutional law as it relates to gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership.

    Influencers

  • Clifford Neal Knox was a board member and officer of the National Rifle Association, gun magazine writer and editor, gun rights activist, and prolific author of technical firearms articles and articles related to his interpretation of the Second Amendment and views on firearms laws. Learn more…
  • Joyce Lee Malcolm is the Patrick Henry Professor of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment at George Mason University School of Law. She has been called “the leading historian on the history of English gun control and gun rights” by David Kopel. Learn more…
  • Joseph Theodore Lewis is an American gun rights activist, victim rights advocate and Republican Party member. He previously was a candidate in the 2020 elections for Connecticut state senator for the 28th district, dropping out before the August primaries. He is the older brother of first grade student Jesse Lewis, a victim of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Learn more…
  • NRA

    The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the most visible entity on the side of gun rights advocacy. From its early history as a club for marksmanship training and sporting competition, to its increased affiliation with American conservative politics, to its late 20th Century role as a determinant force in the gun control policy debate, the NRA has been among the most consequential and powerful lobby groups in Washington. This influence has played an enormous role in the current state of gun regulations in America.

    Influencers

  • Marion P. Hammer was the first female president of the National Rifle Association from 1995 to 1998. As an influential NRA lobbyist from the 1970s through today, Hammer is credited with influencing many of Florida’s gun laws including the 2005 Stand your ground law. The success of her pro-gun lobby has had an impact upon similar laws across the United States. She developed the NRA program for children, Eddie Eagle GunSafe, in 1988 that the NRA promotes as an alternative to child access prevention law or safe storage laws. In 2005, she was inducted into Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. Hammer is currently very active in lobbying the NRA positions and helping to write pro-gun legislation with the Florida State Legislature, including participation in senate and house committee meetings following the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February 2018. Following the mass shooting, Hammer became the target of harassment and filed law suits against five men. Learn more…
  • Harlon Bronson Carter was an American leader of the National Rifle Association. Carter was an advocate for gun rights in the United States. Carter’s 1977 election as NRA Executive Vice President marked a turning point for the organization. During his tenure, from 1977 to 1985, he shifted the organization’s focus from promoting marksmanship and sports shooting towards strident advocacy for less restrictive gun laws. Under Carter’s leadership, the NRA became less compromising on gun rights issues. It also tripled its membership and gained considerable political influence. Learn more…
  • Ron Schmeits was president of the National Rifle Association from May 2009 to May 2011. He succeeded John C. Sigler and was succeeded by David Keene. Schmeits was the NRA’s 60th president since its founding in 1871. As is NRA tradition, Schmeits served as first vice president prior to being elected president. Learn more…
  • March For Our Lives

    Formed by a group of school shooting survivors and the family members of victims–particularly those impacted by the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida–March For Our Lives has become a visible force in the push for stricter gun control laws. Influencers include a number students who, as survivors of a mass shooting event, have ultimately risen to become influential gun control activists.

    Influencers

  • Cameron Kasky is an American activist and advocate against gun violence who co-founded the student-led gun violence prevention advocacy group Never Again MSD. He is notable for helping to organize the March for Our Lives nationwide student protest in March 2018. Kasky is a survivor of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Learn more…
  • Naomi Wadler is an American student and activist against gun violence. She has made speeches advocating for victims of gun violence in the United States, especially black female victims, most notably at the anti-gun protest March for Our Lives. She attends Maret School in Washington, DC. Learn more…
  • David Miles Hogg is an American gun control activist and student who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018. He is a founding member of Never Again MSD, an advocacy group led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. He has helped lead several high-profile protests, marches, and boycotts. He has also been a target and scapegoat of several conspiracy theories and right-wing accusations. Learn more…
  • 2nd/Second Amendment

    The Constitutional Amendment at the center of the ongoing gun control debate, the Second Amendment has long been the subject of legal examination. Its language implies that the right to bear arms is granted as an extension of the need for a “well-regulated militia” but gun rights advocates favor a more expansive definition that includes the individual right to bear arms without regulatory imposition. Influencers in this area include numerous legal scholars who have debated from both sides of the issue.

    Influencers

  • Edgar Franklin S. Belaval was an Attorney General of Puerto Rico and co-founder of the law firm Francis & Belaval. He presented several cases before the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, including a Second Amendment to the United States Constitution gun case in 1942. The 1942 case was the first lower court attempt to redefine Supreme Court decisions on the Second Amendment. Learn more…
  • Sanford Victor Levinson is an American legal scholar, best known for his writings on constitutional law and as a professor at the University of Texas Law School. He is of Jewish heritage. He is notable for his criticism of the United States Constitution as well as excessive presidential power and has been widely quoted on such topics as the Second Amendment, gay marriage, nominations to the Supreme Court, and other legal issues. He has called for a Second Constitutional Convention of the United States. Learn more…
  • Clifford Neal Knox was a board member and officer of the National Rifle Association, gun magazine writer and editor, gun rights activist, and prolific author of technical firearms articles and articles related to his interpretation of the Second Amendment and views on firearms laws. Learn more…
  • Robert A. Levy is the chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute and the organizer and financier behind District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court Case that established the Second Amendment as affirming an individual’s right to gun ownership. He is a Cato senior fellow and an author and pundit. Before becoming a lawyer, he was the founder and CEO of CDA Investment Technologies. Learn more…
  • Alan Dershowitz is a former Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He earned his A.B. in political science from Brooklyn College and his LL.B from Yale Law School. Known as a devil’s advocate, he considers himself to be a civil libertarian. He has provided defense representation to numerous high-profile clients, including Harry Reems for Deep Throat, O.J. Simpson for murder, Jeffrey Epstein for sexual exploitation of minors, and Harvey Weinstein for sexual abuse. He has remained a champion for the rights of the accused, particularly in cases of rape. He has written and commentated extensively in favor of the 2nd Amendment, legalized torture by warrant, and limited rights for animals. Learn more…
  • Mass Shootings

    Though definitions vary, a mass shooting event is one in which the assailant(s) claims at least four victims. The definitions referenced in this discussion differ in that victims may either be defined as fatalities, or as both wounded survivors and fatalities. Individuals yielded through this search term were almost exclusively the perpetrators of such acts.

    Influencers

  • Stephen Craig Paddock was an American mass murderer who is known for being the perpetrator of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, in which he opened fire into a crowd of approximately 22,000 concertgoers attending a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. The incident is the deadliest mass shooting by a lone shooter in United States history, with 61 fatalities and 867 injuries, 411 of them by gunfire. Paddock shot himself dead in his hotel room. Learn more…
  • Omar Mir Seddique , also known as Omar Mateen, was an American mass murderer and domestic terrorist who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, before he was killed in a shootout with the local police. It was the deadliest shooting by a single shooter in United States history until the Las Vegas Strip shooting on October 1, 2017. Learn more…
  • Nidal Malik Hasan is a former American Army Major convicted of killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 others in the Fort Hood mass shooting on November 5, 2009. Hasan was a United States Army Medical Corps psychiatrist who admitted to the shootings at his court-martial in August 2013. A jury panel of 13 officers convicted him of 13 counts of premeditated murder, 32 counts of attempted murder, and unanimously recommended he be dismissed from the service and sentenced to death. Hasan is incarcerated at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas awaiting execution. Learn more…
  • Gun Violence

    This broad terminology refers to the wide range of incidences that occur every day in the U.S. from urban crime and gang activity to mass shooting, suicide, and domestic violence. The United States leads the developed world in gun violence incidents and fatalities. The influencers here below include academics, medical experts and activists who have studied and confronted America’s patterns of gun violence, as well as those who have profited from the proliferation of gun violence.

    Influencers

  • Talmage Newman Cooley is an American social justice activist and founder of several social justice organizations. He was Founder of The Gun Violence Project and then co-Founder and co-CEO of The Center to Prevent Youth Violence . While attending the Harvard Kennedy School in 2012 he founded Democracy.com. He is currently the CEO of Fervent Strategy, a social impact consulting firm based in New York City. Cooley has also written and directed PSA’s for social justice organizations as well as award-winning narrative and documentary films. Learn more…
  • James Gowda , also known as Jim Gowda, a firearms dealer for more than 20 years was indicted by a federal grand jury in November 1999 on charges of selling up to 10,000 handguns to people who did not live in Colorado, selling a semi-automatic weapon to a felon, and dealing guns without a license. He was indicted with Waldemar Drwall, who was an associate of Gowda. It was described as the “largest gun-trafficking case” that the agency knew of by Chris Eastburn, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Denver office inspector. It is estimated that criminals used hundreds of guns purchased from Gowda in the commission of their crimes, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Learn more…
  • Garen J. Wintemute is an emergency medicine physician at UC Davis Medical Center, where he is the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program. He conducts research in the fields of injury epidemiology and the prevention of firearm violence. He has been named a “hero of medicine” by Time Magazine. He is the director of the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center, which was established in 2017; the center is the first state-funded gun violence research center in the country. Learn more…
  • Laurie J. Punch is an American critical care surgeon, an associate professor of surgery, and a scholar within the Institute for Public Health at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Punch is also an activist in the fight against gun violence and directs StopTheBleedSTL, located at “The T” anti-violence center in St. Louis, which runs programs to educate the community on how to reduce the impact of trauma, injury, and violence in St. Louis. As a physician, educator, and activist, Punch aims to propagate the idea of “Radical Generosity” as means to better her community and the lives of those around her. Learn more…
  • Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the gun control debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:

    Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!