Since gun control is such a big topic now, I wanted to put together a little primer on guns, and the technical vocabulary associated with firearms. Before we're really able to regulate something, we need to know what it is, right? I'm not going to discuss policy or goals for future activism. This diary is strictly a cliffnotes about guns and gun law (at present) for someone who may not have been exposed to or even though much about guns before the horrific events last week.
First, some background about me. In college, I became passionately against guns. I don't like them, and I think they should be banned. My time in the Army only made that more clear. But, Sun-Tzu once said "... if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss." So, I read up on gun law and theory, and even went to a few gun shows to see exactly how it works. I consider myself fairly well versed in US gun law. No expert or lawyer by any means, but not bad for a layman.
Please feel free to ask questions in the comments. I'll try my best to answer them.
I start below the spaghetti...
First, lets start off with some terminology. A firearm is, essentially, a tube that shoots a projectile using kinetic energy converted from the combustion of a compound. You are all smart people, so I imagine you knew that. Yay!
This is a cartridge, or round. This is what goes into the firing chamber of the firearm. The primer is what amounts to the fuze. It is a smaller charge that sets off the powder. The powder is what provides the energy to fire the bullet out of the firearm. Cartridges are differentiated by their bullet size either in inches or in millimeters. Cartridges can range from very small (.17 Hornady) to the really really honking huge (.700 Nitro Express).
This is a rifle. You know what a rifle is. I'm not trying to insult your intelligence. Really. This just labels some stuff.
This is a Russian/Soviet Mosin Nagant M91/30 Bolt action rifle. My formal education is in History, so I do love historical weapons. I don't like guns, but to ignore their historical legacy is foolish. This model of rifle was first introduced in 1891 (go figure), and is still used today by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Mosin Nagant fires the 7.62mm x 54mm (rimmed) cartridge. This is a bolt action rifle fed by an internal five round magazine. Bolt action meaning that the bolt has to be worked after the rifle is fired to eject the spent case and load the new cartridge into the firing chamber.
This is an SKS. This is also a Soviet made weapon, which fires a 7.62mm x 39mm round. This is a semiautomatic rifle fed by a 10 round internal magazine. The magazine can be reloaded with rounds one at a time, or fully reloaded with a stripper clip. It is semiautomatic because an external action does not have to be worked to eject the spent casing and load a new round into the firing chamber. Only one round is fired every time the trigger is pulled. Yes that is a bayonet.
This is an Soviet RPD light machine gun. This also fires the 7.62mm x 39mm cartridge. In this photograph, it is fed by a 100 round drum magazine. This is an automatic weapon, meaning that when the trigger is pulled, rounds will continuously fire as long as the trigger remains pulled and ammunition is available to be fired.
These are clips and magazines. Most firearms have magazines. For most firearms, their magazine is internal, or fixed. These magazines cannot be removed without tools, and are typically removed only for maintenance. Oftentimes, stripper clips are used to reload the internal magazines of these rifles. Both the Mosin Nagant and the SKS can be reloaded with stripper clips, or they can be loaded one round at a time. The RPD is fed by a detachable, external magazine. Magazines come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the cartridge size and model of firearm. It is even possible to convert a fixed magazine arm, like an SKS, into an arm that accepts detachable magazines. I have heard, though, that detachable magazines on an SKS leads to jamming issues.
The en bloc clip on the end is a bit different than the rest. With stripper clips, the clip acts as a guide for the cartridges, allowing the user to push the rounds into the magazine with a thumb, all at the same time. With the en bloc clip, the entire clip is pushed into the magazine. The most famous firearm using an en bloc clip is the M1 Garand rifle.
Now that we all have some common vocabulary, lets move on to the law. Gun control is divided into two spheres, Federal Law and State Law. Since there are 50 states, and 50 sets of laws, I won't be going into that much detail with them. Some, like Vermont and Alaska, have almost no firearm legislation. Others, like California and New York, have volumes of gun laws. Most states fall to one side or the other. There are few states that fall "in the middle", so to speak.
Federal law isn't that complex. For all practical purposes, any law abiding citizen of the United States can purchase a firearm. For our purposes, "Firearm" is hereafter defined as a single shot or semiautomatic pistol, rifle, shotgun, or revolver with a bore diameter of .5 inches or less manufactured after 1899. The weapons that fall under the qualifications previously listed have additional Federal law attached to them, or (in the case of pre-1899 guns and most other collectible antique firearms) are exempt from federal regulation. Shotguns and rifles with a barrel length of less than 16 and 18 inches, respectively, also fall under additional federal law. These weapons are regulated through the National Firearms Act of 1934, which I will be explaining later.
Note that the following is the minimum required action to purchase a firearm under federal law. Sometimes, states have additional regulations in place. In Illinois, a Firearms Owner Identification Card is required to purchase. In California, there is a waiting period for all handguns.
Buying a Firearm under Federal Law is fairly straightforward. There are two ways to purchase a firearm legally; a purchase can be made through a federally licensed dealer, or through a personal transaction with a non-licensed individual. A Federal Firearms License is required for persons selling firearms as a means of living. An FFL is not required if an individual sells a firearm to another person (in a face to face transaction) occasionally. All dealers must comply with all BATFE regulations and Federal Firearms Law, or their license to sell will be pulled. It is worthy to note that BATFE is very, very anal about regulations, and that Firearms merchants are some of the most highly regulated and inspected businesses in the nation. Weather they're appropriately regulated and inspected is certainly up for debate.
To purchase a firearm, you must not be in a "restricted category". Wikipediaconveniently supplies a list of those banned from posessing firearms in the United States.
The following list of prohibited persons are ineligible to own firearms under the Gun Control Act of 1968.At a dealer, once you have selected your firearm, he will present you with ATF Form 4473 (PDF). On this form, you will list your name, address, some other personal info, and sign an affidavid affirming you do not fall into any one of the restricted categories. Lying on Form 4473 is a Federal crime, punishable by a term in Federal prison. The dealer will then take the form, write down the serial number, description, and other information.
-Those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors
-Fugitives from justice
-Unlawful users of certain depressant, narcotic, or stimulant drugs
-Those adjudicated as mental defectives or incompetents or those committed to any mental institution and currently containing a dangerous mental illness.
-Non-US citizens, unless permanently immigrating into the U.S. or in possession of a hunting license legally issued in the U.S.
-Those who have renounced U.S. citizenship
-Those persons dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces
-Minors defined as under the age of eighteen for long guns and handguns, with the exception of Vermont, eligible at age sixteen.
-Persons subject to a restraining order
-Persons convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence (an addition)
-Persons under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year are ineligible to receive, transport, or ship any firearm or ammunition
-Those who already own firearms would normally be required to relinquish them upon conviction.
Then the dealer will call into the NICS system. This system provides and instant background check to those wishing to purchase a firearm from a dealer. The FBI runs this system. Normally, the check takes a few minutes. If the check is delayed, the transfer may proceed only after 3 days of no response from the NICS system.
The NICS system takes your name, social security number (if provided), and other information, and runs it against a criminal database, just like you see on Law & Order. The dealer will then record the response (approved, denied, delayed), and the NICS transaction number. By Federal Law, it is expressly forbidden to keep NICS transaction records as a firearms registry, and NICS records must be destroyed within 30 days.
The dealer (assuming approval) will collect payment, give you your shiny new Firearm, and file the form 4473 in his BATFE mandated logbook. The form is kept in the logbook for 20 years, and is to be surrendered to the BATFE on demand. If anyone saw the movie Red Dawn, this is how the Russians figured out who had the guns in the town.
Buying a gun online is a bit different. Gun dealers cannot directly ship to a house, unless the buyer has an FFL. Typically, the buyer will have the firearm shipped to a nearby dealer with an FFL. The receiving FFL will do the paperwork for the transfer, and perform the background check.
So there, you have your gun. Some states have additional identification, waiting, or registration requirements, and some ban the sale of firearms with certain physical characteristics. What I have just described is the federally mandated minimum that all firearms dealers, no matter the state, must comply with.
Now, on to those pesky "other" firearms. Machine Guns (legal in the vast majority of states), explosives, short barreled shotguns and rifles and non sporting arms with a bore greater than .5 inches are regulated under the 1934 National Firearms Act. Essentially, this means that you must possess a Federal Class 3 license (different than a FFL) to own one. Technically, you can be transfered a Class 3 firearm (as they are called) within the state, but the rarity of Class 3 arms is such that any purchase will almost certainly be made outside the state.
Anyway, Class III arms are all registered by the BATFE, and the transferee must pay a $200 tax every time the weapon is transfered. However, the Machine Gun Registry that the BATFE maintains was closed to new machine guns (ironically, in the Firearm Owners Protection Act) in 1986. This means that no new machine guns can be added to the registry, meaning that the supply of machine guns is fixed. This makes Machine guns absurdly expensive, with even the cheapest submachine gun running upwards of $5,000. It really makes machine guns out of the sphere of a common owner, and are only common with investors and people with lots of money.
Assault Weapons are also something we should also define, for the purposes of discussion. According to the now expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban, Assault Weapons are defined as:
Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:(source-Wikipedia)
-Folding or telescoping stock
-Flash suppressor, or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
-Grenade launcher (more precisely, a muzzle device that enables launching or firing rifle grenades, though this applies only to muzzle mounted grenade launchers and not those mounted externally).
Semi-automatic pistols with detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
-Magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip
-Threaded barrel to attach barrel extender, flash suppressor, handgrip, or suppressor
-Barrel shroud that can be used as a hand-hold
-Unloaded weight of 50 oz (1.4 kg) or more
A semi-automatic version of a fully automatic firearm.
Semi-automatic shotguns with two or more of the following:
-Folding or telescoping stock
-Fixed capacity of more than 5 rounds
There are also a few firearms named specifically in the Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). Not broad classes of firearms (ie anything that looks like an AK), anything banned had to be specifically noted by make and manufacturer. Note that all banned guns under the AWB weren't actually banned. Simply, no more could be manufactured. It was still legal to possess, buy, sell, and trade these arms. Same with high capacity magazines; anything over 10 rounds couldn't be manufactured, but could still be bought and sold.
Assault Rifles, on the other hand, are specifically defined as a selective fire (single shot, burst and/or automatic fire) longarm firing an intermediate caliber round (5.56 NATO, 7.62x39). Assault weapons oftentimes look like assault rifles, but are NEVER automatic unless they fall under the Class 3 category. Again, Class 3's are highly regulated and extremely expensive. Like "I could buy a Toyota for the price of this AK" expensive.
In many cases, manufacturers simply changed the looks of their guns to comply with the federal AWB. Take an AR-15, remove the bayonet lug, the flash supressor, and add a fixed stock and voila, an AWB compliant AR-15 that is functionally no different than the noncompliant one. A little like taking a custom import street racer, pulling out the strobe lights and sound system, and calling it a sedan.
On kind of a semantic note, there is also the Battle rifle. The battle rifle can be similar in appearance to an assault rifle, can be select-fire, but it fires a high power, full size round. Examples would be the M1 Garand (.30-06), the M14 (7.62x51 NATO) and the Belgian FN FAL (also 7.62x51 NATO).
There you have it. By no means comprehensive, but a nice intro. Again please do ask your questions, or comment on anything you want elaborated on. Thanks for reading, and I hope you found this informative!