The gun control debate ten years after Columbine

Monday, April 20, 2009


Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School. On April 20, 1999, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates, killing a teacher and 12 students, and wounding 24 others before turning the guns on themselves. This month also marks the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, where 32 people were fatally shot by a mentally unstable student in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Commemorating these attacks against the backdrop of another shooting at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York, begs the question: “How bad does it have to get before we take serious steps toward gun control?” Joining us to try to answer this question is Jeff Fagan. Jeff Fagan is a professor of Law and Public Health at Columbia Law School

A timeline of gun legislation in the United States

The Second Amendment
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified. It states, "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." Two hundred years later, a dispute rages over its interpretation: Is it every American's right to own a gun? Or, is arms ownership limited to a military context? In 2008, the Supreme Court affirms the right for individuals to bear arms.

The National Rifle Association (NRA)
The National Rifle Association (NRA), established in 1871, has become the best known defender of the Second Amendment interpreted for individual gun ownership.

National Firearms Act
Created in response to organized crime, the National Firearms Act imposes a yearly tax on every firearm, and requires all buyers to fill out paperwork subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Federal Firearms Act
The sale of firearms now requires a Federal Firearms License (FFL) authorized by the U.S. Commerce Department. Gun retailers are required to record the names of buyers, and were prohibited from selling to individuals convicted of certain crimes.

Gun Control Act
License requirements are expanded to include more dealers, with more detailed record-keeping. Interstate handgun sales were restricted, and the list of those prohibited from making purchases expands; individuals convicted of felonies, those found mentally incompetent, and drug users were prohibited from obtaining guns. Mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns become prohibited.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is established. Previous incarnations of the bureau, dating back to the late 1700's, had collected firearm-related taxes, but the new offshoot of the Treasury Department is tasked with enforcing the Gun Control Act and it takes the spotlight as a foe of organized crime.

Firearms Owners' Protection Act
The Firearms Owner's Protection Act eases restrictions on gun sellers. It repeals certain record-keeping requirements for the sale of ammunition (which had included the name, age, and address of the purchaser, as well as the date of sale) and permits mail-order sale of ammunition, but also imposes additional penalties for certain crimes involving firearms.

Crime Control Act / Gun-Free School Zones Act
The possession or discharge of a firearm within a school zone is prohibited and criminal penalties are increased. More than 40 states outlaw the possession of a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.

Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act
Named for White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was paralyzed by a gunshot in the assassination attempt of President Reagan, the act requires a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases and a background check for unlicensed buyers. In 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System goes online, allowing the FBI to run immediate background checks on gun buyers.

Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act / Federal Assault Weapons Ban
The manufacturing, possession and importation of new semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices are banned. Juveniles are prohibited from possessing or selling handguns. The attorney general is appointed to evaluate proposed and existing state juvenile gun laws. Ten years later, in 2004, Congress fails to reauthorize the ban and many types of semi-automatic weapons become legal to purchase.

NICS Improvement Amendments Act
After a troubled student legally purchases weapons then kills 32 people at Virginia Tech, the national background check system is upgraded to include information about the mentally ill.


Jeff Fagan


Shubha Bala and Chelsea Merz

Comments [3]


It is curious that Mr. Fagan speculates upon public support for restrictions upon automatic firearms -- which are already heavily restricted by federal law -- and upon .50 caliber firearms -- which are rarely criminally misused. If I may offer a suggestion; it may be more productive to demonstrate that firearms regulation will actually provide actual benefit without unduly infringing upon the right to keep and bear arms than it would be to assert that the public would support enacting restrictions that have already been enacted upon one class of firearms and restrictions that are entirely unnecessary upon another class of firearms. However, as I have observed in the past, it may not be advantageous for advocates of increased firearms regulation to engage in honest discussion; typically they are incapable of constructing meaningful and persuasive arguments when they are forced to address reality.

Apr. 21 2009 01:23 PM

Thank you for the transcript and the background information- I think we should look at not from a "their story" perspective but from our story perspective- How would we have judged what happened in Columbine or Virginia Tech if it had happened to us or to our beloved ones- Would we still be looking at it as some distant horror story?
We are not living in an ideal society after all!

Apr. 20 2009 07:17 PM
Ben Baum

Boo to guns

Apr. 20 2009 09:23 AM

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