The Second Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to bear arms, but both federal and state governments determine how citizens may legally exercise that right. And while both federal and state gun control laws regularly change, laws at the state level change more frequently and often without the media coverage that surrounds changes at the federal level.
This results in a constant challenge for gun owners to keep up with the latest state laws, especially for those who carry their weapons across state lines. Because while some states have more restrictions than others, state gun control policies across the country are diverse and can change quickly – too easily putting responsible gun owners on the wrong side of the law.
This guide is a timeline of major state gun control acts throughout the history of the United States – not only to help gun owners understand the state laws that have influenced our nation, but also to showcase how one state’s gun laws can set an example for others, creating a domino effect of gun control policy for the entire country.
Colonial America: Slavery Versus The Second Amendment
Pre-Constitution, the original Articles of Confederation established that “every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia.” The Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment holds 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.” However, those rights were at that time granted specifically to white males.
Previously a slave, Dred Scott sued for freedom based on the fact that he’d lived in the free state of Illinois and a free area within the Louisiana Territory for a decade. When his suit was unsuccessful in Missouri, he appealed to the federal courts. The contention was whether “a free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves,” was a citizen with protections under the Constitution. The Supreme Court decision on Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857 denied “a free negro of the African race” citizenship – a milestone its issuer cited as “the most momentous event that has ever occurred on this continent,” excluding the Declaration of Independence. In that moment, those denied citizenship were also excluded from any of the rights associated with it.
After The Civil War: The Postbellum Era, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Black Codes
While President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves, President Andrew Johnson’s failing leadership brought with it all the struggles of the Reconstruction Era. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision still denied people of African descent citizenship.
Former Confederate states enacted Black Codes to define and restrict freedmen’s positions within society. Along with mandating legal responsibilities, land ownership rights, contract labor wages and harsh criminal laws, nearly all the Black Codes effectively and pointedly banned “persons of color” – anyone “with more than one-eighth Negro blood” – from possessing firearms. Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee all enacted Black Codes, attempting to maintain the status quo and deny weapons to people of color.
The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments banned slavery, provided all citizens equal protection under the law and ensured voting rights for all citizens. The 14th Amendment was particularly important, as it defined citizenship as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” overturning the Dred Scott decision, establishing people of color as citizens and overriding state statutes denying them the right to possess firearms based on their heritage.
On November 4, ten dual US-Mexican citizens — members of an offshoot sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — died in a highway ambush, apparently the latest casualties of rampant and violent drug cartel activity in northern Mexico.
US president Donald Trump promptly called upon “Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!”
Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador just as promptly rejected Trump’s proposal. That’s not surprising. He ran for president on a platform that includes ending, not escalating, Mexico’s status as a battlefield in the decades-long US “war on drugs,” a war that created, and continues to empower, the cartels.
AMLO’s right. Inviting direct US military intervention into Mexico’s internal affairs is not the solution.
The solution is for the US to re-situate American demand for recreational drugs from violent and corrupt “black markets” to peaceful legal markets.
After several decades of US regulatory, law enforcement, and military war on drugs, the “winners” of the war remain the cartels (who rake in billions serving customers forbidden to buy what they want legally) and US government agents (who dispose of huge budgets and earn comfortable salaries while boasting little impact on drug use at either the demand or supply ends).
Many (probably most) Americans like to get high.
Everything else being equal, they’d probably prefer to buy their marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and so forth from their local pharmacies, at reasonable prices and in known quantity, purity, and potency.
But if they can’t do that, they’re not going to stop getting high just because the US government tells them they must not. They’ll buy their drugs wherever they can find those drugs, even at the risk of being killed by the product or by the product’s sellers.
“Black market” sellers make bank on drugs because “white market” sellers don’t exist. The more money they make, the more they have to spend bribing government officials, buying weapons with which to protect their drugs and their profits, and battling their competitors for market share with bullets rather than with lower prices or higher quality.
In the “war on drugs,” there was never any chance that the drugs would lose. Who does lose? All of us who continue to tolerate our rulers’ deadly and expensive folly.
Tearing down all barriers to migration isn’t crazy—it’s an opportunity for a global boom.
The world’s nations, especially the world’s richest nations, are missing an enormous chance to do well while doing good. The name of this massive missed opportunity—and the name of my book on the topic—is “open borders.”
Critics of immigration often hyperbolically accuse their opponents of favoring open borders—a world where all nationalities are free to live and work in any nation they like. For most, that’s an unfair label: They want more visas for high-skilled workers, family reunification, or refugees—not the end of immigration restrictions. In my case, however, this accusation is no overstatement. I think that free trade in labor is a massive missed opportunity. Open borders are not only just but the most promising shortcut to global prosperity.
To see the massive missed opportunity of which I speak, consider the migration of a low-skilled Haitian from Port-au-Prince to Miami. In Haiti, he would earn about $1,000 per year. In Miami, he could easily earn $25,000 per year. How is such upward mobility possible? Simply put: Human beings are much more productive in Florida than in Haiti—thanks to better government policies, better management, better technology, and much more. The main reason Haitians suffer in poverty is not because they are from Haiti but because they are in Haiti. If you were stuck in Haiti, you, too, would probably be destitute.
But borders aren’t just a missed opportunity for those stuck on the wrong side on them. If the walls come down, almost everyone benefits because immigrants sell the new wealth they create—and the inhabitants of their new country are their top customers. As long as Haitians remain in Haiti, they produce next to nothing—and therefore do next to nothing to enrich the rest of the world. When they move, their productivity skyrockets—and so does their contribution to their new customers. When you see a Haitian restaurant in Miami, you shouldn’t picture the relocation of a restaurant from Port-au-Prince; you should picture the creation of a restaurant that otherwise would never have existed—not even in Haiti itself.
The central function of existing immigration laws is to prevent this wealth creation from happening—to trap human talent in low-productivity countries. Out of all the destructive economic policies known to man, nothing on Earth is worse. I’m not joking. Standard estimates say open borders would ultimately double humanity’s wealth production. How is this possible? Because immigration sharply increases workers’ productivity—and the world contains many hundreds of millions of would-be immigrants. Multiply a massive gain per person by a massive number of people and you end up with what the economist Michael Clemens calls “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”
Or do we? An old saying warns, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Far lower levels of immigration already inspire vocal complaints. After presenting my basic case in Open Borders, I strive to evaluate all the common (and many not-so-common) objections to immigration. My bottom line: While open borders are undeniably unpopular, they deserve to be popular. Like every social change, immigration has downsides. Yet when we patiently quantify the downsides, the trillions of dollars of gains of open borders dwarf any credible estimate of the harms.
The simplest objection to open borders is logistical: Even the largest countries cannot absorb hundreds of millions of immigrants overnight. True enough, but no reasonable person expects hundreds of millions to come overnight, either. Instead, immigration usually begins slowly and then snowballs. Puerto Ricans have been legally allowed to move to the United States since 1904, but it took almost a century before Puerto Ricans in the United States came to outnumber the population left on the island. Wasn’t the European migration crisis an unmanageable flood of humanity? Hardly. Despite media outcry, total arrivals from 2014 to 2018 came to less than 1 percent of the population of the European Union. Many European countries—most notably West Germany during the Cold War—have swiftly absorbed much larger inflows in the past.
The standard explanation for these asymmetric public reactions is that resistance to immigration is primarily cultural and political, not economic or logistical. While West Germans welcomed millions of East German migrants, a much lower dose of Middle Eastern and African migration has made the whole EU shiver. Aren’t economists who dwell on economic gains just missing the point?
Yes and no. As a matter of political psychology, cultural and political arguments against immigration are indeed persuasive and influential. That does not show, however, that these arguments are correct or decisive. Does immigration really have the negative cultural and political effects critics decry? Even if it did, are there cheaper and more humane remedies than immigration restriction? In any case, what is a prudent price tag to put on these cultural and political effects?
Let’s start with readily measurable cultural and political effects. In the United States, the most common cultural complaint is probably that—in contrast to the days of Ellis Island—today’s immigrants fail to learn English. The real story, though, is that few first-generation immigrants have ever become fluent in adulthood; it’s just too hard. German and Dutch immigrants in the 19th century maintained their stubborn accents and linguistic isolation all their lives; New York’s Yiddish newspapers were a fixture for decades. For their sons and daughters, however, acquiring fluency is child’s play—even for groups like Asians and Hispanics that are often accused of not learning English.
Native-born citizens also frequently worry that immigrants, supposedly lacking Western culture’s deep respect for law and order, will be criminally inclined. At least in the United States, however, this is the reverse of the truth. The incarceration rate of the foreign-born is about a third less than that of the native-born.
What about the greatest crime of all—terrorism? In the United States, non-citizens have indeed committed 88 percent of all terrorist murders. When you think statistically, however, this is 88 percent of a tiny sum. In an average year from 1975 to 2017, terrorists murdered fewer than a hundred people on U.S. soil per year. Less than 1 percent of all deaths are murders, and less than 1 percent of all murders are terrorism-related. Worrying about terrorism really is comparable to worrying about lightning strikes. After you take a few common-sense precautions—do not draw a sword during a thunderstorm—you should just focus on living your life.
The most cogent objection to immigration, though, is that productivity depends on politics—and politics depend on immigration. Native-born citizens of developed countries have a long track record of voting for the policies that made their industries thrive and their countries rich. Who knows how vast numbers of new immigrants would vote? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect people from dysfunctional polities to bring dysfunctional politics with them?
These are fine questions, but the answers are not alarming. At least in the United States, the main political division between the native- and foreign-born is engagement. Even immigrants legally able to vote are markedly less likely than native-born citizens to exercise this right. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, for example, 72 percent of eligible native-born citizens voted versus just 48 percent of eligible immigrants. Wherever they politically stand, then, immigrants’ opinions are relatively inert.
In any case, immigrants’ political opinions don’t actually stand out. On average, they’re a little more economically liberal and a little more socially conservative, and that’s about it. Yes, low-skilled immigrants’ economic liberalism and social conservatism are more pronounced, but their turnout is low; in 2012, only 27 percent of those eligible to vote opted to do so. So while it would not be alarmist to think that immigration will slightly tilt policy in an economically liberal, socially conservative direction, warning that “immigrants will vote to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” is paranoid.
Note, moreover, that free immigration hardly implies automatic citizenship. Welcoming would-be migrants is a clear-cut blessing for them and the world. Granting citizenship is more of a mixed bag. While I am personally happy to have new citizens, I often dwell on the strange fact that the Persian Gulf monarchies are more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of people in Kuwait—and 88 percent in the United Arab Emirates—are foreign-born. Why do the native-born tolerate this? Probably because the Gulf monarchies generously share their oil wealth with citizens—and jealously protect the value of citizenship by making naturalization almost impossible. You do not have to ignore the Gulf monarchies’ occasional mistreatment of immigrants to realize that it is much better to welcome immigrants with conditions than to refuse to admit them at all. Migrants—mostly from much poorer parts of the Islamic world—accept this deal, however unfair, exactly because they can still do far better in the Gulf than at home.
In Open Borders, I have the space to address many more concerns about immigration in more detail. What I can’t do, I confess, is address the unmeasured and the unmeasurable. In real life, however, everyone routinely copes with ambiguous dangers—“unknown unknowns.” How do we cope?
For starters, we remember Chicken Little. When people’s warnings about measured dangers turn out to be wrong or overstated, we rightly discount their warnings about unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers. This is how I see mainstream critics of immigration. Their grasp of the basic facts, especially their neglect of the tremendous gains of moving labor from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries, is too weak to take their so-called vision seriously.
Our other response to unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers, however, is to fall back on existing moral presumptions. Until same-sex marriage was legalized in certain countries, for example, how were we supposed to know its long-term social effects? The honest answer is, “We couldn’t.” But in the absence of strong evidence that these overall social effects would be very bad, a lot of us have now decided to respect individuals’ right to marry whom they like.
This is ultimately how I see the case for open borders. Denying human beings the right to rent an apartment from a willing landlord or accept a job offer from a willing employer is a serious harm. How much would someone have to pay the average American to spend the rest of his or her life in Haiti or Syria? To morally justify such harm, we need a clear and present danger, not gloomy speculation. Yet when we patiently and calmly study immigration, the main thing we observe is: people moving from places where their talent goes to waste to places where they can realize their potential. What we see, in short, is immigrants enriching themselves by enriching the world.
Do I seriously think I am going to convert people to open borders with a short article—or even a full book? No. My immediate goal is more modest: I’d like to convince you that open borders aren’t crazy. While we take draconian regulation of migration for granted, the central goal of this regulation is to trap valuable labor in unproductive regions of the world. This sounds cruel and misguided. Shouldn’t we at least double-check our work to make sure we’re not missing a massive opportunity for ourselves and humanity?
Today’s immigrant voters are heavily Democratic, but ’twas not always so. As Open Borders explains, immigrants were almost evenly split during the Reagan era. It’s not hard to see why. At least rhetorically, Reagan nearly endorsed open borders:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
What changed? The Republicans I know focus on immigrants’ changing national origin. When you look at the data, however, Republicans have lost favor among immigrants around the world. European immigrants are Democratic. So are Indian-Americans – the richest and most socially conservative ethnicity in the country.
What gives? I say there’s been a vicious feedback loop. Once Reagan left the stage, Republicans started feeling more negative about immigrants, which made immigrants more negative about Republicans, which made Republicans more negative about immigrants, which made immigrants more negative about Republicans. And so on and so on.
You could say, “Tragic, but Republicans are stuck. If they don’t keep out immigrants, their party will perish.” Yet common decency aside, the path of exclusion has worked poorly. A vocally anti-immigrant Republican president has totally failed to permanently rewrite immigration law. Even if he gets reelected, Trump will soon be a lame duck.
What’s the alternative? Lose the American’t attitude that “Immigrants hate Republicans – and there’s nothing Republicans can do about it.” Massive partisan realignments really do happen; look what happened to white Catholics over the last fifty years. Or to be more more precise, partisan realignments don’t “happen”; rather they come to fruition. The secret: Far-sighted statesmanship. Start magnanimously showing respect to people who don’t yet vote for you. Search for common ground, and accentuate the positive. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. And always shuck your tamales.
P.S. Some readers object to the Reagan cartoon’s implied comparison between the Berlin Wall and immigration barriers. There’s a world of difference between keeping people in and keeping people out, right? For private property, yes. For countries, however, the distinction between “keeping people in” and “keeping people out” is far more complicated than it looks:
Suppose, for example, that the East German government closed its airspace to Western aviation and used the Berlin Wall to prevent anyone from leaving the surrounded city of West Berlin. Honecker could have even told his citizens, “You’re free to move to West Berlin, but since we’ve got it surrounded, don’t expect to enjoy too many Western luxuries.” Despite his oppressive intent, Honecker would, grammatically speaking, be keeping West Berliners out of East Germany, not holding East Germans in East Germany.
To make the hypothetical even starker: Imagine the East Germany government legally granted independence to a one-mile strip of land along its entire border. Call it Mauerland. All of the citizens of Mauerland are former officers of the East German border guard; their country is just one big, deadly wall. East Germany then abolishes all laws against emigration; everyone is free to leave. Unfortunately, the sovereign state of Mauerland refuses to grant visas or overflight permission to anyone without the East Germans’ approval. When challenged, they say, “Mauerland, like the United States, has every right to keep foreigners out. You keep out Mexicans. We keep out East Germans.”
I don’t understand the desire to have governments take complete control of guns.
Familiarity with history and human nature unequivocally demonstrate just how ominous this is. The enslavement, oppression, torture, genocide, forced starvation, concentration camps, and wholesale mass murder wrought by governments on unarmed citizens utterly dwarf by orders of magnitude harms, crimes, and accidents done by armed citizens to one another throughout history. Armies of one government slaughtering helpless individuals living under another in war. Armies of governments slaughtering helpless unarmed citizens of their own. These account for hundreds of millions of deaths and far more in suffering the last century alone. It is the greatest human tragedy in history and always has been.
Complete government control of guns leads to an incredibly obvious and horrific lopsided condition: the worst, most dangerous people gain a tremendous physical power advantage over every decent person. Unchecked governments, organized crime, and unorganized thugs get all the guns. They will always find a way. Good people have nothing. To enact a policy that concentrates all physical power in the hands of all the bad people and takes any defense away from the good people is suicidal. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this as a good idea given human history.
The freedom for individuals to access and own weapons is on a very real level the most fundamental freedom of all and the final backstop against all of the worst horrors of human mobs.
In Forty Autumns, author Nina Willner tells a beautiful family history of life in a family divided by the wall between East and West Germany.
Particularly interesting were the coping tactics of her family in the totalitarian socialist East Germany. Her grandmother watched as this family weathered the arrival of the Soviets and the rapid transformation of East Germany into a surveillance prison state.
Neighbors were forced to spy on neighbors. And worst of all, children were trained to report on their own fathers and mothers. As a physical reminder of East Germans’ imprisonment, a border wall went up to keep citizens from escaping to the free West – best remembered in the form of the Berlin Wall.
In the face of this walled society, the family’s matriarch Oma begins guiding her family in building what she called a “family wall”: whatever politics might have prevailed outside, they weren’t allowed in the family. Even though Oma’s children were pushed through the Soviet-influenced youth programs and teacher training, within the Willner family itself there was none of the mutual distrust and betrayal and fear that hummed in the background of East German life.
Oma and her family put family – and doing the right thing – first, and it kept them sane and united until at last Germany reunited in relative freedom.
We can learn something from the Willners about surviving and resisting totalitarianism.
Organization is an important tactic for resisting totalitarianism, and the family is both the smallest and easiest group in which to organize resistance – even if that resistance is only psychological and internal. “A cord of three strands is not easily broken,” as the proverb says. It’s no wonder that family is always one of the first institutions to come under attack by those who would take power.
So it’s worth considering how to cultivate deep trust with those closest to you, even under better circumstances than those in East Germany. If you know you can trust a few people to put your wellbeing above ideology, above politics, and above even fear of an all-powerful state, you are better off than a great many people.