Thirty years ago, the federal government identified automatic weapons for their unique ability to carry out mass casualty attacks and regulated them differently from other weapons, said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “As a result, [they haven’t] been used. Now there’s an exception to that.”
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There are currently some 300 million firearms in the United States, though estimates vary. It’s legal, generally speaking, to purchase three types of guns: handguns, shotguns, and rifles. Federal law requires background checks for any transfer of a firearm between federally licensed dealers, but sales between private individuals don’t carry a federal requirement for such checks, although some states impose restrictions. Webster described it as “literally no questions asked.”
If you’re 18 years old, in most states, and aren’t otherwise barred from gun ownership, you can legally purchase a firearm from a gun show or from a seller on the internet. Eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, have a mechanism to regulate that transaction with a background check, such as a licensing or permitting system. It’s most difficult to buy a gun in states like New Jersey and Massachusetts, Webster told me, and easiest to purchase one in places like Montana and Wyoming.
For 10 years, the United States prohibited the manufacture of certain semi-automatic weapons it deemed “assault weapons,” like the AR-15 and AK-47 rifles. But that law expired in 2004. According to The New York Times, most of the firearms used in the 16 most recent mass shootings in the United States were purchased legally and with a federal background check.