At the signing of the U.S. Gun Control Act on Oct. 22, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson hailed the bill as the first step in disarming “the criminal, and the careless, and the insane.”
Johnson, while praising the regulatory checks the law created, acknowledged that the legislation’s language fell short of his original vision, which would have required gun carriers to be licensed and would have established a national registration for guns — would-be regulations that remain controversial today.
Despite the Texas Democrat’s cautious optimism, passage of the landmark Gun Control Act of 1968 triggered a decades-long, ongoing culture war, with interpretations of Second Amendment personal liberties pit against gun control advocates’ calls for increased public safety.
“The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby, that has prevailed for the moment in an election year,” Johnson said at the time.
Now, 50 years later, on the threshold of another U.S. election, gun policy still ranks among Americans’ most pressing voting issues, according to recent public opinion polls.
What came before
While not the first U.S. federal gun regulation, the 1968 Gun Control Act was the most comprehensive gun control law of its time.
The law’s most notable predecessor, the 1934 National Firearms Act, was written with the intent of curbing the “gangland crimes” that had plagued the Prohibition Era.
What the 1968 Gun Control Act actually did
The 1968 law was passed in response to a spate of high-profile political assassinations of figures including President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a string of violent race riots in 1967.
“You can boil the whole ‘68 law into one sentence: The purpose of the law was to keep guns away from prohibited people,” said Howard Wolfe, firearms and explosives consultant at Prince Law Offices in Pennsylvania. Wolfe spent 36 years at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a branch of the U.S. Justice Department.
Prohibited persons under the law included minors, those who had been “adjudicated as… mental defective(s),” undocumented immigrants, users of illegal drugs and fugitives from justice.
The law also imposed a licensing requirement on firearm sellers and manufacturers and aimed to eliminate interstate traffic of guns and ammunition. The law’s enforcement fell to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, a precursor to the ATF.
What’s stayed the same
Much of the law’s original spirit has remained intact: There are still age restrictions on who can purchase firearms, people who have been involuntarily committed to mental hospitals are not legally permitted to buy guns, and restrictions remain on certain groups from purchasing guns from federally licensed sellers.
Building on the 1968 law, both gun control advocates and gun rights activists have won a number of key legislative battles, highlighting the tenuous back and forth of U.S. gun policy.
What’s changed: Background Checks
In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which requires a federal background check on U.S. firearm purchases.
“What the Brady Bill did was contemplate basically a database system that would make people who were selling guns, if they were licensed gun dealers, check to ensure that the purchaser was not in one of those categories that was set up in the 1968 Gun Control Act,” said Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
However, certain loopholes remain.
A 1986 law called the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, championed at the time by the National Rifle Association, significantly weakened federal oversight over gun sellers, including a provision that does not require hobby sellers to have a federal firearms license.
These private sellers are not required to run background checks on purchasers.
“And that’s one of the big gaps that we have today,” Gardiner said.
“We estimate that one in five guns is sold today without any background check at all because of that gap under federal law.”
When voters go to the polls on Nov. 6 to weigh in on races for the next term of the House of Representatives, 35 seats in the Senate and dozens of gubernatorial races, some 68 percent of Americans say gun policy is “very important” to their votes.
President Johnson’s signaling to the bill’s shortfalls still rings true for modern proponents of tighter gun restrictions, even as gun rights activists complain that current laws too often curtail lawful gun owners’ freedoms.