Opinion: The reality of gun violence in the US is bleak, but history shows it's not hopeless

Gun control is possible, writes Julian Zelizer. History shows that lawmakers have been capable of taking significant steps to strengthen the regulation of guns at the federal and state levels.

Opinion: The reality of gun violence in the US is bleak, but history shows it's not hopeless

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a CNN political expert and a Princeton University professor of history. He has written and edited 25 books including a New York Times bestseller, "Myth America: Historians take on the biggest lies and legends about our past" (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @URL_. This commentary is his opinion. CNN has more opinions.


Many Americans are haunted or afraid by gun violence because of the wide availability of guns and the mass shootings which occur every year.

The reality is that Washington's partisanship makes it difficult to address the gun control issue.

The gun industry took advantage of the massive commercial opportunities that arose after the federal assault weapon ban expired in 2004 to increase sales of assault weapons in the AR-15 style. Since the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004, the gun industry has seized on massive commercial opportunities to expand sales of AR-15-style assault weapons.

Many Republican legislators have refused to take common-sense measures to limit the purchase of some of these guns by citizens, instead bending to the gun lobby or segments of the electorate that consider these weapons sacred.

Some Republicans want to make the purchase of guns easier. In North Carolina, just days after the shooting of six people in an elementary-school in Nashville, Tennessee (including three children), state legislators overrode Governor's veto to make it legal to buy a gun without a permit.

Ron DeSantis visited a gun shop in Cobb County, Georgia on Thursday, as part of his book-tour.

Americans cannot afford to give in to despair and hopelessness over this issue, despite these tone deaf and counterproductive actions.

We must reject any notion that it is impossible to pass legislation. It's not.

The history shows that legislators have the ability to take significant steps in order to improve gun regulation and pass legislation on a federal and state level.

The Mailing of Firearms Act of 1927, also known by the name of the Miller Act of 1927, banned Americans from sending concealed firearms through the US Postal Service. Rep. John F. Miller from Washington took action, and a grass-roots campaign gained widespread support. The law, which was only limited in scope - people could still send firearms legally through private mail carriers - marked a major breakthrough in federal legislation efforts.

In 1934, the National Firearms Act passed after criminals of Prohibition era adopted the 'Tommy Gun', one of the world's first fully automatic and portable firearms. The law placed heavy taxes and regulations on certain firearms such as machine guns and sawed off shotguns. The government has also created a national registry for keeping track of all sales.

Four years later Congress passed the Federal Firearms Act of 1939. Interstate gun dealers had to get licenses and keep customer records. The law prohibited the sale of guns to certain Americans including those convicted of felonies. Even the president of the National Rifle Association, (NRA), supported the bill. Karl T. Fredrick said in a testimony before Congress that he had never been a supporter of the practice of carrying guns. I do not support the practice of carrying guns around in a promiscuous manner. I believe it should be severely restricted and only available under license.

After the 1968 assassinations by Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., more modern regulations were implemented. The Gun Control Act of 1988 expanded rules for selling and importing guns, prohibited some individuals from owning firearms (such as felons), and set a minimum age to buy a handgun of 21. Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States at the time of signing the law, said that the government could help protect citizens from the random violence and recklessness of crimes committed with guns.

Let's also not forget that modern Republican presidents have also agreed to stricter federal controls. Ronald Reagan, who survived an attempted assassination in 1981, signed the Undetectable Weapons Act of 1988, which made it illegal to manufacture, import or sell firearms that cannot be detected with a metal detector.

George H. W. Bush, president of the United States, signed the Crime Control Act in 1990. The Democrat-controlled Congress passed the act to tighten restrictions on semiautomatic weapons. Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law three years later. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was named in honor of Reagan's press secretary James Brady, who was severely injured during the assassination plot. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act imposed a waiting period of five days for the purchase of handguns, and required federally-licensed dealers to conduct background checks on anyone purchasing a gun.

Congress passed the federal ban in 1994 on certain semi-automatic weapons. Former presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, as well as Jimmy Carter, all backed the bill. In a letter sent to House members, they said that the issue was of vital importance for the public's safety. While we acknowledge that assault weapons legislation will not prevent all assault weapon crimes, statistics show that we can reduce the availability of these guns and make them less available to criminals. The law, which was passed after a series horrendous shootings took place, wasn't perfect. The law had loopholes because it did not prohibit all semiautomatic guns and there was a sunset provision for 10 years.

Numerous studies show that the assault weapon ban was a success during the 10 year period it was in place.

Since then, there have been several federal laws, such as the Bipartisan Safer Community Act of 2022, which increased funding for mental health programs and school security, and introduced new background checks, sales bans, and crisis intervention programs.

Several states have taken the initiative. California, New York Illinois Maryland and Colorado will be among the states to take more stringent measures in 2022.

There's still a lot of work to do. Many of the laws that were passed over the past few decades had serious flaws. Some provisions were removed, and others weakened because gun manufacturers and buyers found ways to get around them.

The gun lobby, and the manufacturing industry, still dominate despite recent weakened. Many legal experts argue that the founders never intended for guns to be freely available. However, they continue to use the Second Amendment as a weapon against any new gun regulation. The Republican Party is fully aligned with a wide interpretation of the Second Amendment, and this could be a sign that the partisan divide is growing. In the midterm elections in 2022, the NRA gave no high ranking to any Democratic candidate for the first time in 25 years.

The filibustering in the Senate has prevented Democrats from implementing key measures, which experts agree are needed to effectively tackle this crisis. Presidents like Barack Obama have been forced to take executive action.

It will take unrelenting political pressure to break the gridlock. The majority of Americans must be heard by members of Congress who support tighter gun controls. Every election cycle this issue must be raised, and candidates forced to state their positions on the weapons used in mass shootings.

Parkland, Florida students who survived a 2018 school shooting set the standard for such action. The student organized rallies, protests, and rallies across the nation, as well as leveraging media attention, to keep this issue at the forefront.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the urgent need to act now during the 1963 March on Washington. He said, "We are here to remind America about the urgent urgency of right now." This was while standing before the Lincoln Memorial. This is not the time to indulge in the luxury to cool off or take the tranquilizing drugs of gradualism. It is time to fulfill the promises made by democracy. While King spoke about racial injustice, his message is still relevant today in regards to gun control.

Gun violence is causing a growing trauma in the country. Mass shootings continue to occur at an alarming pace. Children are subjected to active shooter exercises and have a very real fear of a mass shooting in their school. Guns now outnumber car accidents as the number one cause of death among US children and teenagers.