Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986
A large portion of what we today regard as the Gun Control Act of 1968 — and virtually all of its safeguards and protections — derives, not from the legislation of 1968, but from the amendments known as the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, pushed in the House by Rep. Harold Volkmer, and in the Senate by Sen. James McClure. That statute extensively rewrote the earlier law, expressly overruled six Supreme Court decisions construing it, and negated about a third of the case law which had arisen under it. For an extensive discussion of the statute, see my article, The Firearm Owners’ Protection Act: A Historical and Legal Analysis, 17 Cumb. L. Rev. 585 (1986), online here.
But researching FOPA’s legislative history is incredibly difficult. The usual first resort — U.S. Code, Congressional, and Administrative News — is utterly deficient. It informs the reader that there was no Senate committee report on the legislation, when in fact there were two. It then reprints a House Judiciary report on it. But it is immediately apparent that that report does not explain the legislation that was passed. It explains a bill with different features, and indeed criticizes rather than explains features of the bill that did pass. As a further paradox, one section of present law — 18 U.S.C. 926A — has language differing somewhat from that in the bill as passed by House and Senate.
The purpose here is to put online, in keyword-searchable form, digitized versions of the key moments in FOPA’s legislative history which explain how all this came about. Wherever possible, the keyword-searchable file will be accompanied by a pdf scanned version of the original document, in case the latter is needed as an exhibit. You can access each entry from the menu above, or the links below.
Background: Congressional hearings.
First, the hearings. The Congressional hearings into problems with the extant Gun Control Act span seven years, and scanning them all in would be an impossible task. However, a 1982 report of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Senate Judiciary Committee does an excellent job of summing up the abuses documented in the hearings, and how FOPA would address them. See it in searchable text or as a Pdf scan. The practices documented were also referenced in the floor debates.
Senate Judiciary Committee Reports
Next, the Senate Reports. There were two such — you have to know the trick to find them. There were reports on S.1030 in the 97th Congress (a report which particularly details the various changes made in the bill) and on S.914 in the 98th Congress.
But in both Congresses, the Senate leadership balked at calling up the bill for a vote. In the 98th Congress, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim McClure, countered by attaching it to a vital appropriations bill, and a majority of the Senate accepted the addition.
An arrangement was negotiated whereby McClure would withdraw the appropriations amendment in exchange for the bill being “held at the chair” (that is, able to be voted upon, and not requiring re-introduction and committee consideration) in the 99th Congress. Thus while the bill was not reported on by committee in the Senate that passed it, its meaning and purposes were explained in some detail by the reports on S.1030 and S.914. In the 99th Congress, the bill was numbered as S.49.
The Senate Floor Debates
The Senate floor debates came on July 9, 1985, and ended with S.49 passing by a vote of 79-15. The floor debates are too lengthy for a pdf scan, but are here available in searchable text.
The House Judiciary Committee Report
The House leadership counted on bottling up the bill in Judiciary Committee. Rep. Volkmer countered with a discharge petition, to discharge that committee from consideration of the bill. These are difficult to win today, and nearly impossible under the rules back then, but it became apparent that the petition was going to succeed.
At that point the leadership had Judiciary report out a very watered-down version of the bill, numbered as H.R. 4332. The Report which accompanied it described H.R. 4332 as it read when it left Judiciary Committee. The Committee report is here in searchable text, and here in pdf scan (warning: 15 megs. I omitted a couple of pages listing the hearings, and inadvertently omitted p. 13). The House Report is useful in that it describes S. 49 and why the Committee proposed adopting a few of its features and rejecting the rest. Again, this Report describes a bill which was not adopted.
The House Floor Debates
The House floor debates began on April 9, 1986 and extended into the following day. After long debate, Rep. Volkmer won a “strike all” amendment to H.R. 4332. This struck all of it but its number and “be it enacted” clause, and substituted the language of his bill. The House then passed the amended bill, after adding on the present 18 U.S.C. 922(o). The floor debates are too lengthy to present in pdf scan, and are given in searchable text.
As noted above, the House Judiciary Committee Report described H.R. 4332 as it left the committee, and treated the Volkmer bill as its rival. But 4332 as it passed the House was the Volkmer bill, resulting in a report that is at odds with the legislation it appears to explain.
Senate Consideration of the House Bill and Passage of S.2414
On May 6, 1986, the Senate briefly debated and then concurred in the House bill. It then passed S.2414, which modified the provision creating 18 U.S.C. 926A, relating to interstate transportation of firearms. These debates are here available in searchable text. A portion (containing useful charts comparing then-present law, and the House and Senate versions of FOPA) is here in pdf.
S.2414’s main change was to the provision creating 18 U.S.C. 926A, which protected interstate travelers whose journey took them through States with tighter gun restrictions. As originally passed by Congress, 926A would have read:
“Any person not prohibited by this chapter from transporting, shipping, or receiving a firearm shall be entitled to transport an unloaded, not readily accessible firearm in interstate commerce notwithstanding any provision of any legislation enacted, or any rule or regulation promulgated by an State or political subdivision thereof.”
S.2414 lengthened this and made it more specific:
“Notwithstanding any other provision of any law or any rule or regulation of a State or any political subdivision thereof, any person who is not otherwise prohibited by this chapter from transporting, shipping, or receiving a firearm shall be entitled to transport a firearm for any lawful purpose from any place where he may lawfully possess and carry such firearm to any other place where he may lawfully possess and carry such firearms if, during such transportation the firearm is unloaded, and neither the firearm nor any ammunition being transported is readily accessible or is directly accessible from the passenger compartment of such transporting vehicle, provided that in the case of a vehicle without a compartment separate from the driver’s compartment the firearm or ammunition shall be contained in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console.”
The Senate later realized an anomaly: Section 926A’s effective date was six months after FOPA was signed into law, presumably to ensure State authorities had time to adapt. But S.2414, replacing it, had no such delayed effective date.
So on June 24 the Senate passed Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 152, giving S.2414 the same effective date as the legislation it replaced. The brief debates did have some legislative history relating to the intent behind S.2414, and are here available in searchable text and in pdf.