In the states, renewed gun debate hasn’t produced many results

September 17, 2013
Colorado state Sen. John Morse (D) pushed gun control legislation -- and lost his seat in a recall election (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
Colorado state Sen. John Morse (D) pushed gun control legislation — and lost his seat in a recall election (David Zalubowski/AP)

Nine months after the horrific mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., advocates of stricter gun-control measures have had little luck in state legislatures across the country. In fact, if the gun debate is reignited after 12 people were killed Monday at the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, it will take place in a country with fewer restrictions on firearms than were in place a year ago.

Gun-control advocates had hoped to pass new legislation in states where Democrats control the legislature and governor’s office. But only a handful of blue states — New York, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Delaware and Maryland — advanced substantive new laws.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation that would ban the sale of assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips while closing the so-called gun show loophole. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed a bill in May to require gun purchasers to provide fingerprints and take training courses to obtain a license to buy a gun. Earlier this month, the California legislature passed legislation limiting sales of semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines and expanding the list of crimes that would prevent someone from owning a gun for 10 years. Connecticut added 100 weapons to its list of banned firearms and restricted high-capacity magazines.

In Illinois and Delaware, new rules requiring background checks for private gun sales went into effect this year. And a small handful of Republican states passed laws this year to expand bans on gun possession by the mentally ill or by those convicted of drug-related crimes.

“What every successful effort has in common is the voice of the American public is heard and elected officials are acting with accountability to the people that put them in office,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

But gun-rights advocates have pushed new laws in about half the states to relax restrictions on concealed-carry laws. Legislators in Kansas and Missouri passed laws that would nullify federal gun legislation, though Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) vetoed his state’s version. And in Illinois, the only state that didn’t allow residents to carry concealed weapons, legislators overrode Gov. Pat Quinn’s (D) veto of a new concealed-carry law after a federal court order.

A new Alaska law prohibits state and municipal agencies from implementing new laws that would infringe on the Second Amendment and exempts some firearms from federal regulation. Several Arkansas laws expanded concealed-carry rules in liquor stores and churches (North Dakota concealed-carry permit holders may now also possess a gun in church.) Nixon, the Missouri Democrat, signed a bill to allow state employees to keep firearms in their vehicles on state property. Mississippi enacted a law that would extend concealed-carry permits to those between the ages of 18 and 21.

And several states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, passed laws that loosen restrictions on guns carried by school safety officials, steps similar to those prescribed by National Rifle Association officials in the wake of the Newtown shooting.

At a local level, more than three dozen county and city governments have revised bans on guns in certain public places at the behest of the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun-rights organization based in Washington State.

Earlier this year, the city of Oak Harbor, Wash., overturned a ban on guns in city parks. Carroll County, Md., overturned a ban on carrying a firearm at county landfills. Other jurisdictions have backed off gun bans in public places that don’t conform to preexisting state rules.

“In the last several years, we’ve had a lot of state legislatures take a position that we think is pretty bright, that firearms legislation belongs in the hands of state legislatures, so that you have uniform firearms laws from one end of the state to the other,” said Dave Workman, a senior editor of TheGunMag.com and communications director at the Second Amendment Foundation.

“I think there have been more wins for firearms rights than for the gun control crowd. The wins for the gun control crowd, of course, they get higher notoriety with the press,” Workman said.

In the wake of the Newtown shootings, President Obama and congressional Democrats used national outrage to push a measure to tighten background checks at gun shows and in private sales, a modest proposal unlikely to significantly reduce the number of guns in criminal hands by any measure.

But the measure couldn’t reach cloture in the Senate, even with overwhelming public support, and Republican control of the House of Representatives would have stymied any gun control bill that passed without the backing of the National Rifle Association anyway.

In lieu of legislative action, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the administration has implemented executive actions “that were part of the president’s plan to take action to reduce gun violence.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a leading proponent of the background check legislation, said Monday’s shootings should lead to a renewed debate.

“This is one more event to add to the litany of massacres that occur when a deranged person or grievance killer is able to obtain multiple weapons — including a military-style assault rifle — and kill many people in a short amount of time,” Feinstein said in a statement Monday. “Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country. We must do more to stop this endless loss of life.”

But gun-rights advocates are promising consequences at the ballot box if gun control measures make it through state legislatures. Last week, two Colorado state senators who had voted for new gun control measures lost recall elections funded, at least in part, by the NRA.

“As we saw in Colorado last week, there’s a price to victory for the gun control crowd,” said Workman of the Second Amendment Foundation.

If gun-control advocates could see any silver lining in their losses in Colorado, it’s that a new set of allies with deep pockets is beginning to engage. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I) and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad both sent six-figure checks to help the two Democratic candidates. While the money ultimately went to a lost cause, the fact that gun-control advocates have money to spend in the first place represents a sea change.

“Clearly, there are significant new resources that are coming to this issue,” said Gross of the Brady Campaign. He cited Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Bloomberg’s group, and Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun-control organization spearheaded by shooting victim and  former representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). “We’re all working towards the main goals and creating a synergy among our organizations, and that does start to shift the balance around TV political advertisements, which the NRA previously had cornered the market on.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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