Four months after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers banned 115 types of semiautomatic firearms. Four months after the shooting of a congresswoman and a federal judge in Tucson, lawmakers in Arizona declared the Colt Single Action Army Revolver the official state gun.
The similarities in the attacks were striking: Both were carried out by heavily armed young men with histories of mental illness. But in the aftermath of the tragedies, the states took radically different approaches on gun violence.
The differences reflect the wide divide separating Americans from one end of the country to the other in which long-established gun cultures collide with efforts to restrict gun ownership. While Connecticut took extreme measures to muscle through one of the most comprehensive packages of gun laws in the country, Arizona legislators moved to make it easier to carry guns in public.
The two states have long stood apart on the issue of guns. Connecticut – a deep blue state dominated by suburban lawmakers – earns top ratings from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Arizona – a stronghold for conservative Republicans – is praised by Guns & Ammo Magazine.
Governors will be elected in both states this fall, though neither race is expected to change the gun debate.
In Arizona, where six pro-gun Republicans have crowded the GOP primary, little is likely to change. If anything, a new governor could mean approval for a controversial gun bill rejected by outgoing Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who is a member of the NRA. It would have allowed concealed carry permit-holders to carry guns in all public buildings that are not already protected by guards and metal detectors.
Connecticut will likely see a close rematch between its Democratic incumbent Dannel Malloy and his former GOP rival Tom Foley, who has courted gun owners but is not seen as a champion of their cause. Malloy, who was the first to inform many Sandy Hook parents that their children had died, has vowed to protect the state’s gun laws.
‘The Newtown moment’
In Connecticut, the push for gun laws was fueled by emotion after the Sandy Hook shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.
On Valentine’s Day exactly two months later, more than 5,500 gun-control supporters poured onto the lawn of the state Capitol building to demand action. Dozens of the state’s highest-ranking officials took the podium to support their cause, including Malloy.
“What are we going to do to protect our children now that they’re under open attack?” Malloy asked the crowd, prompting thunderous applause.
Inside, legislators sat in hours-long public hearings and heard chilling accounts of the 27 deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary. There were few doubts that there would be a major overhaul of the gun laws; some lawmakers called it “the Newtown moment.”
To speed up the process, the state’s top six lawmakers took an unprecedented step. Instead of leaning on committees and other members, they would write the law themselves.
“Everybody felt we had a higher obligation to the state, an obligation to the victim’s families,” House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said in an interview.
The final bill banned the Bushmaster XM15 rifle that Adam Lanza used to kill 26 children and educators at the school, the Saiga 12 shotgun that officers found in his car and the 30-round magazines that allowed him to fire 150 rounds into the first-grade classrooms.
It included millions of dollars in mental health and school security resources, but was largely geared toward curbing gun violence by restricting access to guns.
“If you were against gun control, this was kind of like your worst nightmare,” said Mike Lawlor, the governor’s criminal justice chief who also served 24 years as a state lawmaker.
Lawmakers – including 40 percent of Republicans – approved the bill just hours after seeing it for the first time.
‘Nothing will move forward’
In Arizona, it was the Arizona Citizens Defense League – the state’s largest Second Amendment support group – that demanded action after the Tucson shooting that left six dead, including a U.S. federal judge and a 6-year-old girl, and at least 13 more wounded.
It proposed one bill that would have used government-seized weapons to train members of Congress and their staff in self defense, which was named after wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her slain staffer Gabe Zimmerman.
That bill was never formally introduced, but more than 100 firearms-related bills have been proposed since 2011, a News21 analysis shows. Other efforts to ensure personal protection have gained more ground. The legislature has tried three times to require cities and towns to station armed guards outside every public building where guns are banned, though Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has rejected the approach as unfunded mandates for localities.
Charles Heller, co-founder of AZCDL, has led the push to limit what he calls “disarmed victims zones,” such as libraries and government offices. He believes buildings that ban guns will lure criminals.
“If I go lock up my gun in the lock box, the next thing you know the Tucson murderer or Connecticut murderer or Colorado murderer comes along here and looks at that sign and says, ‘Oh, fresh meat,’ ” Heller said. “Because he just watched an honest guy lock up his self defense.”
More than a half-dozen lawmakers have floated gun-control bills such as mandatory background checks at gun shows and a statewide high-caliber firearm registry. Nearly every one of those bills has failed.
However, this session, Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly passed a bill that increased the reporting of mental health records that Arizona submits to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Daniel Hernandez, who was an intern for Giffords when she was shot, is now working with the national advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. This year, he formed a coalition of about 40 gun violence prevention groups that met with the Arizona governor’s office, becoming the first gun control group to do so in 14 years.
“These are things where I think more and more Americans are waking up to what is happening,” Hernandez said. “We are having a movement that is growing every single day.”
Other Democrats are less optimistic that a change in gun policy will happen in the legislature.
“There’s no quote-unquote gun control bill that’s going to move forward in this body in the foreseeable future,” said Chad Campbell, the House Minority Leader who has sponsored multiple gun control bills. “Until this body changes, in terms of who’s elected, nothing will move forward down here.”
Mental health and guns
Both shootings raised issues of gun violence and mental illness.
Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed 28 people including himself, had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, extreme anxiety and sensory issues, but refused to take medications. Though he had been pulled out of classes in high school multiple times for his erratic behavior, he had not been violent, according to a year-long investigation by the state attorney.
Relatives and classmates described him as withdrawn, and he and his mother were communicating only through e-mail at the time of the shooting.
Jared Loughner, who was 22 when he shot 19 people outside a Tucson Safeway, had recently been suspended from Pima Community College after multiple run-ins with campus police. Teachers and classmates noted his strange behavior, including multiple tantrums during class relating to grades. Following his arrest, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia after being ordered to a mental health facility in Missouri.
In recent decades, the country’s deadliest mass shootings have spurred legislation that addresses mental illness and guns simultaneously, such as the NICS Reporting Improvement Act in both 2007 and 2013.
But many public health researchers argue that gun violence and mental health are two complicated – and mostly separate – issues. Most people with mental illnesses are not violent, and most people who commit gun crimes do not have mental illnesses, said Jeff Swanson, a medical sociologist at Duke University.
“We’re all concerned about mass shootings, but it’s kind of a weird prism through which to view this problem because people like Jared Loughner and Adam Lanza are not only very atypical perpetrators of gun violence, but they’re atypical of people with mental illness. But it’s why we’re having this conversation,” Swanson said.
Dueling calls to action
Charles and Alenda Calderbank, whose 6-year-old daughter survived the Sandy Hook shooting because her teacher locked the class in a bathroom, attended funerals for five days straight. Shortly after, the couple began writing letters and making phone calls to Hartford for tighter gun laws, though they continued to wrestle with what else could be done.
“You just go through so many cycles of, ‘Well, is it the guns? Is it violent video games? Is it being disconnected from society?’ It’s such a multifaceted issue, you can’t come up with one solution,” Alenda Calderbank said in an interview 18 months after the shooting.
Charles Calderbank said he tries to stay focused on being a good parent – something he said Lanza’s family should have done, too.
“The bottom line is that two parents were asleep at the switch with a troubled person in their house,” he said. “If you have an issue in your house, you need to address it.”
Seth Wilson, whose grandfather was killed in the Tucson shooting, said he continues to believe that gun control laws will not prevent these tragedies, but he supports measures such as background checks and waiting periods.
Wilson, who now lives in Oracle, Ariz., just 45 minutes away from where his grandfather was killed, said he grew up a gun owner and started hunting “before I was born.” But he said there are many children who now grow up with video games and toy guns who aren’t taught to take guns seriously.
“We have a huge society that is in denial about guns in America,” Wilson said. “Guns are not the problem. Education is the problem. How to use a weapon. When to use a weapon. And it’s not taught.”
The night after the shooting, Wilson said he had to decide whether he would hate Jared Loughner or forgive him.
“We decided not to hate because hate breeds hate,” Wilson said.
Boehm is a Hearst Foundations Fellow. “GUN WARS: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America,” was produced by Carnegie-Knight News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Brittany Elena Morris contributed to this report