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Gun-control advocates pushed back a tough year at the state level, and they’ll take the win

By all accounts, this should have been a terrible year for gun-control advocates. A president who unabashedly supports gun rights took office, and the National Rifle Association spent tens of millions to help elect him. Republicans are also in control of both branches of Congress and a majority of state elected offices.

But as state legislative sessions wrap up across the country, gun-control advocates are breathing a sigh of relief. It was a tough six months in the sense that they were on the defensive across the country, but they also say they played defense extremely well.

And advocates say being able to stop gun rights bills before they become law is a marker that their still-nascent movement can go up against the fully formed pro-gun movement — and win.

"2017 marked a year where we held our ground,” said Laura Cutilletta, senior attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “and then some.”

The Law Center recently merged with Americans for Responsible Solutions (founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head in 2011 while meeting with constituents). And they put together a report touting their successes in state legislatures:

  • Legislatures in 20 states rejected bills to allow guns in public without a permit, including in red states such as Arkansas and Oklahoma.
  • Legislatures in 17 states rejected bills to allow guns in schools, including in red states such as Alabama and Kentucky. Thirteen of those were bills to allow guns on college campuses.
  • They defeated proposals in Iowa and Nebraska to repeal state laws requiring background checks for private sales.
  • They defeated an effort to undo universal background checks in Washington state, which in 2014 became the first state in modern times to require background checks for all gun sales.
  • They defeated an Arizona bill that would have required businesses that prohibit guns to be liable for any damages caused by a shooting on their premise.

There weren't any flashy wins for gun-control advocates like they had in 2016, when voters in three out of four states voted to expand background checks. But Washington and Hawaii did pass legislation that alerts police when a felon or domestic abuser tries to buy a gun and fails a background check.

And red states such as Utah, North Dakota and Tennessee passed laws making it more difficult for people at risk of suicide or committing domestic violence crimes from getting guns.

In fact, in total, five Republican governors signed bills making it more difficult for people convicted of domestic violence to get guns.

The legislative season isn't entirely done yet, and gun-control advocates are trying to notch two more major victories. New York and California are still debating two headline gun-control bills to make it illegal for people convicted of hate crimes from possessing firearms.

"When you look at what's happening in statehouses across the country, the gun safety movement is winning," said John Feinblatt, president of the Michael Bloomberg-founded group Everytown for Gun Safety.

The NRA disputes the characterization that it lost battles at the state level. Sixty bills the gun rights group supported in 2017 are now law, and just three it officially didn't support got signed into law. Among the NRA victories: Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia significantly eliminated gun-free zones in public buildings and parks.

And in New Mexico, where people can legally carry guns anywhere in the state capitol, gun-control advocates failed to get a newly Democrat-controlled legislature to pass legislation that would require private gun sales to go through background checks.

“I think the best way to look at this is, what actually went into law this year?” said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker. “More and more law-abiding Americans are carrying firearms for self-protection, and the trend in state legislatures is to expand the ability of those law-abiding citizens to more freely exercise their right outside, wherever they may be.”

The NRA, which has been a dominant force in gun politics for decades, is also heavily invested reversing gun-control measures that have recently become law. On Thursday, a federal judge in California temporarily paused new legislation that makes it illegal for people to hold onto ammunition magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. The NRA is leading the lawsuit against the high-capacity magazine ban.

Unlike the NRA, which dates back to 1871 and began directly lobbying in 1975, gun-control groups really have only held national prominence for the past few years — since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

That history of lobbying is reflected in what the gun-control side defines as success. State legislatures have passed so many pieces of gun rights legislation over the decades, in some states all that's left to debate is whether to allow guns in places such as day-care facilities and hospitals. Gun-control groups find themselves playing whack-a-mole in dozens of legislatures across the country, which doesn't leave as much time to advance their agenda.

Still, gun-control advocates maintain that they are slowly and surely cultivating public opinion.

A new Quinnipiac University poll finds that a majority of Americans in every age group support stricter gun laws.

Background checks are universally popular no matter which way you slice the data, and a majority of people think more guns would make the nations less safe. (Notable: This poll was taken after a man with a rifle fired bullets at unarmed Republican members of Congress playing baseball.)

But a good year so far for gun-control advocates could quickly turn into a bad one.

Congress may soon consider two proposals that could drastically change the way guns are regulated and policed: One would require states to recognize other states' conceal carry permits and another would deregulate gun silencers, a relatively new policy and top NRA priority that gun-control advocates fear would make it more difficult for people to run to safety during a shooting.

Gun-control advocates acknowledge that judging victories mostly by how much gun rights legislation they stop isn't a traditional way to score wins. But right now, those are the victories they've got, and those are the victories they'll take.

“As we go through every year, we learn what resonates and what's effective,” said Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs for Americans for Responsible Solutions. “We're getting better and better.”