Since the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre in February, gun-control advocates have said there is something different about the debate this year, an energy on the issue that is driving gun safety to the top of minds of suburban moms and younger, traditionally less engaged voters.
How, or if, that affects the November midterm elections is to be determined. But there is an early manifestation of this newfound political energy: Gun-control advocates had their best year in state legislatures in recent history.
Since the Florida shooting, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence counts 55 new gun-control laws passing in 26 states. That is far more success than they normally see, any way you measure it: in the number of laws, the variety of the laws passed and the bipartisan support a number of them had. Republican governors in 15 states signed bills gun-control advocates supported.
It is hard to overstate what a shift this is from last year, where gun-control groups were focused on trying to stop states from allowing guns in universities in churches. But after Americans lived through three of the deadliest mass shootings in its history, it was the pro-gun rights side that was on the defense in state legislatures in a way it has not been before.
“The politics have shifted dramatically,” said Robin Lloyd, the government affairs director at Giffords.
One of gun-control advocates' biggest wins of the year came in Vermont, the wild West of gun laws (there basically are not any).
This spring, Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a package of gun-control bills into law, including expanding background checks. And he specifically cited the recent spate of mass shootings as a reason.
" . . . [I]f we had not even tried to reduce the possibility of a tragedy here in Vermont like Parkland or Virginia Tech, Aurora, Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Dallas or Charleston … that would be hard to live with,” Scott told a group of gun rights supporters surrounding him at the State House in April, some shouting he was a traitor.
For the first time in recent history, an entirely Republican-controlled state passed a bill limiting the general population's access to guns. This was Florida, which approved a number of gun laws in response to the Parkland shooting.
After that, gun-control advocates saw a surprising number of states limit where people can carry their guns. Five states tightened where they can bring their concealed firearms. Meanwhile, 14 states — including Arkansas, Missouri and South Dakota — considered but ultimately decided not to expand where people can carry guns.
There was evidence lawmakers were reacting directly to mass shootings in the news as they passed legislation. Eight states banned bump stocks, an attachment used in the Las Vegas massacre in October that makes a semiautomatic weapon fire more like an illegal machine gun.
Two Republican-leaning states strengthened their background check systems. Louisiana and Tennessee now require a gun dealer to report to law enforcement when someone who is prohibited from buying a gun tries to do so anyway.
Oklahoma's Republican governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed people to carry a concealed firearm without a permit, and 10 other states also considered, but did not pass, a similar bill.
Gun-control advocates witnessed the most bipartisan enthusiasm for their cause when it came to restricting potentially dangerous people's access to guns. There were a spate of new laws allowing family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily take away someone's access if they think that person is imminently dangerous. Before 2018, only three states had such extreme risk protection orders available. Now, there are 11, including Illinois, Vermont and Florida.
But there is plenty of evidence the gun-rights lobby still has deep influence in state legislatures across the country.
It is sometimes hard to determine who is successful, since one side's wins are not necessarily the other side's losses. The National Rifle Association is not necessarily opposed to banning bump stocks or legislation keeping convicted domestic violence offenders from getting guns. In sheer numbers, the NRA says it still notched nearly as many victories as the gun-control side this state legislative session.
Many of the NRA's wins were tweaks to pro-gun laws already on the books. In fact, gun-rights advocates have been so successful over the past two decades at expanding where guns can go that today, all 50 states allow people to carry guns outside the home. Basically, gun rights are so woven in states' laws that there is just less and less the pro-gun side can do.
Also, in a year when the NRA has become so broadly unpopular that businesses like Delta and United Airlines, Dick's Sporting Goods and Walmart all cut their ties to the organization, the organization defeated moves in Delaware to ban semiautomatic weapons and in Washington to raise the age limit to purchase rifles to 21.
But when you step back and compare this state session to the way things have been for decades — tilted heavily in favor of expanding Americans' access to guns — gun-control advocates are cautiously claiming this year as a tipping point in support of more gun-control laws.
“Without a doubt the horror of what happened in Parkland has made a difference,” Lloyd, with the Giffords Center, said, “because there is this fear in communities across the country: Are we going to be next?”