The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion States cannot wait for Congress to act on guns

Students Nick Spad, 21, and Jayla Simon, 19, place flowers at The Rock at Michigan State University in East Lansing on Tuesday. (Nic Antaya for The Washington Post)
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Three Michigan State University students were murdered, and five wounded, in the second major shooting in that area in less than two years. For one student who survived the Sandy Hook massacre as a grade-schooler, this was the second high-profile shooting in which she was personally involved. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 2023 has already seen more than 70 mass shootings. No civilized society can permit such carnage and the lasting trauma it produces.

“I’m filled with rage that we have to have another press conference to talk about our children being killed in their schools,” declared Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), whose district includes both MSU and Oxford High School, where a 2021 shooting took the lives of four students. “I would say that you either care about protecting kids or you don’t. You either care about having an open, honest conversation about what is going on in our society or you don’t.”

Well, Republicans in Congress don’t, and so Americans should not expect legislation to protect them to come from Washington, despite President Biden’s statement expressing anguish and appropriately demanding common-sense gun reform.

Biden ticked off reforms "including requiring background checks on all gun sales, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, closing loopholes in our background-check system, requiring safe storage of guns, and eliminating immunity for gun manufacturers who knowingly put weapons of war on our streets.” But none of that is getting through Congress so long as Republicans control the House and have a filibuster-ready contingent in the Senate.

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That leaves the issue to the states, where Democrats must seize opportunities to make progress when they arise.

Democrats in the Michigan legislature had previously introduced almost three dozen bills to address gun violence, but all were blocked by Republicans. Now Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) enjoys narrow Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers. She reportedly will push for universal background checks, a safe-storage requirement and a red-flag law. (Is it too big an ask to try to actually ban semiautomatic weapons or restrict ammunition sales?)

State laws are no substitute for federal action. States have no real means of blocking people from bringing weapons across their borders. But state laws can still make a difference.

In a follow-up to its study showing that murder rates in red states (with generally lax gun laws) exceed those in blue ones, the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way found, “The murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Donald Trump has exceeded the murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Joe Biden in every year from 2000 to 2020.” Moreover, “over this 21-year span, this Red State murder gap has steadily widened."

And the rotten red-state record cannot be blamed on Democratic-run cities within them, Third Way reported. “Even when murders in the largest cities in red states are removed, overall murder rates in Trump-voting states were 12% higher than Biden-voting states across this 21-year period and were higher in 18 of the 21 years observed.”

Gun laws might not be the sole reason for the gap between red and blue state murder rates (many red states also lag blue states on measures of education, health care and economic mobility). However, it’s hard to deny there is some cause and effect.

The Rand Corp., for example, found that “there is supportive evidence that child-access prevention laws reduce firearm self-injuries (including suicides), firearm homicides or assault injuries, and unintentional firearm injuries and deaths among youth. In addition, we found supportive evidence that stand-your-ground laws increase firearm homicides and supportive evidence that shall issue concealed carry laws increase total and firearm homicides.”

Johns Hopkins University said,/ “After Missouri repealed its licensing law in 2007, the state saw a 16.1 percent increase in firearm suicide and a 25 percent increase in firearm homicide.” It works the other way as well. “Following Connecticut’s implementation of a licensing law, the state’s firearm homicide rate declined 40 percent and the firearm suicide rate declined 15.4 percent.”

Democratic governors have been acting responsibly. Those in Illinois and New York recently signed gun legislation, and dozens of laws have passed in other states. California, for example, strictly regulates ammunition sales and bans most assault-style guns. On Jan. 1, a new law went into effect that “authorizes private individuals ... to file a civil action and receive court-ordered remedies and statutory damages of at least $10,000 per weapon involved in a violation of these assault weapon restrictions.”

The absence of federal action due to GOP intransigence is a disgrace. However, it cannot be an excuse to do nothing. Pressure at the state level and cooperation among states regionally should intensify, and gun safety should be an issue in every local and state race.