Gun reform will be up to states — for now
The new energy in the fight for common-sense gun safety laws is being felt nationwide. But given the current makeup of Congress, it’s highly unlikely that anything meaningful will pass in 2018.
Some states, however, are looking to succeed where Congress is failing. Laws are starting to be passed, one by one, area by area.
When 17 people died in a mass shooting on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students started a mass movement that is turning the politics of gun reform upside down. Major corporations are severing ties with the National Rifle Association, ending longtime discount programs for NRA members. Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that the chain no longer would sell assault-style weapons or high-capacity magazines, and that the minimum age to purchase a gun was now 21. By the end of the day, Walmart followed suit to raise the minimum age of gun and ammunition sales to 21 (the company dropped the sale of assault-style weapons in 2015). The grocery chain Kroger, which sells guns through its Fred Meyer stores in four Western states, also joined the club of refusing to sell to anyone under 21.
At the same time, Dick’s Sporting Goods went further. In a press release, the company called for a ban an assault weapons, universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole, and a universal database of those who are banned from buying any firearms. Despite Donald Trump’s seeming embrace of some of these ideas (at least temporarily), congressional action is unlikely.
Progress is slow and incremental, but that’s to be expected. At least until Nov. 6, when some lawmakers fighting gun restrictions might find themselves out of a job.
Stricter gun laws are backed by growing numbers of Americans. These proposals are supported by majorities of Americans in numerous polls (sometimes by as much as 97 percent):
- Restrictions on gun purchases by people who have been reported as dangerous to law enforcement by mental health providers.
- Expanding screening and treatment for the mentally ill.
- Universal background checks for all gun purchases, even private ones.
- Prevention of sales of firearms to people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors.
- A raise in the age limit on gun purchases to 21 years old, especially for assault-style weapons.
- A ban on the sale of “bump stocks,” such as those used by the shooter in the Las Vegas massacre, which have the effect of turning a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic one.
- A three-day waiting period for all gun purchases.
- Creation of a national database with information about each gun sale.
- Limits on the size of ammunition magazine clips.
It’s doubtful the NRA saw that kind of support coming.
Some states have passed or are considering action. Here’s at least a partial roundup:
Oregon was first out of the gate. The new measure, passed only six days after the Valentine’s Day mass shooting, bans people convicted of stalking and domestic violence or under restraining orders from buying or owning firearms and ammunition. The state Senate passed the bill, 16-13; the state House had passed it on Feb. 15, 37-23. Gov. Kate Brown, who lobbied hard for the bill, has said she will sign the legislation. This bill addresses the so-called “boyfriend loophole” so that partners, and not just married partners, are covered in the legislation.
Republican Knute Buehler, a gubernatorial candidate, joined House Democrats in voting for the bill. “I think survivors of domestic violence shouldn’t have to live in fear that their abusers can obtain a firearm,” Buehler said. Guess he can see which way the wind is blowing.
Of course, there is federal legislation proposed to close the boyfriend loophole. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, applies only to married abusers. But it’s not being debated because it would take away someone’s right to buy a gun, even if it’s an unmarried domestic abuser. Research by Everytown for Gun Safety shows that “the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be shot and killed.”
Northeast states are banding together. Democratic governors in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island have announced a partnership to fight gun violence. The “States for Gun Safety Coalition” already has drawn three new members outside of the original four: Delaware, Massachusetts, and Puerto Rico.
The governors said Congress should be taking action, but, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it, “We’re not going to hold our breath and we’re not going to risk our children’s lives.” Said Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo: “Governors from both sides of the aisle are coming together to take action on gun violence. We cannot afford to wait another minute for Washington.”
According to a CNN story on the new plan:
The coalition will start a multi-state task force to trace the sale and use of out-of-state guns in crimes, the group’s memorandum says. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement from the coalition states also will share information — for example, about individuals disqualified from possessing a firearm.
The group also will start a Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, likely through state universities. The state leaders hope such dedicated research will pick up the slack where the federal government has dropped the ball.
The current lack of gun violence research is due to federal government policies, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said.
“We have to remember that the federal government has had a provision in place now for over 20 years that effectively bars the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence. So it has devolved to the states, now for over 20 years, and our thought is perhaps if we can do it in a coordinated way, the more of us at it, hopefully the better result and meaningfully propelling things like smart gun technology,” Murphy said.
Illinois is considering — and passing — gun safety measures. Large rallies greeted lawmakers in the state capital as the Illinois House was set to consider multiple bills. Buses full of gun safety activists from Moms Demand Action traveled to Springfield to rally for their cause. Also on hand in support of the proposals were Chicago Cardinal Blase Kupich, gun safety activist Father Michael Pfleger, and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
The House passed measures banning the sale of bump stocks, raising the age to purchase an assault weapon to 21, and instituting a three-day waiting period for assault weapons sales. It deferred action on some others, including setting up a hotline to report dangerous persons and a proposal to ban high-capacity magazines and the civilian use of body armor. That bill was named in honor of a Chicago police commander who was killed in the line of duty on Feb. 13. That officer’s accused killer was wearing body armor and had a semiautomatic weapon with a high-capacity magazine.
But the big win was passage of a Senate-passed measure to license gun dealers, which was first introduced in 2003. The bill requires training of all employees and videotaping of certain areas of the dealerships. Proponents say it will limit straw purchases of guns, while the NRA-Illinois predictably warned that gun dealerships would close. (Like that’s a bad thing?) The bill now goes to Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican facing a tough re-election battle. He has a conservative primary challenger, State Rep. Jeanne Ives, who voted against the gun dealership licensing bill and who is urging Rauner not to sign it. Rauner has not indicated whether he will sign the bill, but he has 60 days to decide, which gives him breathing room before the March 20 primary.
Even Florida is considering some action. It was less—a lot less—than the Stoneman Douglas students wanted, but the Florida Legislature took a few baby steps, although nothing has passed yet. The Florida Senate rejected bans on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks that the students sought (a bump stock ban did pass a Florida House committee). Lawmakers also rejected creating a firearms registry and requiring that private gun sales be done through a licensed dealer. There’s a reason Florida is called the “gunshine state.”
Instead, they are considering several related measures, including giving law enforcement more power to seize guns in cases of threats or potential danger and setting up a “school marshal” plan, with $67 million to train teachers to use guns. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has announced $500 million for school safety, including metal detectors, bulletproof glass, steel doors, and upgraded locks. But there is a movement, led by some Florida mayors, to back a state constitutional amendment banning assault weapons.
In a rare weekend session, the Florida Senate first seemed to pass (by voice vote) a ban on AR-15s, only to backtrack when votes were counted. But arming teachers was still A-OK.
Vermont is considering some restrictions. The Green Mountain State has a rural hunting culture and some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country. But now the Legislature is considering two possibilities: letting law enforcement remove guns from those considered at extreme risk of harming themselves or others, and expanding background checks.
Washington state has similar ideas on the table. Among the proposals are raising the age to purchase an assault weapon to 21, instituting background checks, banning bump stocks, and creating a program so students can report potential threats.
Wyoming removes immunity provision from stand-your-ground bill. Lawmakers ignored NRA threats and made the measure the same as current Wyoming law, which allows people to use force in self-defense but only if “reasonable.” A group called Wyoming Gun Owners and the NRA had sent notes to legislators warning against the change, threatening that such a move would affect their NRA scores.
Of course, several states are going in the opposite direction, and loosening gun restrictions. According to a story in The New York Times:
- Indiana is proposing abolishing the $125 lifetime fee for a license to carry a handgun and allowing weapons in churches that are attached to schools.
- Kansas is considering lowering the age at which people can carry hidden, loaded guns in public to 18 from 21.
- In South Dakota, a “self-defense” bill would allow people to carry guns on the grounds of schools or churches. Another proposal would allow “law-abiding citizens” to carry a gun without a concealed-carry permit.
- In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered safety information to be distributed to all schools. He wants assurances that all schools have completed “safety audits” and that all have emergency plans. (Well, it’s Texas—you wouldn’t expect anything else, right?)
- An Oklahoma school district has installed bullet-proof shelters in several classrooms. Of course, that doesn’t help much if it’s your own teacher shooting the gun, as happened in Georgia.
Oh, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich has appointed a committee to study the matter (there’s real leadership for you). The Legislature is considering both gun restrictions and loosening of gun laws.
Support for gun safety measures is “surging” in the polls, says a report by Politico. And the biggest growth in such support is coming from a surprising source.
Much of that increased support comes from Republicans, according to Kyle Dropp, Morning Consult’s co-founder and chief research officer.
“Republican support for tougher gun laws is at its highest point since Morning Consult and POLITICO began tracking the issue,” said Dropp. “In this week’s poll, 53 percent of Republicans indicated they supported stricter gun laws, compared to 37 percent [of Republicans] who said the same following the Pulse nightclub shooting in June 2016.”
That’s why it’s no surprise that even some Republicans in Congress are considering going against their NRA overlords and moving forward on some gun restrictions. These are mostly GOP House members in suburban districts who are feeling the heat on guns. Here’s a Washington Post story quoting a piece from the Washington Examiner:
This quote, from GOP Rep. Ryan Costello, who represents Philadelphia suburbs, is key: “The gun safety issue, or movement, is much more organized, much more effective.” Costello added that gun safety has “now taken on more priority” as one of those “quality of life, safety issues” that “a lot of suburban voters look at.”
It’s still unlikely to happen in this Congress, given GOP stubbornness, Donald Trump’s wavering positions, and his nonsensical rants about (among other things) arming teachers. Senate GOP leaders made clear that they would be willing to make only limited changes on gun laws, such as giving state and local officials more incentive to report relevant information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went so far as to shelve plans to vote on any gun laws and instead focus on banking legislation.
But hey, we’ll take support for common-sense gun safety laws wherever we can get it.
Until the midterm elections. Then all bets are off.
Originally posted on Daily Kos, March 4, 2018.