At Annual Summit, State Republicans Balk at New Gun Control Laws

A woman grieves for her brother, who was killed in the Dayton, Ohio, shooting. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine — a Republican who ran as a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment — proposed a package of new gun control measures, but it’s unclear whether GOP lawmakers will support it. John Minchillo/The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Many Republican state lawmakers don’t seem to have an appetite for taking up new gun control legislation despite last weekend’s mass shootings.

Hundreds of legislators from across the country gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, for the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures this week to talk about state policy matters. Most of the more than one dozen GOP lawmakers interviewed by Stateline maintained their firm opposition to new gun legislation in their states. These mass shootings, while tragic, are not reason enough to abandon their principles and pass gun control measures they think violate constitutional rights and a proud gun tradition, they said.

Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh said he’s not going to follow what he called a “kneejerk” and “absurd” call to ban assault weapons.

“A dramatic shooting does bring attention, but so much is false information,” Kavanagh said. “Everyone is demonizing the semiautomatic weapon that has some mean-looking stuff on it. There’s too much emotion and not enough fact-based reason.”

Kavanagh’s Republican colleague in the Arizona state Senate, David Gowan, added that while “it’s horrific what occurred,” his fellow lawmakers will not change the state’s loose gun laws, such as one that allows people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

“It’s hard to take somebody else’s freedom away because some people try to abuse it,” Gowan said.

Gun control advocates and some Democrats have taken up the slogan “do something,” after a crowd chanted it Sunday night at Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine during his speech at a vigil for the nine people killed hours earlier.

After a weekend in which gunmen in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, killed at least 31 people, activists and many Democratic lawmakers have again called for banning assault rifles, implementing background checks for gun purchases and passing “red flag” laws that allow local authorities to take guns away from those intent on harming themselves or others.

So far this legislative year, 22 mostly Democratic states and the District of Columbia have enacted 47 “gun safety” laws, according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun control organization founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who survived a 2011 shooting. (The group includes laws that set up programs to reduce urban gun violence and measures to keep guns away from children in its count.) Many of these measures were inspired by the advocacy of the student survivors of the Parkland, Florida, massacre last year.

But even as Republicans in Congress coalesce around red flag bills, many of their statehouse colleagues remain skeptical toward gun control legislation, judging from the interviews at NCSL.

DeWine this week announced two proposals meant to stem gun violence. He called on the Ohio legislature to pass new background checks for gun purchases and a red flag law.

“We must do something,” DeWine said at the news conference. He also called for mental health services and stiffer penalties for illegal gun purchases. “And that is exactly what we are going to do.”

But the governor also called for similar measures, without success, back in April, hindered by stiff Republican opposition in the legislature.

Democratic Ohio state Sen. Tina Maharath isn’t convinced DeWine’s call for action is enough.

“I honestly think he hasn’t followed through with his words,” she told Stateline. “We’ve had these pieces of legislation introduced since the beginning of our General Assembly. But they’ve gone nowhere.”

Maharath said after mass shootings there are too many words and not enough action. She fears the same might be true in other states.

Republican Pushback

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said this week he would pressure the state’s Republican Senate majority leader, Paul Gazelka, to take up a pair of gun control bills that were blocked in the last legislative session. The bills, which passed the Democratic-controlled House in April, would have required background checks for handgun and semiautomatic military-style assault weapons and implemented a red flag law.

But Minnesota Senate Republicans aren’t likely to take up the governor’s call for gun control action, said GOP state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer. She worries about the constitutional implications of taking guns from people through court orders and the effectiveness of banning certain weapons.

“The fact is that you’re going to have people who will just do this,” she told Stateline. “They just will. They will find a weapon. If you take one away, they’ll have another one.”

These new gun laws, Kiffmeyer said, “will never work.” She said she’d rather see the legislature take up measures that “harden” mass shooting targets, such as schools.

That was the approach Arkansas Republicans took in the past year. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson created an 18-member commission to study school safety in the aftermath of the Parkland high school mass shooting. In December, the commission released a report with 30 recommendations, which included an armed presence at schools, safety upgrades at buildings and mental health services.

The commission’s recommendations are not mandatory for local school districts.

Hutchinson this week said he wants a hate-crime law enacted in the state. He also said he’s willing to discuss a red flag law but hasn’t seen any legislation yet he could support, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported.

Republican state Rep. Brian S. Evans said Arkansas was right not to increase gun control, and to focus instead on school safety and mental health services to prepare for eventual mass shootings.

“It’s not a matter of if,” Evans told Stateline. “It’s a matter of when, and I’m very proud that our state took such a proactive approach to that.”

This approach infuriates Democratic lawmakers like Maine state Rep. Lori Gramlich.

“I’m absolutely furious,” Gramlich said, and turned blame to the National Rifle Association. “We need to get to the root of the problem: easy access to firearms. As long as we have the money in politics, with the NRA lining the pockets of lawmakers, we’re not going to have a change. It is not OK.”

She said she is going to take her anger back to Maine, where gun control measures have not had widespread success in recent years.

Potential State Action

To be sure, some Republican state lawmakers seem willing to discuss new gun control legislation.

Nebraska needs to strengthen background checks and lengthen waiting periods for purchasing firearms to prevent massacres from happening in the state, said Republican state Sen. John McCollister.

Nebraska does not impose a waiting period between the time a gun is purchased and when it is handed to the new owner, according to the Giffords Law Center. However, those who buy handguns from private sellers in Nebraska are required to obtain a concealed handgun permit.

“I see an eagerness both nationally and in Nebraska to do all of that,” McCollister told Stateline.

On Sunday, McCollister drew national attention by tweeting that the Republican Party was “enabling white supremacy” and “complicit to obvious racist and immoral activity inside our party.”

The Nebraska GOP in response suggested McCollister leave the party.

New Hampshire state Rep. John O’Connor, another Republican, said that while he and his constituents believe in the Second Amendment, “I don’t believe you need a 100-round mag to go hunting. I think maybe we can take a look at maybe controlling those.”

In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday announced plans for a summit later this month for lawmakers and law enforcement to discuss domestic terrorism. House Speaker Brian Egolf, also a Democrat, followed up Tuesday by calling for a short special session to discuss whether to create a new state domestic terrorism unit.

But Mimi Stewart, New Mexico Senate majority whip and a Democrat, told Stateline the special session is unnecessary and that the summit was more appropriate to see that the state is “safe and that we are prepared. That group should discuss it at a high level … are we safe and are we prepared?”

In many states where Democrats have advocated for gun control action, the political reality has made new laws nearly impossible.

To end a Republican walkout in Oregon, Democrats in the state Senate abandoned gun control legislation that would have increased the buying age to 21 and added new gun storage requirements.

Oregon Democratic state Sen. Jeff Golden was rueful when asked whether another mass shooting would change the political landscape in his state.

“I would love to say yes,” Golden said. “It’s not clear to me why this would be the final straw.”

But the fact that there is, once again, a conversation around gun violence does give some Democrats hope.

State Sen. Vernon Sykes, a Democrat from Ohio, where one of the two mass shootings occurred this weekend, said that while pro-gun groups are still powerful in his state, the Republican governor’s announcement was encouraging.

“I think that’s some progress,” Sykes said. “I’m hopeful that we can continue down this path to make some improvements for the state of Ohio.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.

Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.

April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.