Gun Rules Advanced in Many States Even Before Recent Shootings

By: - April 19, 2021 12:00 am

Detectives work the scene where multiple people were shot at the FedEx Ground facility in Indianapolis last week. State lawmakers are enacting measures designed to prevent mass shootings in the U.S. Michael Conroy/The Associated Press

The spree of mass shootings over the past two months has led to renewed calls for more federal gun restrictions. But even before the most recent violence, state lawmakers were busy enacting measures designed to help solve a uniquely American public health crisis.

After mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, claimed the lives of 18 people, President Joe Biden earlier this month announced six executive actions.

They would, in part, lead to the banning of untraceable “ghost guns” and set a federal standard for laws that take guns away from people a court deems to be a threat to themselves or others—commonly known as “red flag” laws.

Late Thursday, another eight people were killed in a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. The gunman later took his own life.

State lawmakers began work earlier this year, though, and have passed measures that would ban high-capacity magazines, require training for handgun purchases and ban weapons on state capitol grounds. Other measures would bolster background checks for gun purchases and add funding for programs that seek to reduce gun violence in urban communities.

Even during the pandemic, when legislative debates have been cut short and the economy and public health have been top priorities, state lawmakers in several states have fought aggressively to enact new restrictions they hope can stem the virus of gun violence that has long plagued this country.

“This is something that is impacting the blue states, the red states, communities of color and communities all over the United States,” said New York state Sen. Anna Kaplan, a Democrat.

Kaplan sponsored legislation this session that would prohibit the manufacturing, sale and ownership of “ghost guns”—weapons without serial numbers that can be assembled at home. Her bill has passed the state Senate and is waiting to be heard in the General Assembly. “It is really imperative we have good laws that protect our residents, our citizens.”

Most of these measures are passing in Democratic-controlled states, where lawmakers are capitalizing on momentum that has built rapidly since a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, three years ago inspired a new generation of activism.

“We are slowly inching toward real action,” said Allison Anderman, a senior counsel for the Giffords Law Center, an organization that advocates for restrictions on gun access. The group is named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. “What’s holding us back right now is politics, not public sentiment.”

Recent polls show that support for tougher gun laws remains high: More than two-thirds of Americans support stricter gun laws, according to a March poll by USA Today/Ipsos. While 9 out of 10 Democrats support tougher restrictions, only a third of Republicans share that view.

Lawmakers in states such as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Washington are trying to enact sweeping new gun regulations this session.

In Delaware, the state Senate earlier this month passed legislation that would require training before purchasing a handgun. Another bill would ban magazines that support more than 17 rounds of ammunition. Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola, the author of the legislation, said his goal is fostering responsible gun ownership and preventing a high-casualty mass shooting.

“The more bullets, the more death and injury that one can inflict in an event,” said Sokola, a Democrat. “We wanted to put in a cap that would be constitutionally upheld and that would get rid of the 30s, 50s and 100 [round magazines] that have been involved in the horrendous shootings.”

But Republican opposition to new gun restrictions remains fierce. During state Senate committee hearings in Delaware, a Republican lawmaker likened the measures to something Adolf Hitler would enact.

Instead, lawmakers in Republican-controlled states are dramatically loosening gun restrictions. This year, legislators in Iowa, Montana, Tennessee and Utah have enacted measures that would eliminate permit requirements to carry a concealed firearm.

This policy, which is known as “constitutional carry” among gun-rights activists, has been a prime priority for the National Rifle Association, said group spokesperson Lars Dalseide. Lawmakers in South Carolina and Texas are considering similar measures, which are now law in at least 20 states.

“NRA believes this is an important piece of legislation as Americans should not have to pay fees and taxes and get a license to exercise their right to self-defense and to defend their loved ones outside their home,” Dalseide wrote in an email.

Montana state Rep. Seth Berglee, a Republican who sponsored his state’s permitless carry legislation, said these measures are important “from a strategic and a safety perspective,” because a person should be able to conceal a firearm for protection.

Berglee’s bill, which Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed in February, also limits public universities from restricting firearms on college campuses. Laws such as these, Berglee said, could help stop a mass shooting.

“If you’re bringing a fire extinguisher to a gunfight, you’re probably not going to win,” he said. “It’s natural law: You have the right to defend yourself.”

Guns have been a scapegoat for mass shootings and suicide, he said, which instead come from deeper societal and mental health issues.

Elsewhere, Republican lawmakers in Ohio enacted a law in January to expand situations in which people can defend themselves under the state’s “stand-your-ground” law. The Missouri House passed a bill in March that would allow people with concealed carry permits to bring firearms on public transportation. And the Florida House passed a bill in March that would allow guns in houses of worship that share locations with schools.

Montana and Nebraska have also passed measures this year that would effectively negate federal gun regulations. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, said his state is now a “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”

Many of these Republican bills are rooted in a false narrative that any gun regulations are a step toward quashing the Second Amendment and taking away guns, said Washington state Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Democrat.

“That simply is not true,” she said. “All I can do is say that reasonable gun safety measures will continue to allow people to own guns, but we need a well-regulated process to control gun violence in this country. The United States is in a class all by itself around the world.”

Kuderer introduced a bill that would ban firearms at political demonstrations and on state capitol grounds, arguing that weapons could intimate people trying to peacefully assemble. She introduced the measure Dec. 24. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was “a wake-up call” for some of her Democratic colleagues who were on the fence, she said.

While the bill has passed both chambers, lawmakers are negotiating final amendments before sending it to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

In Connecticut, where 26 students and teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, lawmakers this session are aiming to strengthen the state’s 1999 law regarding extreme risk protection orders, under which a court may seize weapons from those who may be a harm to themselves or others.

The new proposal, which passed out of a state House committee, would allow relatives, household members and medical professionals to ask a judge to remove weapons from an at-risk person. It also would allow orders to last indefinitely.

While these laws could prevent a mass shooting, they are most effective at stopping a potential suicide, said Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. Suicides account for nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths annually. For Stein, legislation like this is personal: He lost his uncle to suicide-by-gun.

“Oftentimes, these types of decisions to end your life is impulsive,” Stein said. “If they had a cooling down period or a period of time to get help, and we can take the gun away from this kind of compulsive decision, it can save lives.”

Mass shootings, while accounting for a fraction of the total gun deaths in the United States every year, are catalyzing moments that can lead to real change, said Anderman of the Giffords center. Her organization, she said, received many inquiries from lawmakers interested in their state gun laws after these most recent mass shootings.

After a man used bump stocks to rapidly shoot and kill 60 people in Las Vegas in 2017, then-President Donald Trump banned the rifle attachment that can make a semi-automatic rifle fire like a machine gun. Similarly, after a lone shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, states, including some led by Republicans, enacted a wave of gun restrictions.

This latest string of shootings may inspire more action, Anderman said. In Colorado, home to the Boulder grocery store shooting, the legislature this week sent to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis regulations that would tighten the state’s gun laws, including one that sets requirements for firearm storage around children.

For many gun-rights activists, however, there is another threat: having Biden in the Oval Office. Dalseide of the NRA said that Biden’s election “should certainly put gun owners on high alert.”

The U.S. House in March passed a bill that would strengthen background checks for gun purchases. Its chances of passing the U.S. Senate, however, appear to be slim.

Kuderer, the Washington state senator, acknowledged that the new restrictions approved in her state and others won’t put an end to the gun violence that kills roughly 40,000 Americans each year. But she believes the new laws will make a difference. 

“It isn’t going to end gun violence; that’s for sure,” she said. “But I think as legislators we have an ethical obligation to do everything in our power to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. And that’s what gun-safety regulations do.”

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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.