While the U.S. Congress debates trade pacts and NSA data-collection practices, gun-safety and gun-rights bills have been on the docket in state legislatures from Augusta to Salem. As of June 12, state lawmakers had already introduced 1,125 firearms-related bills this year, an average of almost 50 per week. The total is fewer than the 1,532 gun bills introduced in the same period in 2013, but still significantly more than the 747 introduced in 2011 — the last “typical” session preceding the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. (Using only odd-numbered years for comparison is logical, as some states have a two-year legislative cycle.)
“There was a surge of gun bills introduced in 2013, because Newtown had just happened,” Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, tells The Trace. “I think the game change after Newtown hasn’t really changed back.”
Cutilletta says that grassroots gun-safety organizations founded since 2012 have helped maintain the momentum of that initial surge. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Sandy Hook Promise, and Newtown Action Alliance all began as online campaigns in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. “Those groups haven’t gone away,” she says. “They’re only getting bigger and more organized. Things are probably forever going to be changed.” (Moms Demand Action is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor to the Trace.)
Gun-rights groups that were already well established have also grown. Membership in the National Rifle Association might have increased by hundreds of thousands in the wake of the Newtown massacre. Meanwhile, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the National Association for Gun Rights have stepped up their political efforts, spending millions on direct lobbying.
This year’s legislative activity reflects efforts both to tighten and loosen gun regulations — sometimes simultaneously within the same state — and some notable trends have emerged.
In passing the Firearms Safety Act this year, Oregon became the eighth state to require a background check for nearly all gun sales, including private transactions between individuals. Conversely, a North Carolina bill would have made it much easier to buy handguns by removing an existing requirement that local law enforcement must approve pistol purchase permits. (That provision was removed from the bill before the House passed it to the Senate for further consideration.)
Texas drew international scrutiny this month by enacting a law to allow concealed weapons on college campuses, but similar legislation was popping up throughout the country. “There were 15 states that were looking at [campus-carry bills], and they’re all dead except for the Texas bill [signed into law last week by Gov. Greg Abbott] and Ohio, where the legislation is still pending,” Cutilletta says. The group Students for Concealed Carry, which has organized nationwide demonstrations in support of these bills, did not return our request for comment.
South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney sponsored a bill, introduced this April, to form a higher-education safety task force that would study the appropriate response to campus shootings. Pinckney was among nine people killed last night in a mass shooting at a Charleston church.
License to Carry (or Lack Thereof)
Texas also passed a bill to allow the open carry of handguns in public, but only by licensed individuals. Mississippians may now carry a handgun in a purse or briefcase without a license; that law was signed in April and took immediate effect. Meanwhile, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a new law allowing concealed carry with no training and no license whatsoever, saying Kansans “don’t need a permission slip from the government.”
Existing law in North Carolina prohibits certain misdemeanants from ever receiving a weapons permit, but a bill introduced this year would shorten the prohibitory period to five years. And in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill that requires county clerks to issue concealed-carry permits without review by county gun boards. (Snyder vetoed an earlier version of the bill, after concerns were raised that people subject to orders of protection for domestic abuse or stalking could obtain a permit.)
New York state lawmakers have introduced the most gun legislation this year — 139 bills, compared to Illinois’s 143 in 2014 — but so far nothing has made it to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk. The logjam there is partly a consequence of New York’s passage of the SAFE Act in 2013. One of the most sweeping recent gun-policy reforms anywhere, the law includes magazine-capacity limits, expanded background-check requirements, mandatory registration of assault weapons, and a provision to confiscate an individual’s gun if a mental-health professional reports a serious risk. The act was controversial: Several Republican candidates campaigned for state office in 2014 on promises to repeal it.
“Our No. 1 priority right now is rolling back some of the SAFE Act provisions that were passed in 2013,” explained Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association. King is also a member of the NRA’s Board of Directors. “Those are the most egregious things that have happened to New York state, as far as legislation that restricts the Second Amendment. What’s most objectionable to us is that the SAFE Act is not going to do anything to protect any law-abiding citizen.”
Indeed, several bills have been introduced this year attempting to repeal parts of the SAFE Act or the act in its entirety.
“I think it’s just posturing by the gun-rights community,” says Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. “But you should know that those bills are not going to go anywhere. Because we have a Democratic governor. It’s his signature achievement, and the Democratic Assembly would not countenance a vote on any of those bills.”
Barrett points to a recent domestic-violence bill as evidence of bipartisan support for gun-safety measures in the state. The bill would require gun owners who are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to surrender their weapons to police. It passed unanimously through the New York State Assembly.
There’s just one problem. “We’re still looking for a Senate sponsor for that bill,” Barrett says. “There is hope, perhaps next year,” she says. “Those kinds of laws that pertain to guns and domestic violence, preventing abusers from using guns to murder their partners, would probably stand a chance, even in a Republican Senate. We are patient.”
[Photo: Matt Valentine]