The number of Republican lawmakers serving in capitals across America sits at the highest level in nearly a century. The gun rights advocates among them head into 2017 eager to make this year a momentous one in their crusade to dismantle state firearms restrictions.
“This is our historic moment to go on offense,” Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, told his members in a post-election video.
Already, two contentious proposals are underway. The first would eliminate licensing and training requirements governing who is authorized to carry concealed handguns. The so-called permitless-carry measures are poised to take on extra importance as a federal bill requiring all states to honor each other’s concealed-carry laws gains steam in Congress. Under that legislation, states that mandate permits for carrying hidden handguns would be forced to allow visitors from states that no longer require such licenses to carry concealed guns.
The second push would allow guns onto more college campuses, which gun advocates have targeted for years in their campaign to make firearms commonplace in places where deadly weapons have long been barred.
Democrats, who generally support tighter firearms regulations, do not have the numbers to defeat the pro-gun bills in party line votes.
Across the country, 3,973 state lawmakers now claim a grade of A- or better from the NRA, according to an update of an earlier Trace analysis. That’s 54 percent of all state legislators. Within that majority, 3,544 are members of the GOP.
There are now 32 states where more than half of the legislature has received at least an A- from the gun group. In 14 states, that majority is two thirds or greater, making pro-gun bills virtually veto-proof. In Oklahoma, Arkansas, Indiana, Idaho, and Missouri, the number is 70 percent or higher. In Kentucky, the figure is just shy of 90 percent.
For opponents of relaxed gun laws, hope will have to come instead from wary Republicans in and out of public office who in recent years have blocked permitless and campus carry in otherwise gun-friendly Southern states.
The question for 2017 is whether that GOP reluctance will again serve as a brake against gun advocates’ more aggressive policies. Or whether Glocks on the quad and streets patrolled by unlicensed, untrained, gun-carrying citizens will become the new normals of the Trump era.
Lawmakers sponsoring permitless-carry bills have momentum on their side. Until recently, such measures were considered extreme. But in 2016 alone, Missouri, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Idaho enacted or expanded laws allowing gun owners to take concealed firearms into public spaces without meeting training requirements or securing a government license. Legislatures in Missouri and West Virginia did so by overriding the vetoes of their respective Democratic governors.
With the passage of those laws, permitless carry is now legal in 10 states.
The number will likely increase this year. The most prominent state gearing up for a permitless-carry push is Texas. Similar legislation is pending in Montana, Utah, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
John Harris, the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, counts his state as a certain addition to the list. A permitless-carry bill stalled last year in Nashville, but Harris said he is confident that its sponsor will reintroduce the measure during the upcoming session.
“I’ve seen and worked on the draft,” he said.
Lawmakers who support permitless carry frame the issue as a matter of life and death. Existing concealed carry licensing requirements can be as minimal as completing a two-hour class; in about half the country, permit seekers do not have to show that they can capably fire their weapon before receiving a license.
But proponents of permitless carry believe that any obstacles that could delay the exercising of a person’s right to self-defense are unconscionable.
“I think it’s immoral to deny innocent people the right to defend themselves when society is breaking down,” said State Representative Jim Lucas, an Indiana Republican who is sponsoring a permitless bill. “I don’t want to play doom and gloom, but we’re seeing riots play out.”
While versions of this year’s permitless-carry bills fizzled in past legislative terms, proponents point to reasons for optimism in 2017.
In both 2015 and 2016, for instance, the New Hampshire legislature passed permitless carry, only to have the bills vetoed by Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. Hassan won election to the U.S. Senate in November and was replaced by Chris Sununu, a Republican with an A rating from the NRA, which has thrown its weight behind the bill.
In Tennessee, permitless carry got sidelined last year as lawmakers dealt with two other high-profile gun-related bills. One measure, which passed with NRA backing, allowed state college and university employees with concealed-carry licenses to bring their firearms onto campuses. The other, which the NRA successfully spiked, sought to require gun owners to store their weapons in such a way that they could not be accessed by children. Those efforts came at the expense of a permitless-carry bill sponsored by Republican State Senator Mark Green, which never made it to the floor for a vote.
Harris, the Tennessee Firearms Association head, said he hopes to see the NRA make a more aggressive push for permitless carry in his state this time around.
“If in the NRA gets involved, it’ll absolutely help,” he said.
Sixty-nine percent of the Tennessee General Assembly has a grade of A- or better from the gun group.
For the permitless-carry movement, the biggest prize would be Texas, where Representative John Stickland, a Republican, is shepherding a bill. Its passage is the state Republican Party’s top legislative priority for 2017.
“I think the fact that Texas would be the eleventh state with constitutional carry kind of makes it the norm,” Stickland said. “If it gets to the floor, Republicans can’t vote against it, politically.”
Campus-carry bills are percolating in at least four states: Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina. Another was proposed in Wisconsin, then shelved while its sponsor builds support for it. The measures (and those likely to join them as lawmakers get down to work in other states) come at what could be a pivotal stretch in the fight over firearms on college campuses.
Republican state lawmaker Charlie Collins is a key campus-carry booster in Arkansas.
“The purpose is to deter these crazy killers who choose college campuses to murder a bunch of people,” he said.
Collins said he is confident his state will pass the legislation he’s advancing after enacting a watered-down version of campus carry in 2013.
But pro-gun politicians have had a tough time opening colleges to concealed pistols, even as they’ve allowed firearms in churches, bars, daycares and government buildings over the past half-decade. The wariness of some establishment-leaning Republicans toward campus carry has halted its progress in states where the NRA has an otherwise strong hand.
To date, the biggest win for the campus carry movement came in 2015 in Texas, which passed a bill that went into effect on the anniversary of the Clocktower Shooting at the University of Texas in Austin in 1966. In 2016, two large states followed with their own, narrower versions of permitting guns on campus. In December, Ohio became the 24th state to authorize a some form of campus carry. Its version of the law, unlike Texas’s, leaves it to colleges and universities to determine whether their schools will allow the practice. When Tennessee passed its own limited campus-carry law last spring, the state’s Republican governor let the controversial measure become law without his signature.
Confronted with his own campus-carry decision around the same time, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a pro-gun Republican, reached for his veto pen.
“The right to keep and bear arms in sensitive places,” including university campuses, “is not guaranteed by the Second Amendment nor the Georgia constitution,” he said in a public statement.
Last month, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston tipped his plans to reintroduce campus carry in 2017. Sixty-two percent of lawmakers in his state have a grade of A- or better from the NRA. Ralston said he was open to modifying the legislation, but that he wouldn’t “support a tweak that’s going to open up a bill to looking like a piece of Swiss cheese.”
The hardest-fought campus-carry battle is set for Florida, a gun-friendly state that has eluded backers of the laws for at least the past five years. The most recent campus-carry push there died in the state’s upper chamber when Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami-area Republican who was then the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, refused to bring it up for a vote.
Diaz de la Portilla lost his re-election bid to a Democrat in November, vacating the committee leadership role from which he’d made himself a bulwark against the NRA’s agenda. (He also single-handedly quashed an open-carry bill.) His replacement as chairman is Gary Steube, who as a Florida House member from 2010 to 2016 sponsored a series of unsuccessful campus-carry bills.
Last year, Steube published an op-ed on the issue in a local paper. According to public records obtained by The Trace, Steube’s column was drafted with help of Marion Hammer, the Florida-based NRA lobbyist who is the architect of Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
“Defending yourself and others is one of the most fundamental rights that we as Americans enjoy,” Steube wrote. “Why would we take that right away on a college or university campus when there is not a legitimate reason to deny it.”
After Steube won his state Senate seat in November, he waited roughly a month before introducing his latest campus-carry proposal, part of an omnibus gun bill that would also allow guns in parts of airports, elementary and secondary schools, and at legislative meetings.
Even with Steube replacing campus-carry foe Diaz de la Portilla, the bill is not considered a cinch to pass. The new Judiciary Committee still includes two Republicans from Miami-Dade County, where the NRA is less feared than it is elsewhere in Florida.
Steube will need those colleagues’ votes to get the bill to the Senate floor.
“If I were betting man,” said Senator Oscar Braynon, the Democratic minority leader in the upper chamber. “I would say the bill won’t make it to the floor.”
Anna Boiko-Weyrauch contributed data analysis to this piece. Graphics by Francesca Mirabile.
Photo: Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP