Despite Mass Shootings, No Sea Change in States' Gun Laws
Shortly after last year's shooting massacre on the Las Vegas strip, Ohio Gov. John Kasich convened a working group to explore possible reforms to state gun laws.
A Republican, Kasich wanted to be sure the panel's members clearly supported the Second Amendment. Yet it also was to be bipartisan, with members from across the political spectrum.
The panel's work accelerated after the Valentine's Day slaughter at a high school in Parkland, Fla., and it eventually produced a legislative package of what Kasich labeled "sensible changes that should keep people safer." The legislation was introduced by a Republican lawmaker in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
It went nowhere.
Among other objections, the Republican leadership raised constitutional concerns about a provision allowing courts to order that weapons be seized from people showing signs of violence.
"The way we put it together, the fact that you had people on both sides of the issue—I would have thought something would have happened," said Kasich, who watched the bill package languish in legislative chambers run by his own party. "But the negative voices come in unison and they come strongly."
The Ohio experience is not unusual.
An Associated Press review of all firearms-related legislation passed this year, encompassing the first full state legislative sessions since the Las Vegas attack, shows a decidedly mixed record. Gun control bills did pass in a number of states, but the year was not the national game-changer that gun-control advocates had hoped it could be.
Even in a year that included yet another mass school shooting and an unprecedented level of gun-control activism, state legislatures across the country fell back to largely predictable and partisan patterns.
"It's exactly what happened after Newtown: The anti-gun states became more anti-gun and the pro-gun states became more pro-gun," said Michael Hammond, the legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, referring to the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six educators.
The major exceptions were Florida and Vermont.
Both states have Republican governors and long traditions of gun ownership. Lawmakers passed sweeping legislation after the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 14 students and three staff members and after a foiled school shooting plot in Vermont days later.
The law signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott banned bump stocks, raised the gun buying age to 21, imposed a three-day waiting period for purchases and authorized police to seek court orders seizing guns from individuals who are deemed threats to themselves and others. The latter provision has already been used hundreds of times, court data show.
Florida is a rare case in which gun laws approved by a Republican legislature and governor are being challenged in court by the NRA.
No other Republican-dominated state followed Florida's lead, the AP review found.
The Parkland shooting did slow momentum for additional gun rights bills in some Republican-led states, but others pushed forward with a pro-gun policy agenda. They widened the definition of who can legally carry a weapon in public, allowed more concealed weapons in schools, churches and government buildings, and strengthened legal protections for people who claim they shot someone in self-defense.
In Tennessee, county commissioners were granted the ability to carry concealed handguns in their workplaces. Oklahoma approved a bill allowing permit holders to carry handguns while scouting. Nebraska lawmakers enacted a long-sought bill shielding all documents related to gun permits from the state's open records law.
In South Carolina, where a state senator was killed in the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, lawmakers rejected a simple bill requiring court clerks to enter convictions and restraining orders in a timely fashion to strip gun rights from people who have been disqualified from possessing firearms.
The most significant policy development, the review found, was the enactment of so-called "red flag laws" in eight states. Those laws allow police or relatives to seek court orders to seize guns from people who are showing signs of violence.
Five Republican governors signed those laws, which have been used to seize guns from hundreds of individuals already this year.
Supporters say the laws are proven to save lives, and they were a rallying cry amid reports that the suspected Parkland high school gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was deeply troubled yet allowed to own guns. Nine states also approved laws to ban bump stocks, the rapid-fire devices that a gunman used as he shot hundreds of people at the music festival in Las Vegas, including 58 who were killed.
But often, the debate over public safety and the reach of the Second Amendment played out in statehouses with familiar results.
In Colorado, a state rocked by the 1999 Columbine High School and 2012 Aurora theater mass shootings, lawmakers in the divided Legislature refused to compromise.
The Democratic-controlled House passed bills to ban bump stocks and enact a red flag law that had the support of many police officers and prosecutors. But the Republican-controlled Senate quickly assigned those to a "kill" committee and defeated them.
"To me, the Second Amendment and individual rights demand the highest respect. That's the basis of where I come from," said Republican Sen. Tim Neville, a member of the committee and one of the capitol's most ardent gun rights activists.
The Colorado House returned the favor by rejecting Republican plans to allow concealed guns on school grounds and repeal the state ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, a law passed after the Aurora shooting.
Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed by James Holmes as he celebrated his 27th birthday in the Aurora theater, said he is encouraged that the state has maintained the post-Aurora ammunition limits and is calling for further gun control as he runs for a Colorado state House seat. Sullivan sees long-term promise in gun-control efforts by Parkland students and survivors of other mass shootings.
"It's like any major change. It can take 20, 30, 40 years," Sullivan said. "I tell the Parkland kids that this is the natural progression of things."
In North Carolina, where Republicans hold majorities in the legislature, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper asked lawmakers a few weeks after the Florida school shooting to pass new gun regulations, including more background checks and permit requirements.
But Republicans never took up gun-related proposals from him or legislative Democrats, whose efforts to force floor debate on them failed.
"We are really missing an opportunity for something serious for school safety," said Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison.
Republicans instead approved money to hire more campus police officers, school nurses, psychologists, and social workers, as well as to create a statewide phone app for students to report tips to deter school violence.
Democratic-controlled legislatures in states with already strict gun control laws, such as Illinois and New Jersey, made them tighter in the wake of the tragedies.
New Jersey expanded background check requirements to nearly all private sales and transfers of firearms and put into a law a strict definition requiring a "justifiable need to carry a handgun" for citizens to qualify for a permit. The Illinois Legislature extended an existing three-day waiting period to buy a handgun to rifles and other firearms, a measure signed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Advocates for stricter gun laws pointed to the changes in Florida and Vermont, the new red flag laws, the bump stock bans and laws meant to disarm accused domestic abusers as major victories in 2018. They say many of the laws passed with bipartisan support and could mark the beginning of a slow turn in their favor.
"We've got a lot more work to do, but I do think we're seeing progress and the pace of progress is increasing," said Robyn Thomas, executive director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, who said at least 55 bills backed by her group became law.
One policy change many thought would be non-controversial turned out to be a harder sell: banning bump stocks.
Lobbying by gun rights activists succeeded in blocking many states from enacting proposed bans, which they had feared would quickly spread nationwide after the Las Vegas shooting. Congress hasn't acted on them, either.
Hammond, the lawyer for Gun Owners of America, said that after early defeats his group also is beginning to succeed in thwarting red flag bills. He argues that they can allow authorities to unfairly seize guns from owners who are not dangerous.
In Texas, for example, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had said the state should consider adopting some type of red flag bill. Supporters of the legislation were hoping for a breakthrough in the most populous of the GOP-dominated states, which has seen mass shootings at a high school and a church over the past year.
Instead, the Legislature's Republican leaders have already declared Abbott's idea dead, and the governor has backed away from it.
Vermont was a rare case of a Republican governor signing into law far-reaching gun control measures passed by a Democratic legislature.
The action by Gov. Phil Scott was out of step with his previous position on guns and angered his political base. The Vermont law is similar to Florida's but also requires background checks on most private firearms sales and bans high-capacity magazines.
Scott told a reporter the day after the Parkland shooting that he thought Vermont's loose gun laws were adequate. But later the same day, he learned of what police called a near-miss high school shooting in a town along the state's border with New York. Police have said a former student threatened to shoot up the school, hoping for more dead than the 32 killed during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
The next day, a visibly shaken Scott, a life-long gun-owner and hunter, called on lawmakers to consider "gun safety" legislation. The resulting restrictions were the first significant gun ownership limits in Vermont history and came after weeks of intense debate.
Ohio's Republican governor never got the same chance as Scott.
A coalition of groups representing students, teachers, school counselors, police chiefs, pediatricians, and Catholic clergy joined in a letter to state legislative leaders urging them to pass the changes recommended by Kasich's panel.
State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Cleveland-area Democrat, said she could have told the governor it would fail. She said Republican lawmakers sound to her "like automatons" when the topic of gun control arises.
"They go to these automatic catchphrases that come right out of a pamphlet from either Buckeye Firearms or the NRA," she said. "That's what I think it's about. I do believe it's a case of follow the money."
To express his frustration, Kasich refused to sign the next gun bill that crossed his desk, which waived certain concealed carry license fees and training requirements for current and former military members. It became law without his signature.
Asked months later about the defeat of his legislation, the governor said gun-control groups are simply not as unified as the pro-gun lobby.
"And so you," he said, "you have disparate groups going against a force that totally knows what it wants."