October 05, 2017
DES MOINES, Iowa — Brushed aside by the Republican-controlled Congress, gun control advocates have shifted much of their campaign for tighter firearms laws to the states — and they've chalked up some modest, unexpected successes.
Republican governors in Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and New Jersey all have signed bills this year tightening access to guns. At the same time, efforts to loosen restrictions have failed in several states where Republicans are in control.
For gun control advocates — and for some Republican strategists, too — these developments expose revealing limits to what some had felt was the virtually unlimited influence of the gun lobby. Some GOP state officials have shown a willingness to break ranks — largely on incremental steps — tacking closer to overall public opinion about a need for some curbs on gun purchases, broader background checks and limits on where guns can be carried. Hoping it's at least a mini-trend, gun control advocates say they plan to exploit newly fertile ground in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings.
Even the NRA, aware of rising emotions after Las Vegas, called on the government Thursday to review whether special devices such as the Nevada shooter used should be subject to further regulation.
President Donald Trump waved off the first quick demands for tighter restrictions after Las Vegas. But there is growing support among Republicans, even House Speaker Paul Ryan, for restricting "bump stocks" like the shooter in Las Vegas apparently used to effectively convert semi-automatic rifles into fully automated weapons.
There are still plenty of divisions within GOP ranks, but this marks the first time Republicans have even opened the door slightly to gun legislation.
"The Second Amendment is being misinterpreted by many of the gun advocates," said South Dakota Republican state Sen. Art Rusch, who opposed a bill this year allowing gun owners to carry firearms without a permit. "It was never meant to mean you can carry guns everywhere."
South Dakota, with its spacious rural hunting areas, and pro-gun Texas were among heavily Republican states where "permit-less carry" bills failed this year
To be sure, efforts to soften rather than harden gun laws have continued, too, advanced by Republicans' control of a majority of legislatures and 35 governor's offices. The National Rifle Association successfully this year pressed for fewer restrictions on concealed firearms, greater access to guns in schools and on college campuses and new stand-your-ground legislation, which says a person can use force rather than flee from a deadly situation, in more than a dozen states.
In Iowa, for example, officials adopted a sweeping package of gun measures, including a stand-your-ground provision, allowing guns in the Capitol and removing sawed-off shotguns from the state's offensive weapons list.
But the dozens of new restrictions and failed efforts to loosen gun access in GOP-controlled states are notable — particularly when compared to the hard line followed by most Republicans in Washington. Gun control measures have been essentially off the table in Congress since a bipartisan deal to expand background checks — forged in the wake of the killing of 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, in Newtown, Connecticut — failed in 2013. President Donald Trump has declared himself an ardent backer of gun rights and has moved to roll back some of the executive actions President Barack Obama took to tighten access.
A Gallup survey in January found that 55 percent of Americans said laws governing firearms sales should be made stricter, 34 percent said they were fine as is and 10 percent said they should be loosened. The partisan divide on the question has widened. Gallup found last month more than three quarters of Democrats believe gun laws should be stricter, up from 60 percent in 2001, while barely a third of Republicans felt the same way, down from 45 percent in 2001.
In addition to South Dakota and Texas, advocates lobbied against permit-less carry in 22 states, including Republican-heavy Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Utah. Just two states adopted the practice — North Dakota and New Hampshire.
Among the groups working at the state-level is Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, formed after the Connecticut shooting and now allied with billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety. More than 250 members, wearing their trademark red T-shirts, flooded the Texas Capitol in Austin in January, asking lawmakers face-to-face to oppose legislation that would allow any lawful gun owner to carry a loaded weapon anywhere. The bill died without a vote.
The group's founder, Shannon Watts, says state lawmakers can be more accessible and open to one-on-one discussion than members of Congress in Washington.
"There are relationships between lawmakers and activists," she said.
Her group is planning to make its biggest political campaign push in 2018 with contributions for like-minded candidates and against opponents. In light of the Las Vegas killings, it has also launched a text message campaign against the NRA.
The NRA knows it's there and has its own message.
"Despite an unprecedented level of spending by anti-gun, New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the majority of Americans support the Second Amendment and reject his extreme gun-control agenda," NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said.
Grass-roots lobbying may be more effective in making change at the state level, but veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black says that doesn't mean the NRA is being outflanked in states where gun-control advocates tout gains.
"The restrictions enacted in those states are relatively minor," Black said. "The NRA is generally very strong in the states."
Indeed, two Democratic lawmakers in Colorado who muscled measures limiting ammunition magazines and expanding background checks to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk were recalled from office after a campaign by gun rights activists. Hickenlooper was only narrowly re-elected in 2014.
In some states, like Nevada, gun control advocates have mixed record.
In Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval this year signed legislation tightening gun restrictions for domestic violence offenders. But he vetoed a bill in 2013 requiring background checks for most gun sales, which would have closed a loophole in federal law. He also opposed a ballot initiative, passed in November, that would have required the same. The measure has not gone into effect because state and federal officials have disagreed about how to carry it out.
The result is a patchwork of laws that can make any restrictions difficult to enforce.
New York, for example, has some of the nation's toughest gun laws, noted Democratic former New York Rep. Steve Israel, a supporter of tighter gun laws. "But what good is it when you can run a gun from Georgia up to the Bronx."