States act quickly on guns
Changes occurring even as Congress deliberates
Even as momentum for new gun legislation wanes in Washington, D.C., lawmakers across the country are fashioning their own response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, resulting in a patchwork that tightens restrictions in some places and eases them in others.
While varied, the measures show how much more nimble states can be than the federal government.
California, New York and Connecticut, the scene of the school shooting, are among those that have moved to stiffen already tough gun laws. Many more, including Ohio, Michigan and Arkansas, have acted to protect the rights of gun owners and make it easier to possess a firearm.
The result is a significant disparity between states – some side by side – as President Barack Obama pushes for new federal gun controls.
To press lawmakers who return from recess next week, he traveled Wednesday to Colorado, the site of mass shootings at an Aurora movie theater last summer and Columbine High School in 1999. Speaking at the Police Academy in Denver, Obama called Colorado “a model for what’s possible.”
“There doesn’t have to be a conflict between protecting our citizens and protecting our Second Amendment rights,” said the president, who shared the stage with dozens of uniformed officers. “I’ve got stacks of letters in my office from proud gun owners, whether they’re for sport, or protection or collection, who tell me how deeply they cherish their rights and don’t want them infringed upon – but they still want us to do something to stop the epidemic of gun violence.”
On hand was Colorado’s governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, who last month signed laws passed by the Democratic Legislature that expand background reviews, impose a fee for the checks and ban magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition.
Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written extensively about the politics surrounding guns, said it was not surprising that states had acted while the U.S. Senate was just preparing to take up the issue on the floor.
Many states, even large ones such as California and Texas, are politically “more homogenous than the federal government,” Winkler said. That eases the way toward consensus.
State legislatures operate on a much quicker timetable than Congress – some meet for as few as 20 days – and striking a deal can be as simple as getting the governor and legislative leaders to agree, which is easier when they belong to the same party. Thirty-seven states have one-party rule in their capitals, in contrast to Washington, where the Democrats control the White House and a closely divided Senate and the Republicans run the House.
The Maryland House of Delegates on Wednesday approved Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines and require fingerprinting and licensing of gun buyers. The bill returns to the state Senate, which passed a different version of the measure.
In California, home to some of the toughest gun restrictions in the country, lawmakers have introduced 20 bills seeking to tighten controls. The one likeliest to take effect would provide $24 million from a registration fee to increase the number of guns the state confiscates from felons and the severely mentally ill, who are not allowed to possess them. The measure has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the Assembly. Democrats control both chambers and hold the governor’s office.
The first state to act after December’s Sandy Hook shooting was New York, where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats the Assembly. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, worked with lawmakers of both parties to pass a sweeping bill that beefed up the state’s ban on assault-style weapons and required universal background checks.
Other states have moved in the opposite direction, loosening restrictions on gun ownership and increasing the number of places where firearms are permitted. Many have Republican governors, a Republican-run statehouse or both.
In Michigan and Ohio, lawmakers have made it easier to obtain a gun. Arkansas, Maine and Mississippi have passed laws to protect the privacy of gun owners. Wyoming enacted legislation allowing judges to carry weapons in the courtroom, and South Dakota passed a law authorizing school employees to carry guns on the job.
More than a dozen other states are considering legislation that would enhance gun rights, including Texas, North Carolina, Missouri and Georgia.
The legislative action across the country comes as the drive for new federal gun laws has slowed dramatically.
The Senate is due to take up a package of gun bills that will include measures to enhance penalties for trafficking and expand background checks, as well as one that would provide millions in grants for school districts to improve security.
Those are less ambitious steps than gun control advocates hoped for in the days after the Sandy Hook shooting, which killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders. Bans on assault-type weapons and high-capacity magazines will probably be offered as amendments, but are given little chance of approval.
Even the expansion of background checks, which polls show that Americans overwhelmingly endorse, seems uncertain to pass Congress, as backers struggle to find the votes to overcome a threatened filibuster in the Senate.
That leaves state lawmakers leading the government response to Sandy Hook. Some say that is how the system was designed, tailoring laws to fit local politics and custom.
“It’s this dusty old concept,” said Robert Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control” and head of the political science department at the State University of New York in Cortland. “Checks and balances.”
Even some gun control advocates say certain regulations, such as carrying a concealed weapon, should reflect local sensibilities.
“Nobody is saying that New York state law is the right law for Montana on those issues,” said Arkadi Gerney of the liberal Center for American Progress.
But Connecticut’s Democratic House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said tougher state laws were not enough.
“The only effective way to get this done is to take action on a national level,” he said.
“Unless there is a consistent legal framework around the country, it makes it very, very difficult to have consistent policy.”