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Home / MLM News Roundup / AP: Despite shootings, states return to familiar patterns

AP: Despite shootings, states return to familiar patterns

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, Florida, 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.

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 mixed record. Gun-control bills passed in a number of states, however, the year was not the national game-changer that gun-control advocates hoped it could be.

Even in a year that included an unprecedented level of gun-control activism, state legislatures 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.

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No other Republican-dominated state followed Florida’s lead, the AP review found.

The Parkland shooting slowed momentum for additional gun-rights bills in some Republican-led states, while others pushed forward with a pro-gun agenda. They widened the definition of who can 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. 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 show 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 the Parkland high school gunman 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.

Often, however, the debate over public safety and the reach of the Second Amendment played out 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. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, 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 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.”

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Democratic-controlled legislatures in states that already have 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 most 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.

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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, though it 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. Later the same day, though, he learned of what police called a near-miss school shooting in a town along the state’s border with New York.

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.”

Asked months later about the defeat of his legislation, Kasich 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.”

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