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.
“I think South Dakota gun laws are very good. I think they strike a reasonable balance,” said Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who vetoed a bill this year to allow any gun owner to carry the weapon without a permit. “A limitation is not unreasonable and is manageable.”
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. 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 moved to roll back some of the executive actions President Barack Obama took to tighten access.
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.
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