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Gun Control Advocates Make Slow Progress—Just Not in Washington

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The response to the fatal shootings of two journalists in Virginia feels depressingly familiar: the same calls from Democrats to ramp up gun control; the same calls from Republicans to blame mental illness; the same Onion article popping up on friends’ Facebook feeds: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

By the end of the day on Wednesday, expressions of grief, horror, and anger gave way to resignation. One tweet in particular made the rounds: “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over,” wrote Dan Hodges, a commentator for The Telegraph. The tweet was written in June, shortly after the Charleston church murders. But that just drove home the point: It didn’t matter how much time had passed, since nothing was going to change in Washington anyway.

Indeed, the last major push in Congress to address gun violence ended in April 2013, when Republican lawmakers successfully filibustered a proposal to strengthen background checks, effectively killing off hope for greater gun control in Washington.

Outside the Beltway, however, there have been some signs of change. Since the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, a handful of blue states have embraced universal background checks to close the loophole for private gun sales. And some red states have moved to prevent certain types of individuals, such as domestic abusers or the mentally ill, from obtaining firearms.

These changes have been pushed by a number of new groups that formed in recent years. Former Rep. Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly created Americans for Responsible Solutions in 2013, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is backing Everytown for Gun Safety, which was founded in 2006. “We took a page out of the NRA’s playbook and started putting pressure on businesses and state legislatures to really move the needle,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is part of the Bloomberg-backed group.

Peter Ambler, who heads the lobbying arm of Americans for Responsible Solutions, recalled how he was in Delaware in 2013 for the passage of a state law strengthening background checks on the very day that Republicans were filibustering Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey’s gun-control compromise. “It’s a really good example of how you don’t have to rely on Congress to make progress,” said Ambler.

In May, Oregon became the sixth state to pass a background check law since Sandy Hook, and it’s now one of 18 states that require background checks extending to at least some private gun sales. The Oregon legislation closes the loophole that exempts private gun sales from background checks, aiming to prevent felons, the mentally ill, and others from buying firearms. It’s the first time in more than 14 years that Oregon had tightened gun laws. And the state legislature acted only after Oregon voters had elected more pro-gun control Democrats in 2014, who were backed by Bloomberg’s group and other outside groups. The other states to strengthen background checks include Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington state, which passed its measure through a 2014 ballot initiative after the legislation stalled in the statehouse.

Advocates have already gotten enough signatures to put a similar background check initiative on the ballot in Nevada for the 2016 elections, and they’re now pushing to do the same in Maine and Arizona. In fact, there is broad, bipartisan support for expanded background checks. A recent Pew poll shows that 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans support them. The ballot initiatives push aims to tap into that public support and go around politicians beholden to the National Rifle Association. “It gets to the problem of special interests and gummed up legislative bodies. If the people and voters notice something works, they’ll support it,” said Ambler.

Other incremental changes are also gaining traction in red and blue states alike. Since the Sandy Hook shooting, 11 states have strengthened laws to prevent domestic abusers from obtaining guns, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. “The area with clearly the most activity is strengthening laws designed to keep guns from domestic violence offenders. It’s the type of policy that fairly conservative places like Louisiana and Wisconsin are strengthening,” said Dan Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

The federal law prohibiting domestic abusers from buying guns is restricted to spouses. Some states, however, have expanded that definition to non-married intimate partners and convicted stalkers. In June 2014, for example, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a bill that would prevent those who were deemed “a credible threat to the physical safety of a family member or household member” under a court protective order from possessing firearms.

It’s one issue where the horror stories and the data do seem to be making a difference. Ambler frequently cites research showing that women who are physically abused are five times more likely to be murdered if their abusive partner owns a firearm. Other data show that nearly two-thirds of women killed by guns in 2011 were killed by intimate partners. “We’ve used that context really effectively to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers,” said Ambler. “The data is really important in making our case. The more we have of that, the more opportunity we’ll have to pass stronger and stronger gun laws.”

Louisiana is also among the 19 states that have restricted access to guns on the basis of mental health. Jindal helped pass new policies that require the state to report involuntary commitments for mental health automatically to the federal criminal background check system. “I think every state should strengthen their laws,” he said in June. “Every state should make sure this information is being reported in the background system.”

But Louisiana, however, is also a prime example of the real limitations of state-level reform. Efforts to prevent narrow classes of people from buying guns aren’t the most effective way to reduce gun violence. Mental illness, for example, isn’t a great way to predict gun violence. In Connecticut, a mental-health reporting law that is similar to the one in Louisiana barely made a dent in reducing violence, as The Atlantic’s David Graham notes.

And Louisiana still has some of the country’s worst gun violence and weakest gun laws, as my colleague Rebecca Leber points out. Jindal has made the problem worse in many ways:

Jindal has worked to weaken the state’s already lax gun control by signing a wave of bills in 2013 and 2014. He broadened the "Stand Your Ground" law to protect shooters who hurt, but don’t kill, someone they feel is threatening. He allowed concealed weapons in places that serve alcohol. He banned public access to the personal information of concealed handgun permit owners. He approved guns in churches. And he allowed Louisianans to apply for lifetime concealed-carry permits.

While some conservative states are willing to expand the categories of people who should be restricted from having guns, they reject policies that aim to restrict the use or availability of weapons more broadly. In fact, many have moved to loosen those laws in recent years. Shortly before officially declaring his run for president in July, for example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker eliminated the waiting period for handguns, a year after strengthening protocols for taking firearms away from domestic abusers. “They don’t see the problem as the gun—they see the problem as the bad person,” said Webster.

Gun-control advocates have successfully blocked some of the measures to water-down gun laws. Most recently, they stopped North Carolina from repealing a state law that requires any prospective gun owner to pass a background check. But the NRA has continued to dig in on the state level. (The group didn’t respond to a request for comment.) As with immigration—another example of congressional deadlock—states have become increasingly polarized between those with relatively robust gun control laws and those with exceptionally weak ones.

Research has shown, moreover, that guns travel very easily across state lines, and states with weak gun laws are more likely to export guns used in crimes. “A state’s gun laws are only as good as the weakest link in the national chain,” criminologist James Alan Fox told The New York Times in 2010. That’s why state-level reforms aren’t a replacement for a federal overhaul. And gun-control advocates hope that the action in the states will ultimately increase momentum for change in Washington, citing the marriage equality movement as a model. “Every year [the debate] seems to be more polarized, but we are much more organized than we’ve ever been before,” said Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, meanwhile, is hoping that his state will be next one to move forward. After Wednesday’s shooting, he renewed his call to tighten background checks. “I have no idea if any new gun laws would have changed that, we don’t know, but my job as governor is to do everything I humanly possibly can do to make our communities safe,” he said. Virginia Republicans quickly pointed out that Vester Flanagan had passed a background check when he bought his gun, and accused McAuliffe of politicizing the tragedy.

But that’s the trouble with the parameters of the current debate, on both the state and the federal level. The focus on screening out certain groups of people, rather than restricting guns more broadly, means the reforms being debated will necessarily be limited in scope. There’s growing research showing that more guns simply means more crime. And trying to weed out dangerous individuals ahead of time will only have so much of an impact, given the challenge of that task and the sheer number of guns in this country.