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Despite Shootings, Many State Legislators Resist Gun Control

Gun violence has increased during the pandemic. Recent mass shootings have intensified calls for reform, but state legislators have very different ideas about the way forward.

Flowers are seen at a fence outside the location where a gunman opened fire at King Soopers grocery store on Monday on March 23, 2021, in Boulder, Colorado. Ten people were killed in the attack. (Chet Strange/Getty Images/TNS)
Mass shootings increased by almost 50 percent in 2020, a year in which gun violence reached its highest level in decades. A toll of 18 lives within the space of days from shootings in Atlanta and Boulder may have been an anomaly, but the mix of guns and death is not. 

One or more guns are in four out of 10 American households, more guns than people in the country and about 40 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world. Unsurprisingly, when Harvard researchers analyzed the relationship between gun ownership and homicide rates in 26 high-income nations, they concluded, “where guns are more available, there are more homicides.” 
Well over 43,000 Americans died by gun violence in 2020 according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive, more than half by suicide. A November 2020 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control laws, down from 64 percent in 2019. Republican support for tighter controls has dropped steadily since 2000, from 44 percent to 22 percent, while Democratic support has risen from 61 to 85 percent.

With so many guns in so many hands, setting rules for them requires considerable legislative attention, no matter what the prevailing attitudes toward possessing them might be. In the last month alone, hundreds of bills have been introduced that have something to do with the sale, ownership and use of guns. 

A sampling of them makes it clear that while gun violence is being discussed as a national problem, states are not moving arm in arm to restrict or monitor access to firearms.

Asserting State Control

On Feb. 14, a month before the shocks of Atlanta and Boulder, President Biden commemorated the anniversary of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a tragedy that took the lives of 14 students and three staff members. He called for Congress to enact common sense reform (a call he repeated after the recent shootings). 

Following his February remarks, bills were introduced in Wyoming, Michigan, Oklahoma, Louisiana, South Dakota, North Carolina, Utah, Florida and Georgia to assert state sovereignty over the right to bear arms. Oklahoma legislators proposed that the NRA should be encouraged to relocate to their state. SCR130 in Kentucky announced an intent to withdraw from participation in REAL ID efforts by the Department of Homeland Security, in part because compliance could infringe on Second Amendment rights. 

HB3047 in West Virginia, the “Second Amendment Sanctuary Act,” aims to prohibit state agencies and employees from enforcing any federal law or guideline that does not exist under state law. Alabama SB253 would amend the state’s constitution to establish that firearms, ammunition and accessories that are made and remain in the state are not subject to any federal law, including registration. The Kentucky Firearms Protection Act creates similar prohibitions, making “unlawful enforcement” a misdemeanor and allowing $5,000 fines, declaring an emergency which demands passage of the bill at the earliest opportunity.

In Missouri, SB528 calls for the establishment of the “minutemen of the state,” to be called into service by the governor in a state of emergency. Any resident who is a lawful firearm owner can volunteer, and the names of those who enroll will not be disclosed. Volunteers are required to secure their own firearms, ammunition, uniforms and other supplies and would have immunity for negligent or criminal acts.
Thousands descend on Virginiaís statehouse to protest proposed gun laws
Gun rights protestors at the Virginia state Capitol.
Rob Ostermaier/TNS

Permits and Licenses

Monitoring the acquisition of firearms is a base-level means of addressing public safety concerns. According to the Giffords Law Center, led by Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot during a mass shooting in 2011, only 10 states require gun purchasers to obtain a permit or license before they can buy a firearm. Three require gun owners to maintain a license as long as they own a gun, and six require registration of some or all firearms.

HF756 in Iowa, which the Legislature has sent to the governor to sign, would allow residents to purchase and carry guns without a permit. A permit process would exist, but not be mandatory. The Senate floor manager for the bill characterized permits as an un-American system of “mistrust.”

However, some bills tighten gun ownership rules. Illinois HR0163 commits to passing legislation to prevent “people filled with hate” from acquiring weapons, though it does not outline a strategy that would make this possible.

A Rhode Island bill repeals portions of existing statutes that specify conditions under which those with “good reason to fear” an injury to person or property, or persons under 18, may obtain firearm permits. Maine LD999 requires background checks for private sales at gun shows, or private sales from advertising or marketing, with some exceptions.

Concealed Weapons 

Some see carrying a concealed weapon as a way to stay safe and not scare others with the sight of a gun, but the prospect of hidden firearms is not reassuring to those worried about attacks in places that they expect to be safe. 

An Ohio bill renames the state’s concealed handgun license to a “concealed weapons license,” which encompasses all deadly weapons “not otherwise prohibited by law,” including firearms, ammunition, attachments and accessories. It would also allow persons age 21 or older to carry a concealed deadly weapon without a license. Iowa SB1756 repeals existing prohibitions for carrying concealed weapons on public transportation systems. 

In a departure from general rejection of federal oversight, a New Jersey bill urges the passage of a federal statute requiring states to recognize the validity of concealed carry permits issued in another state. Heading in the opposite direction, a Rhode Island bill would strike existing law that allows licensing authorities in cities or towns to issue concealed carry permits for handguns.

Permissive rules for concealed carries could face legal challenges from gun control advocates. In 2016, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that carrying a concealed weapon is not a Constitutional right, an opinion expressed in other cases. This week, the court ruled that states could also restrict open carrying of guns without violating the Second Amendment.

Clearing the Path Forward

The ubiquity of firearms in the lives and homes of Americans would seem to offset the most divisive warnings that the right to bear arms is in danger. With more guns than people already in the country, there should be some space for discussion about policies that balance public safety and personal choice.

If all or part of recent legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives manages to make it into law, it’s evident that many states will not recognize a federal right to oversight. Even so, the disturbing increase in deaths caused by firearms could force a reckoning of some sort. Legislators convinced that guns are not the real problem may need to do more to explain what the real trouble is, and to define a path through it to reduce gun violence.

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Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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