Gun Violence Renews Legislative Debate

Times Staff Writer

The massacre at a Wisconsin church service 10 days ago left Corey Graff outraged.

Outraged at the loss of life, of course. But furious, too, at state legislators who have refused to grant citizens the right to carry concealed handguns.

Graff plans to push the issue again this spring. This time, the Wisconsin activist hopes that lawmakers will imagine themselves in that church service -- cowering, crying, wishing they had a gun at hand to defend themselves.


“Hopefully something positive can come out of the tragedy,” Graff said.

With dozens of gun-related bills working their way through state legislatures around the country, activists on both sides of the issue have come to regard a recent spate of high-profile shootings as a catalyst to advance their causes.

Deadly shootings at courthouses in Atlanta and Tyler, Texas, the slaying of a judge’s family in Chicago, a horrific weekend of violence in Philadelphia and the rampage at a church service in Brookfield, Wis., form an emotional backdrop to ongoing debates in a number of state capitols.

Both sides are careful to say they do not want to politicize the incidents. Lawmakers and activists also acknowledge that the violence is unlikely to sway many votes, since politicians’ positions on gun issues tend to be firmly fixed.

“I try not to form my public policy decisions in response to specific events,” said Nebraska state Sen. Adrian Smith, a Republican.

Still, he said, hearing about so many brutal incidents in such quick succession “gives you pause.... You think, ‘How can we try to prevent something like that from happening again?’ ”

Smith’s answer, in part, is to push a bill that would let Nebraskans carry concealed weapons, as citizens of 46 states can. Pro-gun legislation pending elsewhere in the nation includes a measure in Utah to allow hidden handguns in cars and a bill in Tennessee that would let residents take firearms into schools, day-care centers and bars.

Plenty of gun control legislation is also on the table. Washington, Oregon, Florida and several other states are considering banning assault weapons. Connecticut, New Jersey and New York may block the sale of .50-caliber rifles, as California did last year.

The recent bloodshed “definitely has an impact” on such debates, said Jonathan Lackland, a gun control lobbyist who works Midwest statehouses. He’s hoping, in particular, that the incidents motivate lawmakers to expand background checks of gun buyers. Bills to require background checks at gun shows are pending in at least four states: Arizona, Illinois, Iowa and Washington.

The rash of shootings has also inspired several pieces of new legislation.

In Illinois and Texas, lawmakers are working on bills to let judges or prosecutors carry weapons to court.

In Pennsylvania, urban legislators are pleading with their colleagues to revoke a law that blocks cities from enacting tough gun controls. They’re desperate to crack down on guns in Philadelphia -- where a 9-year-old was among eight people shot to death one weekend this month. Overall, homicides are up more than 9% in the city this year -- and at least three-quarters of the killings involve guns.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” said state Rep. John Myers, a Philadelphia Democrat. “But when I turn on my news at 5 o’clock and I see two, three, four young people shot dead every single day, I believe that -- win, lose or draw -- we have to keep fighting this fight.”

The passion generated by the recent shootings is focused mostly at the state level. (The only major gun bill before the U.S. Congress this session is a proposal to shield gun manufacturers from some lawsuits.)

Even before the Feb. 28 slayings of U.S. Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow’s husband and mother, Illinois had emerged as the state with the most gun legislation pending. Lawmakers are considering more than a dozen proposals, many of them backed by the National Rifle Assn.

One would lower the legal age for gun purchases from 21 to 18. Another would shield the identity of gun buyers by requiring police to destroy purchase records. Perhaps most contentious is the concealed-carry bill introduced by state Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat who represents the farming and hunting country of southern Illinois.

Phelps joins a growing number of rural Democrats nationwide -- in states as diverse as Pennsylvania, Washington and Missouri -- willing to buck their party leadership on gun issues.

Spurred by the recent courthouse shootings and the targeting of Lefkow’s family, Phelps is also working on a bill to let judges, and perhaps prosecutors, carry weapons both on and off the job.

That pleases prosecutor Tim Huyett, who works in Illinois’ Logan County. Some of the killers he has put behind bars have left him with “a very uneasy feeling,” he said, but he never thought he could do much about it, other than stay vigilant. Now he’s going to demand the right to carry a gun for self-defense, and he’s confident lawmakers will listen.

“This is a good time to get it made part of the discussion in Illinois,” he said.

Matt Bingham, a prosecutor in Smith County, Texas, senses a similar shift in mood in his state.

Bingham has repeatedly been threatened by gang members flashing a “K” for kill or signaling they’d like to put a bullet through his head. But his remarks over the years that he’d like to carry a gun “didn’t have the immediacy or the urgency they do now,” he said.

On Feb. 24, a man in the middle of a child custody dispute opened fire with a knockoff AK-47 on the courthouse steps in Tyler. He killed his ex-wife, wounded his adult son and shot dead a man who tried to intervene by pulling out his own gun, a Colt .45. A few days later, Bingham told lawmakers he thought he needed protection in court. “They were very open,” he said. “And responsive.”

Texas judges are already permitted to carry concealed weapons in court; legislation is now being drafted to let prosecutors arm themselves as well.

Gun rights advocates say incidents such as the Tyler shootout will reinforce Americans’ growing reluctance to view gun control laws as the only rational response to spiraling violence. In the early 1990s, the Gallup Poll reported that 71% of Americans wanted harsher restrictions on guns. A few years later, that number was down to 62%. By last fall, it had dropped to 54%.

“In a post-9/11 world, a lot of people are more apt to think about [guns in terms of] providing their own personal protection,” said Todd Vandermyde, the NRA’s Illinois lobbyist.

Gun control activists counter that most Americans still want tough gun laws vigorously enforced. (In last fall’s Gallup Poll, 11% called for relaxing existing regulations.)

They have faith that most Americans will respond to the recent shootings by demanding an end to loopholes that make it easy to buy guns.

“When you have a lot of these incidents happening at about the same time, people start to put one and one together,” said Brian Malte, outreach director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a lobbying group.

The number of people murdered by firearms across the nation jumped 14% between 1999 and 2003, the latest year that complete figures are available.

The total number of people killed by firearms (which includes suicides and accidents) has also begun to creep back up after seven consecutive years of decline during the 1990s.

A mass shooting always attracts headlines. But every day smaller incidents pass unnoticed.

Last week, a second-grader in Columbus, Ohio, brought a .45-caliber pistol to school in his book bag. He was shot in the hand when the gun accidentally discharged.

“Sooner or later, people are going to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Toby Hoover, executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence.

Hoover hopes the recent rampages push voters -- and lawmakers -- to that tipping point.

On the other side of the debate, so does Corey Graff.

“How many dead people is it going to take before the Legislature does the right thing and passes a concealed carry law?” asked Graff, executive director of Wisconsin Gun Owners Inc. “How much carnage is going to have to occur before the public wakes up?”



Gun-related legislation

Several states are considering new gun laws. Among the proposals:


Giving citizens the right to carry concealed handguns:

Illinois, Nebraska


Banning assault weapons or strengthening an existing ban:

Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington


Banning .50-caliber rifles:

Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Washington


Closing the gun show loophole by requiring all gun buyers to undergo background checks:

Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Washington


Expanding the rights of citizens to carry concealed handguns:

Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia


Sources: National Rifle Assn.; Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Centers for Disease Control; Federal Bureau of Investigation

Graphics reporting by Stephanie Simon