How have states responded to the gun control debate?
With efforts by the Obama administration to toughen gun laws stymied in Congress, states and some cities are stepping into the void, passing laws on both sides of the fiercely contested issue.
After the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., states including New York and Connecticut passed stricter laws, banning assault weapons and limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines. This week, a federal appeals court upheld the key provisions of those laws, the first time such state bans have been ruled constitutional.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-rights groups have been pushing their own pro-gun and pro-hunting laws and count successes in more than 30 states. The NRA filed a friend-of-the court brief seeking to bring the New York and Connecticut laws before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here is a score card on the complex legal fray and players:
When did the latest fights begin?
There have always been battles over gun control, but the issue moved to the fore on Dec. 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza invaded Sandy Hook and opened fire using an assault rifle fed by a high-capacity ammunition magazine. He fired 154 rounds in under five minutes, killing 20 children and six educators in a rampage that began in the morning when he shot his mother to death and ended with Lanza killing himself as police and emergency personnel responded to the school attack. The horror of the violence, particularly the 6- and 7-year-old victims, prompted numerous calls for tougher regulation.
How did the federal government respond?
Within weeks, President Obama announced some executive actions on mental health issues and said he would push Congress to approve mandatory universal background checks on gun sales. That effort failed in the Senate in April 2013, shelving federal gun control legislation.
How did the states respond?
Though the federal effort was blocked, action on the state level picked up as states looked at gun-related issues, especially assault weapons and ammunition.
“What we are seeing is a number of number of state legislatures stepping in to do the job that Congress failed to do,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel for Everytown for Gun Safety, a group fighting gun violence.
Both Connecticut and New York passed tougher gun-control laws focused on banning assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Maryland has passed a similar law, and Colorado banned ammunition magazines that held 15 or more bullets.
In June, Texas lawmakers made carrying a concealed weapon on public college campuses legal as of August 2016. Similar measures are being debated in Florida, Michigan and Ohio.
The New York and Connecticut laws passed after Sandy Hook were immediately challenged in federal court by a coalition of firearms dealers, sports enthusiasts, gun owners and 2nd Amendment advocates. A separate suit on the Maryland law is pending in the courts, as are some suits involving municipal ordinances, including one in Wheaton, Ill., which Skaggs said banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
This summer, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a ban on possessing firearm magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. On Friday, a coalition of gun rights supporters, including the California Rifle and Pistol Assn. and California Reserve Police Officers Assn., filed suit to overturn the ban.
What happened to the legal challenge?
Federal courts upheld the New York and Connecticut laws in separate cases that were consolidated on appeal to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan. That court upheld key parts of the laws on Monday, but not all.
The court struck down as unconstitutional a Connecticut provision that banned a nonsemiautomatic Remington 7615, saying that the state had failed to present any argument about the weapon. In the New York case, the court struck down part of the law that said only seven bullets could be loaded in a 10-bullet magazine.
What do those who lost say?
Tom King, president of New York State Rifle and Pistol Assn., the lead plaintiff, said the group plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. King is also a member of the national board of the NRA, which has been involved in the case. The NRA argued in a brief that the states’ restrictions infringe upon the “core” 2nd Amendment right of self-defense. “So now we must look to the highest court in the land to reverse this decision and reaffirm our constitutional right to self-protection,” the group said.
What other gun issues have been fought on the local levels?
The state level — whether legislative or through ballot measures — is an important battleground, said Skaggs of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Since Sandy Hook, six states have expanded requirements for comprehensive background checks for the private sale of weapons, bringing the total to 18 states that require criminal background checks on handguns.
The group has pushed strongly for protection for victims of domestic abuse, and in nine states — Alabama, Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Vermont and Washington — succeeded in passing laws to keep guns out of the hands of abusers. Similar legislation has passed in New Jersey and now awaits action by the governor. Similar laws were passed in 2014 in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, according to the group.
Legislatures are gearing up for their 2016 sessions, and Skaggs said he expected more states to act on gun violence issues related to domestic abuse, a concern that seems to cross party lines, with support from some Republican governors and lawmakers.
What has the NRA done?
The NRA is at work at the state level promoting pro-gun and pro-hunting legislation, said spokeswoman Amy Hunter.
“The states continue to pass pro-Second Amendment legislation by a more than a 3-to-1 margin,” she said in an email.
According to the group’s count, 33 states approved 98 NRA-backed pro-gun or pro-hunting bills in 2013. That same year, 10 states signed 21 anti-gun bills.
“There does seem to be more gun-control action on the state level,” Hunter said, and she blamed well-financed opponents like Everytown for generating headlines.
“The issue is getting more coverage because we’re in the midst of a presidential primary season and all the Democratic contenders are racing to the left of each other to generate votes,” she stated. “Additionally, there is a concerted effort among the gun-control groups, the media, and pro-gun-control public officials like ... President Obama to exploit recent high-profile tragedies to generate headlines and drive a political agenda.”
What has President Obama’s role been?
As much as Sandy Hook pushed the gun debate in 2012, the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., is driving it now. Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, killed nine people and then himself at the school on Oct. 1.
“That is an area where … I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied,” Obama said of gun control at a nationally televised news conference, his 15th response to a mass shooting since taking office.
Obama has asked his administration to look for executive actions he can take to get around the congressional stalemate. Among the options being considered is a change in federal regulations to ensure that high-volume gun show and Internet purchasers are subject to background checks, a move that would almost certainly be challenged in court.
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