Illustration by Dushan Milic
In December, Stacey Newman, the soft-spoken leader of the Progressive caucus in the Missouri House of Representatives, decided that she had had enough.
“In 2015, about 32,000 Americans died of gunshot wounds, about eighty-eight every day,” notes Newman, a Democrat who represents a district in suburban St. Louis County. After the horrific shootings at a church in South Carolina, a community college in Oregon, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, and a health center in California, Newman decided to jump-start the push for common-sense gun laws by designing a measure that was sure to attract public attention.
She proposed a bill to require gun buyers to wait seventy-two hours to make a gun purchase—the same rule in place for Missouri women who seek abortions.
“Public apathy is the greatest weapon of the National Rifle Association,” says Newman. “As a result, national legislation is stalled. Congress hasn’t passed a major gun control bill since 1994, when it approved the assault weapons ban.” The ban expired in 2004 and has not been renewed.
Under Newman’s bill, gun buyers would also be required to tour an emergency room between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekends, when firearm victims are present, and meet with at least two families affected by gun violence as well as two individuals who have officiated at the funerals of minors who were shot dead.
“I wanted to inject the human consequences of gun violence into the debate, so that state legislators would begin thinking about how gun violence affects their families, friends, and co-workers,” she says. “Too often, the devastating consequences get overlooked in the NRA’s emphasis on the Second Amendment and the right of individuals to bear arms.”
Newman achieved her goal: The bill, which has virtually no chance of passage in Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature, went viral on the Internet, generating thousands of letters from people across the nation who said they were fed up and wanted their elected representatives to act.
“I will continue to introduce gun control measures and generate public support,” vows Newman, who is now working with Washington University in St. Louis on a year-long initiative that treats gun violence as a public health problem. “The most important lesson I have learned is that tenacity eventually pays off because the evidence that gun control laws save lives wears down the opposition.”
Other state lawmakers—mindful that gun control measures stand no chance in Congress and that President Obama’s executive actions on guns are largely symbolic—are also doing what they can to enact laws and change attitudes. Lawmakers in forty-one states have passed 125 gun control laws since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, reports the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a San Francisco–based nonprofit.
“At least sixteen states are considering bills to close the private sale loophole by requiring a background check at some point prior to the transfer of a firearm by an unlicensed seller,” says Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney at the center. “Another thirteen states are considering bills that will remove firearms from the hands of domestic abusers, and eight are weighing bills to prohibit individuals on the terrorist watch list from possessing and/or purchasing firearms.”
Gun control proponents have scored victories in red states including Louisiana as well as blue bastions like California by framing gun control as a public health issue. They say gun deaths, like highway fatalities, can be reduced by adopting safety measures and keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
Cutilletta cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held for the first time that the Second Amendment guarantees a law-abiding citizen the right to possess a firearm in the home for lawful purposes. The court cautioned, however, that the Second Amendment did not confer a right “to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The decision went on to list laws that would be permissible, such as imposing conditions on commercial sale of firearms and prohibiting guns in sensitive places like schools. Gun control advocates realized they could plug holes in federal statutes and pass innovative laws to protect vulnerable individuals like children, victims of domestic violence, and those who are suicidal.
Since this decision, Cutilletta says, states have passed a wide variety of gun-control measures governing gun dealer sales, gun owner responsibilities, and firearms in public places. Besides laws governing handguns, some states have passed laws regulating assault weapons, machine guns, and automatic firearms. Still others allow local authorities to regulate firearms and require certain features on guns like microstamping to aid law enforcement in investigating crimes.
And while some states have actually made it easier to acquire guns in the wake of mass shootings like Sandy Hook, such efforts have not met with universal success. According to a center report, in 2015, bills permitting guns in K-12 schools were defeated in fifteen states, and fourteen states said no to legislation to force colleges and universities to allow guns on campus.
Robert Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor of political science at State University of New York at Cortland and author of five books on gun policy, is not surprised that states are seeking to fill the void left by Congress.
“For nearly a century, congressional action on gun laws has been linked to two key events—widespread criminal violence and political assassinations,” he says. “In 1934, Congress passed the National Firearms Act, which restricted sawed-off shotguns, machine guns, and silencers used by notorious criminals like Bonnie and Clyde and gangsters like John Dillinger. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy produced the impetus for the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968.”
In most years, however, Spitzer notes, debate in Congress over gun policy is controlled by the people who care about it most: gun proponents.
“For Republicans and Democrats who represent rural counties where gun ownership is widespread,” he says, “the NRA is the 800-pound gorilla in the room who will make their lives miserable and do everything they can to drive them out of office if they vote for gun control measures.”
Meanwhile, in a recent Gallup poll, only 7 percent of respondents picked guns or gun control as “the most important problem facing the country today,” well below economic concerns and a general dissatisfaction with government. The public, Spitzer says, “may urge their elected representatives to enact laws after a horrific event like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but pressure on lawmakers soon fades.”
Indeed, many people respond to mass shootings like those in 2015 by buying and carrying weapons. According to the Crime Prevention Research Center, the number of concealed carry permits in the United States nearly tripled between 2007 and 2014, from 4.7 million to 12.8 million. On the day after Thanksgiving last November, more than 185,000 federal background checks were initiated, the highest number in the program’s seventeen-year history.
Many states responded to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, which left twelve students and one teacher dead, by eliminating waiting periods and permitting people to carry weapons without obtaining permits.
Since the Sandy Hook massacre, though, gun control proponents have turned the NRA’s protection argument on its head by arguing that rules must be in place to ensure that guns aren’t sold or transferred to criminals or the violently mentally ill.
“Even the most ardent gun owner wants family members to be safe in their own homes,” said Newman. “Nobody wants to be shot at work by an intimate partner or stalker.”
Gun control proponents feel as though they have both the facts and public opinion on their side. National polls show that about 85 percent of Americans support expanded background checks. And states that require handguns to have safety features have 40 percent fewer suicides per capita than states without these laws, a 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health found.
There are many examples of laws passed at the state level (see sidebar). Louisiana is a case in point. In 2014, the state legislature passed a series of measures that included barring people convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence, or against whom an active protective order has been granted, from possessing firearms.
State Senator J.P. Morrell and state Representative Helena Moreno, both Democrats from New Orleans, proposed the bill after a ghastly homicide, which dominated local TV coverage in early 2014. A man used a shotgun to murder his former mother-in-law and ex-boss after suffocating his wife, who had recently pressed charges against him for domestic violence.
To overcome the NRA’s argument that guns protect victims during attacks, the legislators argued that a gun kept in the home is significantly more likely to be used intentionally in a crime, assault, or suicide than in an act of self-defense. They cast gun violence as a public health problem that was costing the financially strapped state millions of dollars for medical treatments and lost productivity. Most importantly, the legislators found allies, like the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, which made ending domestic violence its top priority in 2014.
This hard work paid off: The NRA, which had blocked gun control legislation in the past, did not mount an opposing campaign. The legislature unanimously passed the bills, which were signed by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who had addressed the national NRA convention the previous year.
As Louisiana’s experience shows, the public health approach is highly effective. So the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and its affiliated Million Moms March have adopted this technique to achieve their goal of cutting U.S. gun deaths in half by 2025. In addition to “stopping the bad apples”—the 5 percent of gun dealers who supply 90 percent of crime guns—the campaign hopes to get background checks applied to all gun sales and to educate the public about the risks of suicide and unintentional shooting posed by a gun in the home.
Powerful new allies are assisting the Brady Campaign, which has spearheaded the gun control movement for more than three decades, in the battle for state legislation. These include Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group founded by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Both have contributed money to the cause.
The gun lobby, of course, remains a formidable opponent.
“The greatest asset of the NRA is not money, but its intensity,” Spitzer says. “The organization relies on alarmist rhetoric to reinforce the notion that the organization is constantly under siege and on the verge of losing the victories it has won in the past. That kind of alarmist rhetoric is very important in mobilizing its base and getting its members to call, write, email, show up at hearings and do everything they can to convince legislators to do what the NRA wants.”
Indeed, at least fifteen states are considering bills to allow guns to be carried on university and college campuses. Another sixteen states are weighing bills to allow concealed weapons to be carried in public without a permit.
Still, Cutilletta remains optimistic. The last week in January, the gun control movement scored a key victory in Nebraska. A bill that would have repealed local gun laws already on the books was stopped on the floor of the legislature. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, “The measure would have dashed a local law aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of juvenile gang members and a registration requirement that allows police to deny handguns for those who are mentally ill or involved in documented gang activity.”
“We expect similar victories in other states,” Cutilletta says, “because the evidence is growing that states with weak laws like Wyoming and Mississippi have some of the highest gun death rates, while states with strong laws like California and Massachusetts have some of the lowest gun death rates. The message that gun control saves lives is becoming impossible to ignore.”
Sharon Johnson is the senior correspondent for Women’s eNews, a digital news service in New York City.