California Rep. Mike Gipson’s voice cracked as he pleaded with lawmakers last month to pass a package of gun-control bills hours after 19 schoolchildren and two teachers died in the Uvalde, Texas, massacre.
The names of all the children had not yet been released. And the Democrat, through tears, said he was still reeling after learning the high-powered assault rifle used in the shooting rendered many of the fourth graders unrecognizable.
“That image is still with me right now. What has this country become? What are we doing?” Gipson said during an hour-long hearing on legislation that later passed the state House with bipartisan support.
It was the kind of galvanizing moment that has played out time and time again following mass shootings – particularly after back-to-back massacres in social settings once considered sacred.
While Congress has not passed new gun-control restrictions in the wake of public mass shootings in recent years, hundreds of measures have passed in statehouse across the country during such moments.
Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, high-profile mass shootings have been followed by a jump in state gun-control laws in the next year or two years, according to a Washington Post analysis of data on state legislation compiled by RAND, a nonprofit policy research group.
The data also shows these movements mostly take place in statehouses controlled by Democrats, and typically when a Democrat is also serving as governor.
But the data also suggests a countertrend. In states controlled by Republicans, these successful campaigns to restrict gun rights have at times set off reactions, which lead to laws that expand the rights of gun owners and chip away at existing gun-control measures, experts said. Those laws tend to pass when there is a lull in high-profile mass shootings, and slowdown in the immediate aftermath of high-profile massacres, The Post analysis shows.
“One thing we are seeing in response to mass shootings are these dueling views – this idea of more guns preventing mass shootings or less guns preventing mass shootings,” said Alexander McCourt, a firearms policy expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
The data shows how red and blue states in an increasingly polarized nation are taking diametrically opposed approaches to the same core problems – a trend that may already be in motion in statehouses since the latest mass shootings.
At the time of the Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde massacres, most state legislatures had already recessed for the year, but there are at least five active legislatures with substantial gun-control packages under consideration. Earlier this month, New York became the first and only state so far to pass gun-control measures in direct response to the mass shootings.
A smattering of Republican proposals have also been introduced in some states, which mostly seek to reduce mass shootings by expanding mental health programs or by fortifying schools with metal detectors or armed security. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill into law on Monday that reduces the required hours of firearm training for school employees to carry guns on campus.
The trends become most clear in the wake of two mass shootings in 2012: The massacres at Sandy Hook Elementary School and a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Although President Barack Obama’s push to enact new federal restrictions on assault weapons after those attacks failed in Congress, in the following year, 16 states and the District of Columbia did enact new gun-control laws.
Most of those laws created restrictions on who can obtain a firearm. California enacted a law in 2016 that requires anyone convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors to relinquish all their firearms. And in 2019, Washington state enacted a law that prohibits the transfer of a semiautomatic rifle to anyone under 21.
That was quadruple the rate of such laws passing in state houses in the two years leading up to those shootings, when nine states passed gun-control laws in 2010 and 2011 combined.
Conversely, in the year preceding the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings, 10 states passed laws expanding gun rights. In the two years following those shootings – in 2013 and 2014 – the trend slowed down, with only four states passing such measures each year. A majority of these bills either allow gun owners to carry and conceal their firearms without first obtaining a permit from state or local authorities or were “stand your ground” laws, which remove legal requirements for a person facing imminent threat of physical harm to retreat as much as possible.
Since the Sandy Hook shooting, 165 laws that restrict gun rights and 39 laws that expand gun rights have passed. During that time, only six states failed to pass any form of gun legislation – Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
“It is unfortunate that our attention span goes to these moments, and that this is when folks are feeling that rage and that call to action,” said Monisha Henley, senior director of state government affairs at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group, later adding, “It’s important to meet the moment after tragedies and states continue to do that.”
Several gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, did not respond to requests for comment. However, several groups posted messages for members on their websites after the Texas school shooting, including Guns for America, which accused Everytown and other gun-control advocacy groups of politicizing the tragedy and using “the emotion of the moment to get gun control enacted.”
Political experts say it has become easier for states to set firearms policies on either end of the spectrum because over the past two decades, states are increasingly turning solidly red or blue.
Since 2002, the number of states with one party control in both legislative chambers and the governor’s office rose from 20 to 37, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans now control the legislature and the governor’s office in 23 states and Democrats control 14, the group’s data shows. (Democrats also control the Washington, D.C., government).
“The proportion of states that have mixed party control has shrunk substantially over the years,” said Ryan D. Enos, a Harvard political scientist who studies partisan segregation. “You don’t have a Democratic governor who might veto a Republican bill. You don’t have a Republican governor who might veto a bill by Democrats. When you don’t have a lot of competing factions, you can get a lot done.”
Although partisan policies usually predict the outcome on gun laws, there have been some exceptions in recent years.
Last spring, Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed a Republican-backed bill that would have blocked federal gun laws from being enforced in the state, including registration and tracking of guns and ammunition.
Months before, as Republican Glenn Youngkin was running for Virginia governor, he decided to not seek the backing of the National Rifle Association. Youngkin, a longtime NRA member, declined to fill out the group’s candidate endorsement questionnaire – something many political pundits say may have helped him win.
And when the votes were cast in the California Assembly on Gipson’s gun-control bill last month, six Republicans voted in support of the measure. It passed 62-0 and is now in the hands of lawmakers in the California Senate. (One independent lawmaker also voted for the measure, and 16 Republicans did not vote.)
Gipson’s bill would crack down on the proliferation of untraceable firearms, called ghost guns, which people typically buy online and assemble at home. They are often sold as kits, which include the parts and equipment necessary to build the guns.
“As a law-abiding gun owner, I’m standing here in support of” the bill, said Republican state Rep. Laurie Davies in a hearing, adding that the bill “is supportable because we are not going after law-abiding gun owners who follow current laws and procedures when registering their legal guns.”
Also in Congress last week, the House passed some of the most aggressive gun-control measures in years including raising the minimum age for the purchase of most semiautomatic rifles to 21 and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines. Five Republicans joined most Democrats in backing the bills.
And on June 12, a bipartisan group of senators – 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans – announced they had reached a tentative agreement on modest new gun restrictions and new mental health and school security investments, which would represent the most significant response by Congress in decades to acts of mass gun violence.
Bipartisan movements on gun-control negotiations are still aberrations.
Hours after Gipson and Davies both spoke in favor of the new legislation in California, Republican lawmakers in other states blasted out messages against the state gun-control efforts cresting after the Texas school shooting. They blamed the shootings on sin, drugs, mental illness and children being raised without a father.
“Legislation cannot solve the sin problem,” Texas state Rep. Matt Schaefer posted on Twitter.
Arkansas state Rep. Stephen Meeks retweeted a message that “America is sin-sick to the point of death. We don’t need a pretty Band-Aid.”
Their statements followed a typical pattern after a mass shooting. As Republicans railed against gun control, Democrats gathered in statehouses across the country to resurrect stalled measures and to craft new ones during the days-long window when lawmakers have sufficient will to act.
No state moved more swiftly last month than New York, which a week after the Texas school shooting passed a package of 10 bills that raised the minimum age to buy a semiautomatic rifle to 21, revised the state’s red-flag law and banned most civilians from buying bullet-resistant body armor.
“Gun violence is an epidemic that is tearing our country apart. Thoughts and prayers won’t fix this, but taking strong action will,” Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said after signing the bills last week.
Although it is not yet known how many state gun-control measures will pass in response to the Buffalo and Texas shootings, the burst of activity in state houses fits past patterns, The Washington Post’s analysis shows.
After dozens of bills passed in 2013 in response to mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Aurora movie theater, another rash of high-profile massacres followed, prompting another wave of gun-control laws.
A 2016 shooting at an Orlando nightclub was followed by a 2017 shooting at a concert in Las Vegas. Then in 2018, there were two high-profile school shootings in Florida and Texas. Collectively, 135 people perished in the massacres.
In the aftermath, 18 states and Washington, D.C. – all but four with Democrats in the majority – passed 58 gun-control laws in 2018 and 2019. Notably, Florida Republicans passed a law in 2018 after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that included provisions to ban the sale of firearms to people under 21 and to impose a three-day waiting period on most long-gun sales.
And as with past gun-control movements, a smaller counter movement was taking place in Republican-controlled state houses, with seven states each passing a bill that loosened gun restrictions during these same two years.
Experts say the laws that seek to deregulate gun control are not always done in response to gun-control efforts that mount after high-profile massacres. Many of them are part of long-term strategies on key issues – such as allowing gun owners to secure and carry guns without a permit. The Post data analysis also shows that these small but steady deregulation efforts have had a cumulative impact.
“Some of this is absolutely happening in response to these mass shootings but there is also a longer-term trend of deregulation of guns, particularly in public spaces, like government buildings, and for permitless carry,” McCourt said.
The Post analysis shows that since 2012, 14 states have loosened their concealed carry laws – which allow gun owners to carry their weapons without first securing a permit from law enforcement – while no states have tightened these restrictions. Illinois prohibited concealed carry until a federal court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional, prompting the state to pass legislation allowing it on a permitted basis. The District of Columbia made a similar change in response to a court ruling.
Since Columbine, California has passed the most gun-control bills, with 27 becoming law, and Missouri has passed the most gun-control deregulation bills, with 11 becoming law, The Post analysis shows.
The most sweeping state gun deregulation could come this summer – not from legislatures, but from an anticipated Supreme Court ruling on a Second Amendment case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. The gun-rights group is challenging a 111-year-old New York state law that requires authorities to exercise broad discretion when issuing concealed-carry pistol permits.
When judges heard oral arguments in November, a majority appeared skeptical of the law’s constitutionality. This could have sweeping effects on state-level concealed carry laws, experts said, even if the court only strikes down permitless carry laws identical or nearly identical to New York’s.
“There are only a handful of states that have concealed carry laws that look like New York,” said Darrell A.H. Miller, a constitutional expert and co-director of Duke University’s Center for Firearms Law. “But even though a narrow ruling would only cover a minority of states, they represent about a quarter of the [U.S.] population.”
Other bills could still gain traction.
Gipson’s ghost gun legislation is part of a package of eight bills in California that are moving through various committees in the House and Senate. In Pennsylvania, bills on background checks, secure storage and a 72-hour waiting period are under consideration. A Republican-sponsored bill is scheduled for a legislative hearing Monday that would provide a legal mechanism for loved ones and law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily disarm someone in crisis. And in Delaware, hearings began last week on a six-bill package that would ban the sale of assault weapons, limit high-capacity magazines, raise the limit to purchase most firearms from 18 to 21 and strengthen background checks.
On June 10, the state House in Rhode Island passed three gun-control bills, including one that would prohibit high capacity magazines and raise the age to purchase shotguns and rifles from 18 to 21.
In New Jersey, which already has some of the strictest gun measures in the nation, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy called on the legislature last month to act on a series of gun-control proposals in a package he is calling, “Gun Safety 3.0.” The proposals include a ban on .50 caliber firearms, mandatory gun safety classes to secure a firearms permit and a bill that would require microstamping technology, which allows police to link firearm cartridge casings from the scene of a crime to a specific firearm.
The day after the Texas school shooting, Murphy took an unusual approach to advancing his legislative agenda on guns: He called on leaders of the House and Senate to put all gun bills up for a vote, including ones that would expand gun rights.
One of those proposals, introduced two days after the shooting at a Buffalo grocery store, calls for $1 million in state funds for high-schoolers to start gun clubs. Another bill, introduced that same day, would decriminalize the purchase, possession and transfer of armor-piercing ammunition and firearms with sound and flash suppressors.
“Let’s make every legislator choose whose side they have chosen to be on,” Murphy said in calling for the vote.
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.