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States rush to expand gun rights despite calls for stricter laws

·Senior White House Correspondent
·7 min read
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WASHINGTON — Even as Democrats and some Republicans in Washington work to forge a consensus on modest gun control measures following last week’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, state legislatures across the country are continuing to undo existing regulations.

Monday saw a state Senate committee in Ohio debate a measure, already passed by the state House, that would make it easier for teachers to bring guns into the classroom.

“They are the good guys wanting to protect others from the bad guys. Put your trust in the good guys,” a school superintendent said in support of the bill in March, echoing the rhetoric that the National Rifle Association has used since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that arming teachers would make schools safer.

A father walks with his arm around his young son as men holding guns walk near them.
Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012. (Jessica Hill/AP)

Polls show that most Americans, including conservatives, support imposing new restrictions on purchasing and carrying weapons. Yet public outcry and opposition from law enforcement groups may not make a difference in Ohio, or elsewhere.

Across much of the Midwest and Southeast, Republicans have complete control of state legislatures. The bills they pass can expect swift endorsement from Republican governors, some of whom have national ambitions that likely would not survive the opposition of gun activists and groups.

In late April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is widely expected to seek the presidency in 2024, vowed to undo permitting requirements for gun owners wishing to carry their weapons in public.

“The Legislature will get it done. I can’t tell you if it’s going to be next week, six months, but I can tell you that before I am done as governor, we will have a signature on that bill,” DeSantis said of the proposal, known as permitless or constitutional carry.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks into a microphone.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking in Miami on May 9. (Marta Lavandier/AP)

The killings in Uvalde focused new attention on the proposal, even though the suspect in that shooting bought his weapons legally. Two of the most high-profile mass shootings in the nation — at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018 — took place in Florida (DeSantis did not become governor until 2019).

“Florida is already a gun-friendly state. Floridians don't need another law to make it even easier to put deadly weapons in the wrong hands,” a recent editorial in the Gainesville Sun stated, deeming the proposal the “latest political sop to the far-right fringe” by DeSantis.

DeSantis has said nothing about his permitless carry proposal since Uvalde. His press secretary, Christina Pushaw, did not answer several requests for comment from Yahoo News.

Suzanne Devine Clark places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Suzanne Devine Clark, a teacher at a nearby school, at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2019, the first anniversary of the shooting there. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Louisiana is also moving forward with permitless carry, despite having some of the highest gun violence rates in the nation. Permitless carry actually causes gun violence to increase “substantially,” research has found.

Conservatives say that deteriorating mental health, not gun ownership, is responsible for the tragedies in Uvalde and in Buffalo, N.Y., where a racist gunman killed 10 supermarket shoppers in a predominantly Black neighborhood earlier in May. They have also pointed to violent films and video games, though these are enjoyed in other nations without the attendant gun deaths.

“How is it that as a culture our reactions are so violent that we seek and worship and pay for and be entertained by violence to such a degree?” said Rusty Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona House, as he and other Republicans stymied a new Democratic effort to institute stricter gun ownership provisions in a state where a 2011 mass shooting nearly killed Rep. Gabby Giffords. Six people died in that attack, including a 9-year-old girl.

Arizona had made permitless carry legal the year before.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, with a group of lawmakers behind him, speaks at a lectern.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on May 25. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Proponents of gun control wonder why expanding gun rights is necessary when the fundamental right to bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment. For gun control activists, the model is California, which has implemented strict controls and has seen deaths from firearms drop as a result.

“When California moves, other states move in the same direction,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week. But the states most likely to adopt stricter gun control measures, like New York, already have strict measures in place.

Although mass shootings with assault rifles, especially in schools, understandably garner outsize public attention, assault rifles are used in only 3% of all gun killings. Handguns are used in a majority of gun crimes, according to the Pew Research Center. And a majority of gun deaths in the United States result not from crime but from suicide.

Americans in favor of gun control are looking longingly to Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proposed severe new restrictions on owning and purchasing handguns. Even as bipartisan efforts at gun control proceed in Washington, wide swaths of the U.S. are loosening restrictions.

A visitor places bracelets on crosses labeled with the names of victims in the Uvalde shooting.
A visitor at a memorial in Uvalde to the victims in last week's shooting. (Eric Gay/AP)

In New Hampshire, Republicans have proposed a bill that would make it illegal to enforce federal gun laws. “The federal government could send out ATF or the FBI or whatever, to enforce that law, but the state enforcement agents would not be able to assist in that,” one Republican state legislator recently explained.

“Gun laws save lives, and following the horrific tragedy in Uvalde and the daily gun violence across the country, there is real momentum on the state level to get things done and take meaningful action on gun safety,” Monisha Henley, a state policy expert at Everytown for Gun Safety, told Yahoo News.

“Unfortunately, in states like Texas, lawmakers offer nothing but thoughts, prayers and empty promises,” Henley said. “They not only refuse to pass lifesaving gun safety laws — they continue to strip us of our basic public safety measures, ignoring the law enforcement and parents pleading for safer communities and passing laws like permitless carry that often removes the last guardrail available to law enforcement.”

A customer holds a handgun with a sales tag on it at a gun range.
A customer holds a handgun for sale at a gun range in West Point, Ky., in 2021. (Jon Cherry/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Texas enacted permitless carry last year. “We need to erect a complete barrier against any government official anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas,” Gov. Greg Abbott — another Republican with rumored presidential ambitions — said in early 2021.

Permitless carry is legal in 25 states, with seven more pushing to enact the measure. Only 12% of Americans support doing away with permits for gun owners who want to arm themselves in public, according to a 2015 survey by polling firm Strategies 360. Yet the intense polarization of American politics means that even a measure supported by nine out of 10 people cannot be endorsed without the fear of political retribution.

In 2020, Lauren Boebert won a Colorado congressional election for her defiant pro-gun stance. Servers at the restaurant she owns, Shooters Grill, proudly carry handguns on their hips as they sling burgers and pints. Two years later, with Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the pro-gun message has become even more central to Republicans’ political identity.

A waitress with a gun on her hip serves customers at Shooters Grill.
Waitress Jessie Spaulding serves customers at Shooters Grill in Rifle, Colo., in 2018. (Emily Kask/AFP via Getty Images)

“You basically have Republican primary candidates trying to explain to Republican primary voters that they are going to be on their side when it comes to the cultural cold civil war that’s being fought right now,” a Republican strategist explained to the New York Times last week.

Speaking on MSNBC last week, Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow — a recent viral sensation — argued that Democrats had lost ground on both abortion and gun rights by not tending more carefully to state-level races.

Democrats need to “work from the bottom up,” she argued. The work will not be easy, as Republicans now control 54% of all state legislative seats across the country. There are also 23 states in which a Republican legislature sends a bill to a Republican governor, all but ensuring passage. By contrast, there are only 14 such fully Democratic states.