New Gun Restrictions Are Coming in States Where Democrats Reign

Gun Rights

Illinois lawmakers wasted no time in the new legislative session, taking just five days to pass major gun safety measures that include a ban on semi-automatic rifles, high-capacity magazines and gun attachments that simulate automatic fire.

In signing the legislation, which garnered a handful of Republican votes, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker said he wanted to “end the sale of these weapons of war,” bucking warnings from many GOP lawmakers and gun rights advocates who argued the measure was overreaching and unconstitutional. Dozens of county sheriffs have pledged not to enforce the law.

“Illinois now officially prohibits the sale and distribution of these mass killing machines and rapid fire devices,” Pritzker said at the bill signing ceremony in Springfield, where Democrats hold a majority in both chambers of the legislature.

Illinois is the ninth state to ban semi-automatic rifles — sometimes called assault weapons. The law comes six months after a gunman opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, just north of Chicago. The gunman used an AR-style semi-automatic rifle, killing seven people and injuring 48 others.

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Across the country, gun safety legislation remains a top issue in statehouses, some five years after the Parkland, Florida, mass school shooting inspired a new movement against the firearms lobby.

Democratic lawmakers, some bolstered by new so-called trifectas — or control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers — are eager to pass new bans on semi-automatic rifles, while also enacting red flag laws and background checks to keep firearms out of the hands of potentially violent people.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators with strong majorities want their states to join the 25 that already allow residents to carry firearms without a permit, what many proponents call “constitutional carry” laws. Over the past five years, 11 states have enacted such laws.

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For Michigan Democrats, the current session means a rare opportunity to pass gun safety bills after years of Republican legislative control. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who won reelection in November, called for such legislation in her inaugural address.

Democratic state Sen. Rosemary Bayer is taking up that call, sponsoring legislation that would make Michigan the 20th state to implement a red flag law that would allow family members, a partner or the police to petition a court to confiscate firearms from those who might harm themselves or others.

She also is supporting measures that would require comprehensive background checks for gun purchases and the safe storage of firearms. All three measures have a chance to pass with a few Republicans supporting them, Bayer said.

“The No. 1 cause of death for children and young adults is firearms; there shouldn’t be any other statement needed after that,” she told Stateline. “We are going to fix this problem. We’re trying to make it safer for us, especially our little kids in kindergarten who are afraid to go to school.”

Bayer sponsored similar legislation last year, but the bill died in committee.

In October, a teenager killed four students at Oxford High School in southeastern Michigan, which only bolstered Bayer’s desire to pass meaningful gun safety legislation. For 26 years, she lived down the road from the high school and had friends and family members either in class that day or working as first responders.

When she knocked on 11,000 doors before the election last year, Bayer recalled, she heard from voters whose biggest priority was abortion rights. Gun violence, she said, was the second-highest priority. It’s time for lawmakers in Michigan and around the country to start following the will of voters, she argued.

Gun Rights Pushback

Democrats shouldn’t “misread their mandate,” said Brenden Boudreau, the executive director of Great Lakes Gun Rights, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based advocacy group. Boudreau warned there could be political pushback from voters if lawmakers overreach on policies that don’t prevent crime.

Boudreau said he thinks judicial hearings that allow law enforcement to seize weapons before a gun owner can offer a defense in court is a violation of constitutional rights.

“A crime hasn’t been committed, and they’re getting their rights taken away,” he said. “There are just a myriad of issues — all sorts of due process issues.”

He asserted that measures that require the safe storage of firearms are unenforceable, while background checks for gun purchases rely on a “deeply flawed” system that produces false positives. Ultimately, he argued, many of these gun control measures make people less safe and wouldn’t pass legal muster.

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Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York state law that forced residents to seek a permit that specifies a “proper cause” for carrying a handgun in public. The decision paves the way for a new, more pro-gun rights interpretation of the Constitution that could block future gun safety measures in other states.

Indeed, states should do what they can to remove burdensome gun control measures that stand in the way of the constitutional right to own and carry firearms, said Nebraska state Sen. Tom Brewer, a conservative lawmaker in the state’s unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.

When he concluded his 37 years of service in the U.S. Army in 2014 — including six tours in Afghanistan — Brewer wanted to get more familiar with his home state’s gun laws and found the policies onerous for the average person, especially those who live in rural areas. Paying $200 for a mandatory concealed carry permit and safety class is too much for those trying to put food on the table, he said.

“We’re having to pay for a right that’s in the Constitution,” he said. “People just want a clean way to be able to carry and not have to worry about being cited for it.”

Although Brewer has failed to pass this legislation before, he said he is confident he has the votes this session to add Nebraska to the growing list of states that allow for the permitless carry of firearms. And while the leading police unions in Lincoln and Omaha — Nebraska’s biggest cities — opposed the measure in the past, he said county sheriffs throughout the state have been supportive.

The measure heads to the Judicial Committee Jan. 26. Brewer added that he’s working with the Nebraska Firearms Owners Association to provide free training classes for gun owners if the bill passes.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this month said he will push for constitutional carry legislation that does away with permits. While the Florida legislature does not convene until March 7, Republican leaders have told DeSantis they have the votes to pass the measure.

Prioritizing Gun Safety

Democrats are putting their political capital behind gun safety measures in places from Massachusetts to Colorado to Washington state.

Although there are no “magic solutions” to gun violence, state lawmakers can pass reasonable policies to save lives, said Washington state Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Democrat sponsoring legislation this session that would ban semi-automatic rifles.

Washington state Democrats, who control the legislature and governor’s office, will attempt to enact a requirement that gun purchasers have a permit. While Kuderer is “not 100% confident we’re going to get this done,” she said this must be a priority for her and her colleagues.

“This bill cannot wait,” she said. “We’ve had enough tragedies. We’ve lost enough innocent people. I cannot stomach the thought of one more kid being blown away in their classroom, but we know it’s bound to happen in this country.”

These measures would build on recently enacted Washington state laws that ban high-capacity magazines and allow local governments to ban firearms in public buildings and at city council or school board meetings. Kuderer hopes measures such as these can help change the gun culture unique to the United States, creating reasonable restrictions without taking guns away.

But Aoibheann Cline, the Northwest regional director at the National Rifle Association, argued in an emailed statement that such measures are unconstitutional, do not make cities safer and create economic burdens for gun owners.

Since the Parkland shooting in 2018, Minnesota state Rep. Dave Pinto, who is a prosecutor in addition to being a legislator, has pushed for comprehensive background checks and a red flag law. But the Democrat’s legislation always stalled in the GOP-controlled state Senate. Now that Democrats have seized control of the Senate and maintain control of the House and the governor’s office, he hopes this could be the year Minnesota acts on gun safety.

Minnesota Democrats also are sponsoring legislation that would fund urban gun violence protection programs and would require safe firearm storage and the reporting of a lost or stolen gun. Simply put, Pinto said, these measures are “just so reasonable.”

As a prosecutor who has handled cases involving domestic assault and violence against women, he said he sees the impact of guns in his work every day. He said he’s worked to build support for these measures among members of law enforcement in the state.

“If we have someone who has shown themselves to be a danger to society,” he said, “we should be taking steps to keep guns out of their hands.”

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