In capitols and courthouses, no end to national divide over gun policy

Gun Rights

Demonstrators confront gun enthusiasts as they enter the NRA annual convention in Houston, Texas, just days after the shooting in Uvalde, on May 28, 2022. In the year since Uvalde — the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn. — both sides of the issue have made gains and endured setbacks as they seek to define the role of guns in American life.

By Shaila Dewan

Less than a month after 19 children and two teachers died in the elementary school shooting last year in Uvalde, Texas, the U.S. Senate passed the most significant gun control bill since the long-expired federal ban on assault weapons.

The very same day, June 23, the Supreme Court upended gun policy in jurisdictions with some of the country’s strictest laws, like New York; Washington, D.C.; and California, saying for the first time that people have the right to carry guns outside their homes.

In a country already raw with anger over gun policy, the new law from Congress and the sweeping decision by the Supreme Court only intensified the national fight over guns, spurring fresh legal challenges and legislative debates in courts and statehouses across the country.

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And in the year since Uvalde — the deadliest school shooting since the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — both sides of the issue have made gains and endured setbacks as they seek to define the role of guns in American life.

From Colorado to Michigan to New Jersey, proponents of gun regulation have passed laws intended to limit access to firearms or blunt the effects of the Supreme Court case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen.

Opponents have moved swiftly to contest many such restrictions, using Bruen as the basis for one court challenge after another. And in states that were already gun-friendly, gun rights groups have worked to further expand access to firearms.

In April, Florida became the largest state besides Texas to do away with permit requirements, joining the broad swath of the country where it has become easier than ever to carry a gun.

Even in the face of such striking changes, gun control supporters say their side is gaining ground. They point to a succession of legislative wins and to polls showing increasing public support for some degree of regulation. A poll released Wednesday by NPR, PBS and Marist College found that 60% of Americans, including 4 in 10 who own guns, think it is more important to control gun violence than to protect gun rights.

In the past week, Minnesota and Michigan became the 20th and 21st states to enact red flag laws designed to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are at risk of harming themselves or others. In New York last August, the state established gun-free zones in sensitive areas like Times Square. And in New Jersey in December, the governor signed into law a long list of places where guns were not permitted.

The court challenges to some of those laws have been swift. In New York, a federal judge blocked parts of the law, but it has remained in effect while the state appeals. And just last week, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking many provisions of the New Jersey law. The judge said the state could not forbid guns in many of the settings set forth in the new law, including bars, doctors’ offices and zoos, though private business owners could chose to do so.

Dudley Brown, the president of the National Association for Gun Rights, which opposes any restrictions on gun ownership, said the Bruen decision was a bulwark against regulation and would help his organization win a host of lawsuits against gun restrictions.

But he said that even with the Bruen ruling, a monumental victory in the Supreme Court, the fight would be playing out for years in state legislatures and lower courts that now have to interpret the decision. “It often feels like one step forward, two steps back,” he said.

Public opinion has long favored limiting access to guns, with the share of Americans saying that “laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict” rarely dipping below half, according to Gallup. After the Uvalde shooting, the share rose to two-thirds of Americans.

And gun control advocates have learned from their defeats, organizing and building political infrastructure. “I worked in Congress for many years. I was never lobbied by a representative of a gun safety organization,” said Peter Ambler, referring to groups like the one he now directs, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, that support limiting access to firearms. Now, Ambler said, such organizations have public opinion on their side and clout on Capitol Hill.

Mass shootings have brought days of fiery protests even to statehouses where gun rights have long been sacrosanct, like Austin, Texas, where the families of Uvalde victims waited long hours to testify; and Nashville, Tennessee, where thousands of people clamored for an assault weapons ban, a red flag law and other gun control measures after three adults and three children were fatally shot by an assailant at the Covenant School in March.

Gun regulation advocates say that red flag laws could prevent shootings like the one in Nashville, in which the suspect identified by the police had been in treatment for an emotional disorder and had recently purchased seven guns.

But the Legislature took no action, other than expelling two Democratic lawmakers who took the protest to the chamber floor. Now Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, is saying that he will call lawmakers to a special session in August to address public safety. “There is broad agreement that action is needed,” the governor said in a statement.

Some gun control advocates say that efforts to make it easier to carry guns can coexist with measures that keep guns out of the hands of those who intend to do harm.

“Laws that actually use a scalpel to really identify risk, and laws that can prevent that risk from turning into mayhem, is the most important thing to focus on,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group founded by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media magnate and former New York City mayor. “This can’t be a referendum on gun ownership. This is a referendum on safety.”

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