Mass shootings spur divergent laws as states split between gun rights and control

Gun Rights

Tennessee’s Republican-led Legislature is meeting in special session this week to consider a package of public safety proposals, including some stemming from a deadly shooting at a Nashville elementary school earlier this year.

Though the session is not expected to result in any new firearms restrictions, it nonetheless highlights the widely divergent response among states to a spate of mass shootings across the U.S.

More than half the states have enacted substantive new laws this year regarding gun policies or school safety measures — most often tightening firearm restrictions in Democratic-led states and loosening them in Republican-led ones. Some states also have pumped money into efforts to secure schools or to train teachers and staff how to respond in shootings.

WHAT IS TENNESSEE DOING?

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Republican Gov. Bill Lee has outlined an 18-prong agenda for Tennessee lawmakers to consider during their special session.

The proposal that has gotten the most public attention also appears among the least likely to pass. It would allow judges to order the temporary removal of guns from people determined to be a risk of killing themselves or others.

Laws allowing “extreme risk protection orders” already are in place 21 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. That includes Michigan and Minnesota, where new Democratic legislative majorities passed so-called “red flag” laws this year.

Lee has shied away from referring to his proposal as a “red flag” law, emphasizing that it would allow guns to be removed only upon clear and convincing evidence during a court proceeding — and not before the person’s court appearance.

The shooter that killed six people, including three students, at The Covenant School in Nashville had been under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder, police said, but there were no legal steps to prevent the person from buying guns.

Tennessee’s special session agenda also includes legislation regarding mental health resources, school safety plans and tougher penalties for some crimes.

WHAT HAVE DEMOCRATIC STATES DONE LATELY?

The number of states enacting firearms legislation has climbed steadily this year. The most recent action occurred in Delaware, where Democratic Gov. John Carney signed legislation Friday expanding restrictions on guns at election polling places and school property.

Less than a week earlier, fellow Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law making Illinois the eighth state to roll back legal protections for firearms manufacturers and distributors. The new law bans firearms advertising that officials determine produces a public safety threat or appeals to children, militants or others who might later use the weapons illegally.

Pritzker signed the bill alongside attendees of an annual conference hosted by the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety. The group said 2023 has been “a historic year for gun safety in the states.”

In addition to Illinois, Democratic-led legislatures in Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Michigan, Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington all passed multiple gun control provisions this year. Among other things, those laws have strengthened background checks, banned certain semi-automatic weapons and restricted so-called “ghost guns,” which lack serial numbers.

WHAT HAVE REPUBLICAN STATES DONE LATELY?

By contrast, some states have strengthened gun rights. One of the most recent laws got signed just weeks ago by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, of Alaska.

The new Alaska law bars state and local officials from restricting the sale or possession of guns and ammunition during disasters — a response to mandatory business closures during the coronavirus pandemic. The law will mean gun stores can’t be closed in emergencies unless all commerce is shut down. The National Rifle Association described it as “the first major pro-Second Amendment legislation” passed in Alaska in a decade.

Several Republican-led states also made it easier for people to carry concealed handguns. A Florida law allowing concealed guns without needing a permit took effect July 1. North Dakota expanded a similar law Aug. 1. And Nebraska will become the 26th state with such a law on Sept. 10.

Texas responded to last year’s deadly Uvalde school shooting with new laws this year that require armed security officers at every school and silent panic buttons in every classroom. The state also provided additional funding to improve the physical safety of schools.

WHAT HAVE THE COURTS SAID ABOUT GUNS?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. The ruling provided a new precedent for challenging state gun-control policies and sent some states scrambling to replace their former laws with newly reworded gun restrictions.

Most state gun laws get challenged in court, often triggering years of legal wrangling.

The most recent court ruling on guns came last week, when a federal appeals panel rejected a challenge to a 2022 New Jersey law allowing the state attorney general to bring “public nuisance” claims against gun manufacturers.

Connecticut provides another example of how the court battles can seem continuous. Earlier this month, a federal judge rejected a request to temporarily block a 2013 Connecticut law — passed after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — that added more than 100 firearms to the state’s assault weapons ban and prohibited ammunition magazines holding over 10 rounds.

But before that ruling came down, another lawsuit already had been filed against Connecticut’s latest gun restrictions, which were signed in June by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont. The new law expands the assault weapons ban even further, stiffens penalties for large-capacity ammunition magazines and bans the open carrying of firearms, among other things. Gun-rights advocates sued the same day the law was signed.

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