December 14, 2013

States act as gun laws elude Congress

Democratic statehouses tighten background checks while those in Republican hands relax gun restrictions.

By Maggie Clark

WASHINGTON — One year ago, a 20-year-old gunman shot his way through the front office and into two first-grade classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., killing six adults and 20 children. Then he killed himself.

click image to enlarge

Miranda Pacchiana, center, of Newtown, Conn., wipes her eye during a National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence at Washington National Cathedral in Washington on Thursday, two days before the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. Federal gun laws remained unchanged after the furor died down, leaving states to act.

AP Photo/The Washington Post, Matt McClain, Pool

In the stunned aftermath of the Dec. 14 shooting, President Barack Obama signed 23 executive orders designed to limit gun violence. In Congress, multiple gun control measures fizzled out in the Senate without even making it to the House.

Where federal lawmakers failed to act, states debated more than 1,500 gun bills and passed 109 of them. In all of the states that made major changes to their gun laws, one party controls both the statehouse and the governor’s mansion.

Several Democratic-controlled states, for example, mandated more background checks for gun purchases. Meanwhile, Republican states loosened some gun restrictions and cleared the way for armed volunteers to guard schools. Special interests, pro and con, spent millions to sway the debate.

States also turned their attention to mental health: Thirty-seven states increased their mental health spending, restoring most of the $4.35 billion cut from state mental health funds in the last four years, according to a report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“We know that when we’ve looked back at these mass shootings, we hear people say that they knew there was something wrong, but they don’t know how to engage with that person or what services are available in the community,” said Rebecca Farley, director of policy and advocacy at the National Council for Behavioral Health.


The federal government has followed suit. Before meeting with the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the federal government will boost spending on mental health facilities and providers by $100 million this year. Half of that amount will go to community mental health centers to help people living with mental illness or addiction. The other half will go to developing mental health services in rural areas.

Would any of these actions have prevented the Newtown tragedy? It’s unlikely any gun laws passed this year would have prevented Adam Lanza from carrying out the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He used guns and ammunition purchased legally by his mother (whom he killed in their home before going to the school). He had been evaluated by mental health professionals who told her he was not a risk to himself or to others. However, the Bushmaster Model XM15-E2S rifle he used is no longer available for purchase in Connecticut under the state’s new assault weapons ban.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the shootings, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has asked that houses of worship ring bells 26 times at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Gun control groups organized by Obama’s campaign group, Organizing for Action, will mark the day with rallies encouraging lawmakers to toughen gun laws.

Though no federal gun laws changed this year, the possibility of change was enough to prompt Kansas and Alaska lawmakers to enact laws nullifying federal gun regulations for guns manufactured and kept within state borders.


Missouri Republican lawmakers passed a nearly identical bill, but failed to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto by one vote. Montana went to federal court to defend a similar law it passed in 2009. The law was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder threatened to sue Kansas if it tried to enforce its nullification law. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback refused to repeal the law, but there has been no further confrontation.

Similar bills were debated in at least 33 other states this year, according to the Sunlight Foundation. In Virginia, for example, Republican Del. Bob Marshall has pre-filed a nullification bill in advance of the 2014 legislative session.

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