Since Parkland Shooting, States Have Enacted 137 Measures to Restrict Gun Access and Reduce Gun Violence, Analysis Shows

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Protestors take part in a rally of Moms against gun violence and calling for Federal Background Checks on August 18, 2019 in New York City. JOHANNES EISELE/Getty

In the nearly two years since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 32 state legislatures have passed 137 bills aimed at restricting access to guns and reducing gun violence, according to an analysis released Thursday.

Seventy of the bills identified in the Giffords Law Center's report cleared various state legislatures in 2019 alone, and they provide a window into how states are combating gun violence as an urgent public health issue in the absence of leadership at the federal level.

"This is a substantial amount of legislation enacted this year," Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Law Center, said in an interview with Newsweek. "The momentum had been building since Sandy Hook in a very significant way, but it really catalyzed after Parkland and helped a number of states pass these packages of legislation in 2018 and 2019."

"Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised at how progress has not faltered in 2019," she added.

The Giffords Law Center is the legal arm of a non-profit co-founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that advocates for tighter gun laws and tracks legislation at the federal and state level.

Its report, called Trendwatch, illuminates how states are identifying problems endemic to their own communities and working to pass measures—in many cases with bipartisan support—that can address gun violence from different angles.

Some of the most prominent gun safety measures that states embraced in 2019 were efforts to fund community violence reduction programs. These evidence-driven initiatives are often administered by non-profits and deploy community representatives to intervene in and interrupt cycles of gun violence.

According to Trendwatch, nine states stepped up funding for these programs, with seven investing a total of $132 million. Research shows that community-based programs are effective in reducing violent crime.

Anderman called these investments "the single greatest achievement of 2019."

Red-flag laws are another approach states have looked to as a tool for reducing gun violence. These measures empower law enforcement officers, at least initially, to briefly confiscate a gun-owner's weapon upon a judicial order if it is believed the weapon will be used to perpetrate harm. Trendwatch identified seven states—including Indiana, where Republicans control the governorship, the House and the Senate—that have either enacted or strengthened their own red-flag laws in 2019.

Indiana isn't alone in its Republican-inclusive support for some gun bills. Giffords reported in a press release that "Republican governors in 16 states have signed gun safety bills that strengthen their current laws since Parkland."

The flurry of legislative activity was bolstered by state-level elections across the country in 2018, which in many cases swept in new Democratic majorities on the promise of pursuing gun measures.

In New Mexico, where Democrats control all political branches of state government for the first time in nearly a decade, the legislature advanced measures expanding background checks and enshrining prohibitions on gun access by domestic abusers.

Virginia Democrats seized control of the General Assembly in November on the express promise that legislators would pass new gun control laws.

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Demonstrators hold up signs representing the 11,400 victims of gun violence discussed by congressional members during a press conference with Democratic Lawmakers on gun violence, along the east front of the U.S. Capitol on June 20, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Tom Brenner/Getty

Anderman attributed the renewed push for gun measures to a combination of factors including student activism, balance-of-power shifts in state legislatures and the resurgence of gun violence in the political discourse.

In August, two back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, ignited conversation about what, if anything, the federal government planned on doing to combat public violence involving guns. Discussion in the U.S. Congress soon petered out amid partisan bickering and recrimination, but the public remains committed to concrete, if not modest, actions that states have provided cover for in recent years, according to public opinion surveys.

Polling has found overwhelming support for universal background checks. An August survey from Quinnipiac University put the share of Americans who want all gun sales to be subject to a background check as high as 93 percent, including almost nine in ten Republicans.

Firm majorities of Americans also back bans on so-called assault weapons—semi-automatic, military-style rifles which can prove tricky to regulate—red flag laws and mandatory gun licensing.

Despite public opinion consolidating around certain gun measures, federal legislation has languished, even bipartisan measures. A bill encouraging state-led red-flag laws, backed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, was announced after the El Paso shooting. A bipartisan trio of U.S. Senators wrote an open letter to the White House in November noting how they "nearly had a deal" with President Donald Trump on universal background checks.

Six states have addressed domestic abusers' access to firearms through legislation in 2019, either by formalizing federal restrictions or tightening access further than federal law currently provides.

Dave Workman, senior editor of the gun-rights blog TheGunMag.com, noted that even within states where popular mandates have swept in pro-restriction politicians, some opposition has been brewing.

"You've got county sheriffs, county commissioners, there's a broad spectrum of citizens out there in public office or just private citizens, and they look at what appears to be happening in state legislatures, and they think, 'We're talking about rights, not government-regulated privileges,'" he said.

Trendwatch tallied how many states have chosen to pursue looser gun laws over the last 12 months, expanding access to firearms and preventing localities from enacting their own gun-control ordinances.

The report identified four states that have enacted or strengthened laws guarding an individual's ability to carry a concealed weapon in public without a permit.

Workman said that this type of legislation remains popular "among a small but growing segment of the firearms community."

Already, about 15 states embrace this license-free scheme and "a few other states are going to start considering it in January," he said.

"There are a lot of people, more and more so, who really do find an objection with having to go get permission from a police chief or a judge to be able to carry a firearm," he added.

Much of the popular debate, even among both those who advocate for and against stricter gun laws, can tend to focus on notorious acts of public violence. State- and local-level action can target the most insidious, and more commonplace, sorts of gun violence that don't captivate the public's attention.

"So much of the media attention is focused on mass shootings, especially between unrelated people, but while shocking and horrible, those shootings represent a small fraction of gun violence in the United States," Anderman said. "For far too long, people and especially children affected by everyday gun violence that ripples into their lives have been ignored by legislators. Twenty-nineteen [2019] really presents a lot of hope that things are turning around and that we're going to see much more investment in communities affected by violence."