Littleton Massacre, Soccer Moms Affect Gun Climate


WASHINGTON -- While many say full repercissions of the massacre in Littleton, Colorado will not be felt until the next election cycle, the first fallout of the most deadly school shooting spree in U.S. history has just landed in California -- in the form of tighter curbs on gun sales.

When Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signs a measure limiting buyers to one handgun a month -- which he says he will, soon -- gun-control advocates will have scored their first victory stemming directly from the shooting spree of two teenagers who killed themselves and 13 others at Columbine High School on April 20.

Had the Littleton massacre not happened, both opponents and proponents say, the one-handgun-a-month legislation would have been defeated.

The Colorado murders combined with a hardening of public attitudes against guns in the nation's cities and suburbs have, temporarily at least, propelled gun control to the top of the political agenda for the first time in six years.

More politicians in Congress and some of the nation's largest states are now choosing to resist the persuasion of the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA).

"Every now and then in the past five years, let's say, there's been something awful that happens. Each time people said that can't happen here. Then when you see something like this in a place that's as calm and lovely... as Littleton, it's alarming. You can't say this is an anomaly right now. It can happen anywhere," said Kelly Anders, who follows gun legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The public is on our side," said Joe Sudbay, the director of state legislation for Handgun Control Inc., a gun-control lobby. "What Littleton did though was add some real intensity to it. As long as parents think it's too dangerous to send their kids to school because there's too much access to guns, that intensity will exist."

The Fairfax, Va. national headquarters of the NRA, which has a membership of about 2.5 million, did not respond to telephone calls from seeking its point of view.

Even before Littleton, several gun-control bills were moving through the California legislature. But when the one-handgun-a-month bill reached the Assembly floor it was well short of success.

Two days after the Colorado shootings, the Assembly passed the bill, 42-30. The Senate approved the measure 21-14 on July 1.

With Davis's signature, California will join Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia as the only states which limit handgun purchasers to one a month.

Littleton has added momentum to gun control legislation in several other states and Congress, but prospects that it will become law are uncertain.

  • The Oregon Senate votes on a bill today (Friday) that would require background checks on all gun buyers at gun shows. The bill also contains provisions to punish adults who do not stow or lock their guns so that children cannot use them. The Oregon House passed the measure on June 22. The vote in the Senate is too close to call. (UPDATE: The bill was defeated in the Oregon State Senate by a single vote.)
  • New Jersey is also considering a child access prevention law that would require licensed dealers to sell childproof locks with guns. The bill, somewhat watered down from its original version, passed the Senate July 1. It will not be considered by the House until the legislature returns in November.
  • For the first time since Republicans gained control of the U.S. Congress, the House and the Senate are conferring on legislation likely to contain some new restrictions on gun owners and dealers. Popular items include requiring federally licensed dealers to include locks with gun sales, a ban on the importation of large ammunition clips and a ban on the possession of semi-automatics by those under 18.

Suburban Voters Change Gun Agenda

As shootings in schools by kids have grown more common, the gun-control agenda has become more of a concern with suburban mothers, a group that pushed a number of victorious candidates over the top in 1998.

"The issue does resonate with suburban moms. It did before Littleton and even more so after," said Kristen Rand, senior counsel for the anti-gun Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

"It's become impossible for anyone to run statewide on a pro-gun platform in any state with a large urban population," she said.

Gray Davis, a Democrat, won the California governorship in November in part because of his support for tougher gun regulations.

The new Republican Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, also campaigned and won last November on an anti-gun platform.

In early June, Ryan signed a child access prevention law, a bill that had passed the state Senate before Littleton. The new law penalizes gun owners who do not store guns out of the reach of children, or who fail to use trigger locks, if a child uses the gun to harm another person.

During his campaign, Davis took no position on one-gun-a-month, but he did voice his intent to tighten the state's ban on assault weapons, a proposal his predecessor, Pete Wilson, had vetoed before leaving office.

On Tuesday, the California legislature approved an assault-weapons ban that gun-control advocates have hailed as the toughest in the nation. It will ban the manufacture, sale and import of any semi-automatic weapon that can be easily concealed or that is capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Supporters say the bill will close loopholes in a 1989 California law that outlawed specific assault weapons. Manufacturers evaded the earlier ban by changing the names of their products.

California lawmakers are also considering as many as eight other gun-control measures this year. Davis has also pledged to sign a bill that would subject the smaller, cheaper handguns known as Saturday Night Specials to more rigorous safety standards. He is also likely to approve legislation requiring dealers to sell locks with guns.


The NRA argues California's new gun measures are just political window dressing.

"Our opponents don't really want to pass gun bans," said Steve Helsley, an NRA lobbyist in California. "The utility comes from saying you did and not doing it.

That way, he says, politicians can run on a politically popular gun-control platform over and over again.

"Every rifle that will be covered by this new [assault-weapons ban] can be modified to get around it," Helsley said.

Gun owners who need instructions can get them from him. Helsley distributes flyers on how to alter a weapon to make it legal under the new law.

Clearly, the NRA has lost California for now. But, even gun-control advocates argue it is too early to discount the group's power.

"The most vocal, the most motivated people continue to be NRA members," said Rand of the Violence Policy Center.

Parents, she said, did not call Congress during the recent debate over gun control on Capitol Hill. "What the Congress did did not inspire suburban moms," she said.

In the wake of Democratic gains in the 1998 elections and the filing of the first lawsuits against gun manufacturers, the NRA came out swinging at the start of the 1999 political season. The group had bold plans to loosen concealed weapons laws in several states and quash lawsuits against gun manufacturers in many more.

Seven months later, their record reads more modestly.

Every attempt to liberalize concealed weapons laws this year either failed or was tabled, continuing a trend that started in 1996 after legislatures in Kentucky, Louisiana and South Carolina all voted for right-to-carry bills. Nevada did extend the state's right-to-carry law by allowing permit holders to take their weapons into public buildings, but not schools or airports.

  • In a vote decided largely by parents in the suburbs of St. Louis and Kansas City, the state of Missouri on April 6 became the first in the nation to defeat a referendum that would have allowed people in the state to carry concealed weapons. Voters in the state's rural counties heavily supported the measure. Many had expected the NRA to win the vote. The NRA spent more than $2 million according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, at least five times as much as its opponents.
  • Michigan this year had been expected to liberalize its right-to-carry law. In the 1998 elections, Republicans gained control of both houses of the legislature and this year they voted overwhelmingly to loosen restrictions on concealed weapons permits. After opponents announced plans to force the issue to a statewide vote, the measure was withdrawn. According to the Detroit Free Press, the NRA cited the loss in Missouri as one factor in its decision to back down.
  • In Colorado, legislators also pulled a bill to liberalize that state's concealed weapons laws in response to the tragedy in Littleton.

In March, the NRA was working to quash municipal and county lawsuits against gun manufacturers in at least 16 statehouses.

Despite Littleton, they succeeded in 13 of them: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming. In only two of these states, however, Louisiana and Georgia, have cities filed suit against gunmakers. New Orleans filed suit first last October. Atlanta sued in February.

Littleton, however, did derail bills in several states where the NRA had previously exerted enormous influence.

  • A bill barring lawsuits against gun manufacturers died in Michigan for the year just as Detroit and Wayne County sued.
  • The chief sponsor of similar legislation in Colorado pulled his bill following the Littleton shootings.
  • Florida's legislature, which had appeared on course to pass a lawsuit pre-emption bill this year, also abandoned its plans after Littleton.
  • In Ohio, a pre-emption bill was also dropped.

Since Littleton, the number of cities or counties suing gun manufacturers for negligently manufacturing and distributing their products has grown from seven to 23.  


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