States Cooling On Unfettered Gun Rights
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer; John Nagy, Staff Writer
Three major proposals to make Colorado one of the most gun-friendly states in the nation were circulating through the statehouse, and one had already landed on Republican Gov. Bill Owen's desk when two young men shot their way through Columbine High School in a Denver suburb last April 20, wounding 20 and killing 13 before they killed themselves.
It was the worst occurrence of school violence in U.S. history, and it stopped the pro-gun legislation in its tracks -- a fate that at least temporarily befell National Rifle Association-backed bills then also wending their way through other state legislatures.
Was the Columbine massacre a turning point that will bring about change in this country's traditional hostility toward restrictions on gun ownership and possession? Or was it an enormous tragedy, but one with little long-term political significance in a country where gun violence is as much a part of the culture as sex, drugs and rock n' roll?
Stateline.org research suggests that the bloodshed in Littleton, Colorado last year heightened public awareness of the gun issue as never before. While lawmakers by and large are still wary of firearms curbs, the political climate is changing, the once-invincible gun lobby is increasingly on the defensive; and states are leading the policy shift.
The public has long favored restrictions on gun ownership by a margin of roughly two to one, but since Columbine there has been even more general support, according to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "This has not, however, led to a majority favoring an outright ban on the sale of handguns," Kohut said.
"I'd say that since Columbine, you are seeing an increasing number of bills related to safe storage, trigger locks and closing gun show loopholes. Bills related to juvenile access are definitely on the rise," says Kelly Anders, a National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) staffer who tracks gun policy.
(A first-ever national survey to be released later this week paints a somewhat different, though not inconsistent picture. Its major finding: that at present, there is little if any gun regulation in most states. The survey was conducted by the Open Society Institute, a liberal advocacy group funded by the George Soros Foundation.)
Signs of Change
In the months after the Columbine massacre, the California legislature passed and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed a sweeping package of firearms restrictions. Though the package pre-dated the shootings, it got added momentum from the tragedy. "Columbine caused a few very tough swing votes to come our way making it pass," says Brian Malte of the California branch of the anti-gun lobby Handgun Control. The new laws limit handgun purchases to one per month, expand a 1998 assault weapons ban and require trigger locks on all guns sold in the state.
Massachusetts is implementing the country's toughest gun laws following a state Supreme Court ruling that the Bay State's attorney general can regulate firearms under his consumer protection authority. Guns sold in Massachusetts must now have trigger locks, an indicator showing whether they are loaded or not and tamper-proof serial numbers. In addition, cheap "Saturday Night Special" handguns are banned.
This week, Maryland becomes the first state in the nation with a "Smart Gun" law. It requires that all guns sold in Maryland be equipped with trigger locks by the end of the summer. Within three years, guns sold in Maryland must have built-in mechanisms that will keep them from being fired by anyone other than their legitimate owner. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who will sign the measure at an Annapolis ceremony today with President Bill Clinton at his side, expects as many as a dozen other states to have similar laws within the next 18 months.
Six states -- California, Connecticut, Florida, New York, Maryland and Massachusetts -- have launched antitrust investigations of the gun industry. The attorneys general of those states are looking into allegations that other gun makers and sellers are trying to punish Smith & Wesson economically because that firm has agreed to implement new handgun safety standards. The agreement was part of a deal with the Clinton administration that would release Smith & Wesson from a barrage of lawsuits that seek to make gun makers liable for the public health costs of treating gunshot victims.
Less than two weeks before the Columbine tragedy, Missouri voters stunned the gun lobby by decisively defeating a referendum that would have allowed law-abiding citizens to carry concealed firearms outside the home. Advocates spent $3.8 million trying to pass the measure, nearly five times as much as victorious foes. Proponents of restrictions on firearms plan to put the issue to the voters next November in at least two states: Colorado and Oregon, where gun control proponents are trying to surmount legislative resistance to restrictions through the initiative process.
"The biggest movement on the gun issue has been at the state level and with governors across the country. Moderate Republican governors are leading the charge," says Robert Spitzer, a State University of New York political science professor and author of The Politics of Gun Control
A case in point is Owens, who favored easing Colorado's concealed carry gun law and protecting gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits when he came into office as the first Republican governor in 24 years. "He really made a turn after Columbine. He was less inclined to support strong (pro) gun legislation afterward," says Mary Fulton, state policy expert at the non-partisan Education Commission on the States (ECS).
About a month after the shootings, Owens, who was elected with the support of the NRA, vetoed a top priority for the gun lobby -- a bill that would have prevented Denver and other Colorado municipalities from joining in a lawsuit against gun makers to recover the public health costs of treating gunshot victims.
In January, the Colorado governor pushed to tighten his state's gun laws, a move that put him out of step with the Republican-controlled legislature, which gutted the plan. Gun control advocates are now vowing to take the issue to the voters in the November election, and Owens has said he will back the effort if the ballot initiative mirrors his gun package. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
At least four other Republican state executives are also pressing for more regulation of guns, breaking ranks with their party's legislative leaders. They are Govs. George Pataki of New York, Bob Taft of Ohio, George Ryan of Illinois and Mike Leavitt of Utah.
"These Republicans are joining Democrats like Govs. Gray Davis, Parris Glendening of Maryland and John Kitzhaber in Oregon," Spitzer says.
Pataki has offered a five-point gun package that would require child safety locks to be sold with firearms, ban assault weapons, require background checks at all gun shows and raise the minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21. He also wants to establish a gun identification program that would require a gun manufacturer to shoot the gun before it is sold and store the discharged bullet for use in a crime database.
Republican Govs. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey have both signed gun safety lock measures that passed their Republican legislatures in the face of gun lobby opposition.
"States are frustrated because the issue is stalemated in the Republican Congress. Voters are saying do something. They want to know if nothing is happening in Washington, then is something happening in Albany? They don't care who does it -- just keep guns out of their kid's school", says William Schneider, a CNN commentator and Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
Gun Lobby Successes
Despite pressure for stiffer gun laws triggered by Columbine and subsequent highly-publicized 1999 shooting sprees at an Atlanta brokerage and Los Angeles Jewish day care center, the gun lobby made headway in protecting gun makers from liability lawsuits.
According to Jim Manown, a National Rifle Association spokesman, 14 states -- Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania -- all passed laws in 1999 forbidding cities and counties from taking gun makers to court.
Since January, similar bills have been considered by legislators in Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.
"A lot of people have tried to write the story you are working on (and) found that while certainly there are a lot of bills regarding guns in state legislatures this year, there are no more than any year," Manown told Stateline.org when interviewed for this article.
The NRA spokesman added that his organization has worked for decades "to defeat anti-Second Amendment legislation" in state legislatures.
"This year's busy, but no more busy than past years," he said.