The Gun Debate
After Two High-Profile Mass Shootings, States Considering Variety of Gun Laws
By John Mountjoy, CSG Director of Policy, Research and Strategic Initiatives
Connecticut Deputy House Speaker Bob Godfrey lives just 10 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the scene of the deadly December 2012 shooting that left 20 first-graders and six adults at the school dead.
Godfrey has advocated for reasonable gun laws for more than 24 years. But this time, he believes, it’s different.
“The horror of the massacre of innocents at an elementary school has motivated an extraordinary response,” he said.
In fact, the shooting at Sandy Hook, like the one at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater last July, has brought renewed focus on gun laws across the country.
An analysis by The Council of State Governments shows that as of mid-March, 22 states had introduced legislation seeking a new ban on assault weapons or strengthening existing laws restricting access to or ownership of such weapons; 23 states had introduced bills seeking restrictions on firearm magazine capacity; and 23 states—not necessarily the same states—had introduced legislation seeking to expand or make mandatory background checks for all firearms purchases.
Congress and the Obama administration acted quickly to explore reforms to the nation’s gun laws. Federal legislation focused on banning the future sale of assault weapons, restricting firearm magazine capacity to 10 rounds and calling for background checks on all gun purchases—including private face-to-face sales. The national debate over these proposed measures has been anything but civil and, as a result, the future of proposals at the national level is uncertain.
State laws, too, are anything but certain.
New York’s SAFE Act—Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013—not only bans the sale of assault weapons and restricts the sale of covered rifles already in circulation, but also further limits the legal capacity of ammunition magazines to seven rounds, down from New York’s already restricted 10 rounds. It’s already being challenged in the state’s Supreme Court.
Still, states are pressing ahead.
Connecticut policymakers joined forces through its Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety, which examined gun violence, school security and mental health. Initial recommendations from the working group show promise on mental health and school safety measures.
While agreement exists on issues such as straw purchases of firearms, ammunition purchases and a statewide deadly weapons offender registry, differences are pronounced when it comes to further restricting assault weapons, magazine capacity and background checks.
Godfrey hopes progress can be made by “expanding the definition of military-assault weapons, outlawing oversize magazines, enhancing safe storage requirements and extending Connecticut's permit-to-carry a handgun to more firearms.”
The legislature in April passed a package of new gun gun laws, including an immediate ban on the sale of assault weapons, though those bought before April 4 may be kept with some restrictions; an immediate ban on magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, with limited restrictions on magazines holding more owned before the ban; and immediate universal background checks for all firearms purchasers.
The new laws also include eligibility certificates for long guns and handguns as well as ammunition, safe firearm storage requirements, a dangerous weapon offender database and a registry of assault weapons owned prior to the new ban.
The Economic Impact
But Connecticut's actions could have an adverse effect on the state’s economy. Colt’s Manufacturing, one of America’s oldest firearms makers, has signaled its willingness to move out of its 175-year-old home in the state with the adoption of stricter firearms legislation. Colt’s has launched a statewide ad campaign along with other Connecticut-based firearms manufacturers to educate the public on the gun industry, which contributes $1.7 billion annually to the state’s economy.
The potential economic impact is one reason Colorado Sen. Greg Brophy, an outspoken advocate for gun rights, is disappointed in the legislation that was ultimately adopted in his state.
While the Centennial State has not considered an assault weapons ban this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper in March signed bills to restrict magazine capacity, require background checks for all firearms purchases and pass background check costs on to the consumer. Additional gun control measures are still active in the legislature.
The gun control debate in Colorado, the scene of 2012’s other high-profile mass shooting, was seemingly as much about the economy as it was about public safety. Magpul, the popular Colorado-based manufacturer of 10-, 20- and 30-round rifle magazines, publicly stated its intent to leave the state if more restrictive gun laws were adopted.
With Hickenlooper’s signature, Magpul is making good on that promise, stating in a press release on the company’s website that it will shift operations out of Colorado and will resume magazine production elsewhere within 30 days. With it likely goes Magpul’s 200 workers and its estimated $85 million annual contribution to the local and state economies.
“It’s not just Magpul leaving, but all of Magpul’s suppliers. They have a super-short supply chain and, in the end, we’re going to end up losing nearly 1,000 jobs overall,” Brophy said.
“Two-thirds of Coloradans were paying close attention to this debate and, unlike a lot of legislation we consider, people were very aware of the secondary and unintended consequences of these actions,” Brophy said. “My colleagues in favor of more gun control are now emboldened and don’t appear to be willing to compromise. With an election 18 months away—and anything can happen in 18 months—I’m hopeful that this will be dealt with by the voters.”
The economic impact of firearms and firearms-related products is not just limited to Connecticut and Colorado.
In Maryland, Beretta, the nearly 500-year-old Italian firearms maker, is exploring pulling up stakes there and relocating some of its North American manufacturing if the state adopts more restrictive firearms laws. Beretta has been a mainstay of the U.S. firearms market since the mid-1980s, when the U.S. military began using its 9 mm pistol.
Kentucky Rep. Bob Damron is sorry to see manufacturers leaving other states, but if they are going to move, he’d like them to consider Kentucky.
“These are good and responsible corporations producing a product for law-abiding citizens,” he said. “They have good quality high-paying jobs and contribute to their local and state economies.”
Bolstering Gun Rights
While gun control advocates have made quick advances this session and may see more progress before the year is out, some states are considering firearms bills to bolster gun rights. In fact, 21 states are considering both gun control and gun rights legislation.
CSG research shows that 30 states have introduced legislation seeking to pre-empt federal gun control efforts and define penalties for those caught enforcing federal gun control measures within a state’s borders.
Pre-emption laws related to guns are not new. Many states with concealed carry laws pre-empt local governments from adopting ordinances that are more restrictive of open or concealed carry laws than those defined by the state—with an eye toward limiting confusion and contradictory practice. But the idea that states can prohibit the enforcement of federal gun laws is new.
“I’m not sure that a state law pre-empting new federal gun laws will ultimately pass muster, but they certainly send a strong signal to our representatives in Washington and to the administration that the states take their role in regulating firearms seriously,” said Damron.
“When you look at Kentucky, we’re a firearms-friendly state. But we’re also a state that takes the responsibility of regulating firearms seriously. We require the courts to notify the state police and the federal (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) anytime a citizen’s mental health status changes, such as involuntary commitment or adjudicated mentally deficient. We require our state police to conduct a background check on concealed carry license holders every month. If something in a license holders status changes, they’re going to get a visit from the local sheriff. It’s just good public policy and it works,” said Damron.
In addition, the Firearms Freedom Act has gained modest acceptance in traditionally pro-gun states. Before this year, eight states had adopted such legislation, which seeks to pre-empt the enforcement of certain federal gun laws within a state on the grounds that firearms and ammunition manufactured, sold and possessed within a single jurisdiction are not subject to federal interstate commerce authority. Fifteen states have introduced the act or some variation this year.
Some local officials—particularly sheriffs—are taking it a step further. Many of those who have been critical of state and federal efforts to restrict access to certain firearms, reduce magazine limits and enhance background checks have gone on record that they will refuse to enforce any new gun laws.
In response, Texas Rep. Yvonne Davis has introduced legislation that would remove from office any sheriff or law enforcement officer who refuses to enforce state or federal law.
In Missouri, Rep. Mike Leara has introduced legislation making it a class D felony for any state legislator to introduce legislation restricting the rights of residents to keep and bear arms.
“It’s déjà vu all over again,” Damron said, referring to the debate over firearms at the state and federal levels. “I do not begrudge and will not criticize the actions of my counterparts in other states. Those policymakers are doing what they feel needs to be done for their state. But there’s no doubt that the proper place for this debate is in the states.”