As Trump transition looms, gun control advocates focus on local fights

Gun-control advocates had hoped that the Newtown massacre would prompt federal legislation. Four years later, activists are counting their blessings in state-level wins.

Jessica Hill/AP/File
Firearms training unit Detective Barbara J. Mattson, of the Connecticut State Police, holds up a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the same make and model of gun used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook School shooting, for a demonstration during a hearing of a legislative subcommittee reviewing gun laws, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., Jan. 28, 2013.

With the election of NRA-backed Donald Trump as president, gun control advocates are putting more emphasis on a long-term strategy of electing like-minded lawmakers, passing state legislation and fostering a grassroots network that grew out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting four years ago.

Activists say they have generated a big enough support base since the massacre of 20 children and six adults inside the Newtown schoolhouse to bypass Washington and push for state-level measures such as universal background checks and persuade more restaurant chains to stop allowing patrons to carry guns.

"We're pivoting to the states and to American businesses and saying, 'OK, when Congress won't protect constituents, it's up to state lawmakers and companies to protect their constituents and customers,' " said Shannon Watts, who founded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America following the Sandy Hook shooting of Dec. 14, 2012. "It's a proven, effective strategy and winning strategy. And we're going to keep at it as long as it takes – to point Congress and the Supreme Court in the direction the nation is headed in."

Ms. Watts' group counts 3 million people as members, and she said it has benefited from a surge of interest since the election, with standing-room-only events in West Virginia and the Carolinas following Trump's win. Among its next priorities, the group wants to help pass a requirement for background checks on gun buyers in New Mexico and to defeat an Ohio bill that would allow guns in areas including daycare centers, police stations, and colleges.

Supporters of more restrictive gun laws were encouraged by some victories on Election Day. In New Hampshire's Senate race, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte narrowly lost to Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan after being targeted by gun-control groups and a political action committee of Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy.

They are also heartened that gun control-related ballot initiatives passed in three states – California, Nevada, and Washington — in this year's election. California's measure prohibits the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and requires certain individuals to undergo background checks before they can buy ammo. Nevada voters required firearm transfers go through a licensed gun dealer, a process that involves a background check. And the Washington measure will allow courts to issue so-called extreme risk protection orders to remove guns from someone showing signs they're a risk to themselves or others.

Those measures come after groups successfully persuaded restaurants and stores including Starbucks, Target, Trader Joe's, and Panera to stop allowing customers to bring in guns.

At the same time, however, Maine "bucked the trend, rejecting expanded background checks for private firearms sale," as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Proponents of the measures hailed their victories in California, Nevada, and Washington State as evidence that their patchwork approach to reforming gun-control laws nationwide, one state at a time, is gaining steam. The defeat of Maine's well-funded ballot initiative (52 percent to 48 percent), however, could serve as a lesson for those pushing for stricter gun policy.

"I think there's two lessons that gun control advocates should take out of this," Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, tells The Christian Science Monitor. First, they should be wary of coming across as "meddlesome big-city outsiders" running a campaign in a state that is not their own, he says. Second, they should carefully craft proposed policies to avoid unintended consequences.

What's more, advocates had their hopes set on Democrat Hillary Clinton winning the presidency.

"We always knew it would be a marathon and not a sprint," said Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, a group also created after the school shooting. "But this is a major bump in the road in our marathon."

Firearms enthusiasts are expecting a sweeping expansion of gun rights with Trump in the White House and continued Republican control of Congress. Their priorities include eliminating gun-free zones at schools, reducing requirements for background checks, and ensuring that concealed carry handgun permits from one state are recognized everywhere in the US.

"This is our historic moment to go on offensive and to defeat the forces that have aligned against our freedom once and for all," said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, in a video released after the Nov. 8 election.

Still, some groups that will likely oppose such steps are taking a wait-and-see attitude with Trump, while moving ahead with their causes.

Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son, Daniel, was among those killed in Newtown, is the co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, an organization working to prevent gun violence deaths through various initiatives. Mr. Barden said he is heartened the Senate gave final approval last week to a bill aimed at improving access to mental health services, something Sandy Hook Promise has sought for nearly four years. Barden said he is also encouraged more people are being trained to reduce bullying and recognize signs of gun violence.

"We know that gun violence is preventable if you know the signs. And that doesn't require an act of Congress," Barden said. He said his group can continue its efforts to better protect children "regardless of who is in the White House."

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