USA First Look

Do new 2017 state laws hint at momentum for federal changes as well?

Gun laws, marijuana legalization, and boosts to the minimum wage are among the highest-profile changes to state laws to come into effect in 2017.

Sales associate Mike Conway (r.) shows Paul Angulo guns at Bullseye Sport gun shop in Riverside, Calif. Lawmakers passed a package of bills to strengthen California’s already tough gun laws then voters reinforced them by passing even more measures in 2016.
Jae C. Hong/AP/File
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On Saturday, when the clock struck midnight and 2016 officially ended, many Americans were eager to see the close of a year that brought about a great deal of change throughout the political and social landscape.

But in many states, Jan. 1, 2017, meant even more change as new state laws voted in during 2016 finally kicked into action.

A wide array of new state laws is now in effect, including new regulations involving marijuana, minimum wage, and gun control. The sweeping nature of the changes has some observers wondering whether these new state regulations could signal momentum for eventual changes to federal law as well.

State marijuana laws changed significantly as a result of 2016 elections. Last year, California, Massachusetts, and Nevada joined Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington State, and Washington, D.C., in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, while medical use referenda passed in Florida, North Dakota, and Arkansas. There has been no bigger change in marijuana laws since 2012 when Colorado and Washington State voted to legalize the drug.

Colorado also passed a law allowing licensed medical marijuana growers to directly sell their product.

For proponents of marijuana legalization, the wave of new laws is a sign that the time has come to change the federal laws as well. “I think of this victory in California as a major victory,” Lauren Mendelsohn, the chairwoman of the board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy told The New York Times. “It shows the whole country that prohibition is not the answer to the marijuana question.”

Those opposed to the drug's legalization, however, point out that voters in Arizona rejected a legalization initiative and predict that any change in federal laws would be resisted in more conservative states.

Despite its conservative climate, however, Arizona did not stand alone on the question of lifting the minimum wage. In 2016, it became one of 19 states voting to raise the state minimum wage on Jan. 1. 

States that will see 2017 minimum wage boosts include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington State; with Oregon, Washington D.C., and Maryland adding wage increases later in the year.

While many small business owners oppose the wage hikes – the New York State Restaurant Association has even reported that some restaurants will reduce portion size or begin charging for items that were previously complimentary in order to absorb the added costs, according to the Associated Press – the new legislation, approved by such a large number of states, stands in sharp contrast to the national government which has not raised the minimum wage since moving it from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour in 2009.

Raising the minimum wage was a major point in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont.

When it comes to gun control, however, the new 2017 laws vary considerably from state to state, with some becoming more restrictive and offers allowing gun owners more rights. While three of the four states with ballot initiatives to tighten gun control approved their measures, other states such as Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, and West Virginia, passed new legislation allowing the widespread concealed carry of a loaded firearm without any sort of training or registration.

At the same time, however, California passed a law banning the purchase of a semiautomatic rifle containing so-called “evil features,” which refers to items such as pistol grips, flash hiders, or bullet buttons that are intended to simplify the changing of ammunition magazines. As assault weapons have been banned in California since 1989, the new legislation seeks to outline exactly which features identify a semi-automatic rifle specifically as an assault rifle.

And while California approved measures attempting to reduce widespread gun violence, Washington State passed a measure establishing extreme protection orders, through which police and citizens can keep firearms away from individuals deemed dangerous to themselves or others, a move considered a major step forward for those looking to restrict gun access to people suspected of having violent tendencies, and a step backwards for those who believe such measures infringe on individual rights. In Nevada, a measure to expand background checks also passed, although by a very narrow margin.

Some gun control proponents saw the new California, Nevada, and Washington State regulations as a sign that the effort to reform gun-control laws nationwide by working on a state-by-state basis is succeeding. Those who oppose gun control, however, noted the failure of a background check initiative in Maine and the very small margin by which the Nevada law passed. Both ballot initiatives were heavily funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.  

National gun control advocates hoping to effect change on a state-by-state basis run the risk of being seen as "meddlesome big-city outsiders" running a campaign in a state that is not their own, Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, told The Christian Science Monitor.

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