With Congress voting no gun control, focus shifts to states

States have already passed dozens of gun control measures, and now, the Obama administration is talking with state executives about how to better enforce gun laws.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A protester carries a mobile with angels to represent victims of gun violence as she takes part in a protest and vigil on the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, outside the National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Va., Dec. 14, 2015.

It's a familiar cycle: A horrific mass shooting is followed by public indignation, and members of Congress respond with a gun control bill. But it quickly fails.

That happened three years ago, when 20 children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. After the rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., earlier this month, in which 14 people were killed at a holiday party, Senate Democrats proposed two measures that were also voted down.

It may seem like gun control measures have gone nowhere since the Connecticut shootings. But on closer examination, the country actually has seen movement on the issue – it just hasn’t been happening on Capitol Hill.

As with other issues stuck in congressional gridlock, such as the minimum wage, states and municipalities have been going ahead on their own. They've passed dozens of gun control measures, and now there's a push to explore what executive actions could also be taken. For its part, the White House is looking to spur these efforts on.

The impact on gun violence will depend on how active states are, says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center in Boston. But any kind of state effort will be helpful, he suggests.

"If you're in a boat and there are 80 places with small leaks, will clogging up a few leaks matter?" he asks. "I think so. And the more leaks you clog up, the better."

"We're going to have lots of guns in the United States, so let's figure out how to live with them better," he adds.

The Sandy Hook shooting, in particular, galvanized movement at the state level. In the 12 months after the shooting, 20 states – including conservative ones like Georgia and Alabama – passed 41 gun control laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit legal organization in San Francisco focusing on gun violence prevention.

There was further movement last year. A number of states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, enacted laws making it tougher for domestic abusers to get guns, according to the law center. Other states, including South Dakota and Arizona, passed laws expanding their coordination with the federal background-check database

Naturally, the amount of action has varied by state. California passed 10 laws in the year after the Sandy Hook shooting, and it has continued to pass laws, while most states have enacted only one or two.

Some states have done nothing. And others – including those who passed gun control laws – have bolstered gun rights. Georgia passed an expansive pro-gun law last year, and Texas approved open-carry and campus-carry laws earlier this year.

In all, states passed 70 gun rights measures between the Sandy Hook shooting and May 2014, according to the law center.

Still in an analysis of state gun laws last year, the law center wrote that "the public's mobilization after Newtown resulted in real and sustained change in legislative outcomes."

Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore, cautions against focusing on the lack of movement on the issue on Capitol Hill.

"A lot of people have kind of just – 'given up' is too strong a word – but resigned themselves to the fact that bad people are always going to get guns," he says. "We need to have a different mentality – that we have to do what we can to make the most of the [existing] laws."

The White House appears to be trying to do that. President Obama has taken executive actions to strengthen gun control – namely, 23 such actions in January 2013. 

And now, Vice President Joe Biden is leading talks with governors, other state officials, and local leaders on developing a "bottom up" strategy to better enforce gun laws at the state and local level, USA Today reports.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest says the talks are focused on "steps they can take to try to reduce gun violence in their communities," according to the paper.

With these talks under way, the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal advocacy group in Washington, released a report on Tuesday outlining 28 ways that state executives can take nonlegislative action "to prevent gun violence and fight gun crime." Data collection and community engagement are examples of areas that might be focused on.

Governors, state attorneys general, public health officials, and police leaders, the report's authors write, "have substantial authority to implement new regulations, policies, and protocols in order to address many different aspects of gun violence that affect local communities."

"Actively exercising this authority will have a real effect on both reducing gun violence and saving lives," they add.

Republicans control 68 of 98 state legislatures. But many of the possible executive actions already enjoy sizable – and bipartisan – public support, so the backlash could be minimal even for executives in conservative areas, says Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.

"I think there's plenty in this list that could appeal to a nominally conservative chief executive," he says, referring to the CAP report.

Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center poll found that 85 percent of Americans – including 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans – favored expanded background checks, one of the CAP report's recommendations. Significant majorities for both parties also supported laws preventing the mentally ill from buying guns, the poll found, and public support for a federal database to track gun sales also saw a marginal increase.

The range of actions that state executives could take is broad enough that states could tailor their actions to their political context, experts say.

"The things that will be most of interest to one state won't necessarily be of the greatest interest to all states," Professor Wintemute says.

"Some states I'm sure will do things," he adds, "and the other states will be watching to see what the effect is."

With a focus on improving the existing framework to address gun violence in America, the country could make modest improvements that might be at least somewhat acceptable to both sides in the divisive gun control debate.

"When you look at them, you could not cast these policies as: 'People are coming after your guns,' " says Professor Webster of Johns Hopkins. "I think they have political appeal, and that’s how you start to change norms in how you think about it. When more states do these things, they seem more normal, and then it's, 'What are you waiting for, federal government?' "

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