After a shooter killed 17 people in a school in Parkland, Florida, last month, the political question dominating public discussion was whether the event would result in any policy changes that were backed by gun control advocates. In the past, outrage spurred by mass shootings has often been met by inaction in Congress and state legislatures.
But this time has been different — and not just in terms of how much pro-gun control activism it has sparked, including last week’s March for Our Lives. Since the Parkland shooting, a slew of gun control measures have been adopted at the local, state and federal level, while the private sector has moved to make guns less available, and some proposals to expand gun rights have been stalled. Although most of these changes are fairly limited in scope and fall far short of gun control advocates’ goals, they represent a shift in momentum from expanding gun rights to constricting them.
Here are the biggest developments.
Congress has passed new federal policies: The omnibus spending bill signed into law last week included three measures that appeared to be a reaction to the Parkland shooting.
One provision is designed to make it easier for the Centers for Disease Control to investigate the causes of gun violence. In a report explaining how the omnibus is supposed to be implemented, Congress says, “the Secretary of Health and Human Services has stated the CDC has the authority to conduct research on the causes of gun violence.” While there is no new funding for gun violence research in this legislation, its language is intended to clarify previous federal law, which some have argued basically prevented the CDC from doing research on gun violence.
The omnibus also includes more than $1 billion over 10 years for various school safety initiatives, like adding metal detectors. (The $100 million annual allotment for school safety is a drop in the bucket in terms of federal spending — the full omnibus bill was for $1.3 trillion.) Notably, in another win for gun control advocates, none of that money is directly tied to arming teachers, an idea that President Trump had championed but was largely opposed by gun control advocates (and teachers, according to polls).
Third, the omnibus bill includes a bipartisan provision that offers more money to states that comprehensively upload information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and that threatens to cut bonuses for political appointees at federal agencies that do a poor job of putting information into this system. This provision is intended to make sure that people who already are legally barred from purchasing firearms aren’t able to slip through the cracks in the background check system because their criminal history has not been added to the database.
Again, none of these provisions go nearly as far as many gun control advocates would like. But with a Republican-held Congress and a GOP president, it’s significant that any such measures were adopted. Even when Democratic President Barack Obama was in office, gun control measures largely stalled out before reaching his desk, and Obama signed some provisions that expanded gun rights into law.
Trump has requested a new ban on bump stocks: The Department of Justice, at Trump’s urging, said last week it will seek to ban the use of so-called bump stocks, which enable shooters to fire many more bullets in a short time. The Obama administration felt it could not ban bump stocks without a new law, so there is some question about whether the Trump administration can actually make this change or if it will eventually be struck down by the courts. But in the meantime, it’s noteworthy that a Republican president is taking a step toward gun control.
Legislation to expand gun rights has been sidelined: Before Parkland, the main gun policy being considered in Congress was a provision that would basically force every state to honor concealed weapons permits granted by other states, regardless of the relative strictness of each state’s gun laws.
Republicans could have demanded that this provision be included in the omnibus bill, framing it as a compromise, since the legislation included some pro-gun control policies. But they left it aside, and there is little sign that Republicans will push this concealed carry provision forward anytime soon.
Almost all House Democrats support a strong federal gun control measure: The overwhelming majority of Democrats in the House (174 of 193) are backing a bill written post-Parkland that would ban the sale or possession of certain so-called assault weapons, like the AR-15 used in the Florida shooting. No Republican has embraced this legislation.
This bill has no chance of passing in the short term. But the creation of this legislation and its broad support within the party suggests that Democrats are moving in a pro-gun control direction and will try to act on gun policy whenever they control Congress or the White House again.
Florida adopted new gun control measures: Political pressure to react to the Parkland shooting was enormous in Florida. So both houses of the GOP-controlled legislature in Florida recently approved new gun control measures, which were signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican. Florida banned bump stocks and raised the minimum age at which a person can purchase firearms from 18 to 21. It also, to the consternation of some liberals, allocated funding for a program to arm teachers.
The private sector is limiting gun access and moving away from the NRA: Several retailers have announced that they’re voluntary imposing new limits on gun sales in their stores, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kroger and Walmart. All three are no longer selling firearms to anyone under 21. Delta and United ended a program that offered discounted fares to National Rifle Association members.
Blue states and cities have approved new restrictions: Generally, more liberal areas already place more limits on gun ownership. But in the wake of the Parkland shooting, a number of them have taken additional steps. A group of states in the Northeast are working on a partnership to coordinate their gun policies. Oregon enacted a law making it harder for people who have restraining orders against them to purchase weapons.
The state of Washington (which voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016) and the city of Lincoln, Nebraska (which is in a county that Clinton won even though she lost the state) have both passed bans on bump stocks.
More conservatives areas have not seen a proliferation of new gun control measures. I think it’s possible that red states will pass fewer measures that expand gun rights (like concealed carry laws) in the aftermath of shooting, but it’s hard to track laws that are never introduced or that are not brought to a final vote.
Nearly all of these changes happened before the big, emotional pro-gun control marches in Washington and across the country. The Parkland students and others who organized the demonstrations are calling for national legislation to bar the purchase of certain so-called assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, require background checks for all gun sales, and give the CDC dedicated funding to research the causes of gun violence.
So will those marches push policy in the direction of even more gun control? I’m not sure. I doubt we will see many additional gun control provisions in red states or from Trump and congressional Republicans. Even post-Parkland, polls suggest Republican voters are still broadly skeptical of new gun laws.
But if you’re wondering whether the recent changes are the start of an ongoing movement toward more gun control or whether lawmakers will soon be willing to consider expanding gun rights again, here are the signs to watch:
- Do Republicans in Washington and in red states remain reluctant to push new measures that expand gun rights?
- Do Democrats in blue states continue to adopt new gun control measures?
- Do national Democrats keep pushing leftward on gun control, perhaps even winnowing out members (through primary challenges) of their party who oppose new gun control measures?
- Does the private sector continue increasing limits on gun sales, or does it get worried about a backlash from the right?
The old conventional wisdom was that the NRA and gun rights advocates kept winning gun policy debates because they were more committed and organized than the gun control side. The past month, punctuated by the marches over the weekend, suggests that gun control advocates are building a movement that could rival that of the other side. Now we’ll see if they can maintain the passion for their cause as the national attention starts to shift away from the Parkland shooting and the March for Our Lives.