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How Gun Laws Could Change Even If Republicans Don’t Embrace Restrictions

President Trump, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans are signaling newfound support for gun control measures after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I’m skeptical that these ideas will go far because we’ve seen Republicans propose gun restrictions after past mass shootings only to quietly drop them after media attention recedes. The reality is that many GOP lawmakers, influential groups in the party like the National Rifle Association and a sizable bloc of conservative-leaning voters remain leery of gun control. Even if they do move forward, any such GOP bill is likely to be too incremental and narrow to satisfy the demands of gun control advocates.

But a widespread Republican embrace of gun control measures is not the only way that the U.S. gun debate could change. With polls showing a rising number of Americans backing moves like expanding background checks and limiting the sale of some types of guns, let’s look at three other (and more likely) ways that American gun policy might shift.

Blue states pass new gun control legislation

There are eight states1 where Democrats control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office. Most of these places have both the political and policy space to do more on gun control.

Among those eight, only California has an “A” rating according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. (The rankings are based on legislation passed through the end of 2016.) California has what amounts to universal background checks for gun purchases and bans the sale of both large-capacity ammunition magazines and guns like the AR-15 that was used in the mass shooting in Parkland.

In contrast, Oregon, another state in which Democrats control the executive and legislative branches, only gets only a “C” grade from the Giffords Center. It does not have a ban on large-capacity magazines or some of the other California provisions. But Oregon Gov. Kate Brown cited the Parkland shooting in her push for legislation that would bar gun ownership by people who have received a restraining order or been convicted of stalking. That legislation has been approved by Oregon’s legislature over the last two weeks, and Brown is expected to sign it into law soon.

I suspect some of the six other liberal states will move in this direction, too, and there are signs they already are. Three states completely controlled by Democrats — Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey — along with New York, announced last week a new partnership to coordinate on gun policy. In fact, we could see movement in blue states more generally. The Republican governors of Massachusetts and Vermont — both states with liberal electorates and Democratic-controlled legislatures — are also signaling they will embrace new gun measures.

Measures expanding gun rights stall

Gun laws vary widely but state, but Republican-leaning areas often pass laws widening gun rights. Georgia, for example, adopted a provision last year that allowed people to carry concealed weapons onto college campuses. Could Parkland make them more reluctant to pass such laws?

It’s worth watching what red states do in the wake of Parkland, but I’m not at all confident we’ll see any widespread shift. Simply put: We’ve been here before. The 2011 shooting of then-Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords while she was meeting with constituents in the Tucson area seemed like the kind of event that could move a state towards embracing gun control. But Arizona has both not adopted many gun control laws and passed additional measures expanding gun rights, leading “Guns and Ammo” to rank the state No. 1 on its 2017 list of “Best States for Gun Owners.” (Arizona gets an “F” from the Giffords Center.)

Or, take the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 26 dead, including 20 first-graders. In the year after that mass shooting, there were 39 laws to restrict gun access passed in states across the country, according to a New York Times analysis, but 70 provisions to expand gun rights were adopted during the same period.

Similarly, there is an open question about whether Washington is primed for some change, too. We’ve heard U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Texas Sen. John Cornyn sound more positive about gun control measures since the Parkland shooting. But will this last for long? I’m not sure. I think the media will be a big factor here. Imagine if, say, CNN starts closely covering any bills in Washington or the states that loosen gun restrictions or expand gun freedoms, interviewing students from Parkland and other high schools and asking Republican members whether they would vote for these provisions. That might make it more complicated for Republicans to advance new pro-gun measures. But if that media attention recedes, it will be pretty easy for the party to return to pushing more pro-gun legislation. Also, whether or not voters like it, both defending and expanding gun rights is a deeply held view by many influential Republicans.

In December, two months after the mass shooting in Las Vegas that resulted in some members of the GOP suggesting they would back new gun control measures, Republicans in the U.S. House pushed through a provision that requires all states to honor state-issued concealed weapons permits, similar to how driver’s licenses work.2

That measure was always poised to stall in the Senate, since it would need 60 votes there. But Republicans could have used a vote on that provision to apply pressure to Democrats in red states to either back the bill or be cast as anti-gun rights. Whether Republicans bring that bill up in the Senate, post-Parkland, will be a good test of whether the party has shifted. It’s hard to detect the absence of something, but I think it’s likely Republicans in Washington will advance fewer pro-gun measures than they would have before Parkland, in part because legislation in D.C. gets more media attention than that at the state level.

Gun control becomes a bigger part of the national Democratic agenda

When Democrats had control of Congress and the presidency in 2009 and 2010, they did little to limit gun access. In fact, the two major gun policy bills adopted during that period loosened gun laws: One allowed Americans to enter national parks with loaded weapons; another allowed Amtrak passengers to bring guns onto trains as long as they were in checked baggage.

By the end of his presidency, perhaps in part because of Sandy Hook and other mass shootings, Barack Obama was strongly pushing more gun control measures, as were his potential Democratic successors Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Democrats could well control the House, Senate and presidency again (though I’m not sure how soon). Do events like last year’s shooting in Las Vegas and the Parkland school shooting ensure that nearly all of the people who are elected under the Democratic banner support gun control measures? Do these shootings ensure that the next Democratic president puts gun control at the top of his or her agenda, the way Obama approached health care and the economic stimulus in his first year? I think the answer to both of these questions is yes.

In 2013, four Senate Democrats opposed a provision to expand background checks, 10 were against limiting some high-capacity magazines and 15 voted against a provision barring the sale or possession of some semi-automatic weapons. It’s hard to imagine any Democrat in the Senate today opposing expanded background checks, and I suspect the numbers opposing limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would not reach double digits. Democratic voters are increasingly moving left on issues around race, identity and immigration, and I suspect guns will see a similar shift, basically forcing officials in the party to take stronger stands on the issue.

It’s obviously important if Republicans shift course and start embracing more gun control measures, and whether the changes are very small or don’t happen at all, the GOP’s moves in Washington should rightly get a lot of attention. But I think the shifts described above are more realistic, given that they don’t require a party to completely flip on a deeply controversial issue. So watch what Trump says on guns, but also keep on eye Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in Washington state and the Democrats who control the legislature there.


  1. Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

  2. So if you have a concealed weapons permit from Florida, that would apply while you were in California, even though those states have different gun laws.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.