Mass shootings lead to widening divide on state gun policies
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Mass shootings have commanded public attention on a disturbingly frequent basis across the U.S. But rather than provoking a unified response from elected officials, each additional shooting seems to be widening the political divide on gun policy among states.
"It’s wash, rinse and repeat with these mass shootings," said Michael Anderson, a bartender who survived a mass shooting at a Colorado nightclub. "They happen, and then they happen, and then they happen — and then nothing gets done."
At least nothing that has put a halt to the violence.
In Democratic-led states with already restrictive gun laws, officials have responded to home-state tragedies with even more limits on guns — doubling down on a belief that future shootings can be thwarted by controlling access to lethal weapons.
In many states with Republican-led legislatures, high-profile shootings appear unlikely to prompt any new firearm restrictions this year — reflecting a belief that violent people, not their weapons, are the problem.
"Obviously, no one wants to see these tragedies occur — this loss of life — but how the problem is viewed, and therefore what the response is to that problem, is night and day difference," said Daniel Webster, an American health professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
For the third straight year, the U.S. in 2022 recorded over 600 mass shootings in which at least four people were killed or injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive. This year got off to another deadly start, including three California mass shootings in barely a week that killed two dozen people. A Saturday morning shooting in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood that killed at least three and wounded four added to the grim toll. That despite the fact California has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws.
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As more communities grieve, legislative sessions are getting underway in many states. Numerous gun-related bills have been filed, but common ground appears lacking.
In Texas, Democratic state Sen. Roland Gutierrez convened a Capitol news conference this past week with relatives of some of the 19 children and two teachers killed last May at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. They pleaded with lawmakers to raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy semi-automatic rifles and lift restraints against lawsuits alleging negligence by law enforcement officers and public agencies.
"An 18-year-old should not be allowed to purchase an ugly weapon," said Felicia Martinez, whose 10-year-old son Xavier Lopez was killed in the attack. She added: "These laws need to be changed, and they need to be changed today — not tomorrow."
Yet that seems unlikely. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan told reporters earlier this month he didn’t foresee enough support in the Republican-led House to pass bills limiting access to guns. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said raising the purchasing age for semi-automatic rifles would be "unconstitutional," though several states already have similar restrictions.
Instead, Texas officials responded last summer with $105.5 million for school safety and mental health initiatives.
Missouri seems similarly unlikely to enact stricter gun laws after a 19-year-old killed a teacher, a student and wounded seven others last October at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis. Police said they had previously responded to a call from the 19-year-old’s mother to remove a gun from his possession, but they could not do so because Missouri lacks a red-flag law.
If such a law had been in place, "this would not have happened — at least that person, that situation, that gun, that death, all of that could have been prevented," said Janay Douglas, whose 15-year-old daughter fled from the shooter.
Democrats have sponsored legislation allowing authorities to remove guns from people at risk of causing harm. But its prospects are not good.
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"I don’t think a red flag law — the way I know it to be and the way it’s been defined — has any chance of getting through the Missouri Senate, that’s for certain," said Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Republican.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, has instead proposed $50 million for school safety grants in response to the shooting.
In Oklahoma, which experienced several mass shootings, Republican lawmakers are expected to push for looser gun laws. GOP state Rep. Jim Olsen has filed a bill to lower the age for carrying a firearm from 21 to 18.
"It’s a constitutional right," Olsen said. "The immaturity that exists at 18 sometimes also still exists at 22. So, what do we want to do? Raise the age to 25 or 30? I would think not."
By contrast, lawmakers in Democratic-led New York and Illinois moved fairly quickly to enact additional gun restrictions after mass shootings.
An 18-year-old shooter outfitted with body armor and a semi-automatic rifle killed 10 people and injured three others last May at a Buffalo grocery story in a predominantly black neighborhood. Within a month, the legislature and governor enacted laws barring people under age 21 from buying semi-automatic rifles, limiting the sale of bullet-resistant armor and tightening red-flag laws.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed legislation earlier this month spurred largely by an Independence Day parade shooting that killed seven and injured dozens in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. The law bans the sale or possession of dozens of specific types of semi-automatic guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines. A judge has temporarily blocked it after gun-rights advocates sued.
In Colorado, lawmakers are proposing a variety of new gun restrictions, two months after five people were killed at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. Democratic leaders have been most supportive of proposals to strengthen red flag laws and raise the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21.
Anderson, who was bartending at Club Q during the shooting, wants politicians to embrace greater gun control and better mental health services.
"After what I’ve been through and my friends and our community here, you know, doing nothing is not an option," Anderson said.