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As the Republican Senate Blocks Reform, States Pass Their Own Gun-Control Laws

Since their governors' offices flipped to Democrat, New Mexico and Nevada have paved the way on gun reform.
Gun-reform advocates line Pennsylvania Avenue while attending the March for Our Lives rally on March 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Gun-reform advocates line Pennsylvania Avenue while attending the March for Our Lives rally on March 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

If you count yourself among the 97 percent of Americans who support universal background checks for all gun buyers, 2019 might have been the year that some of your "thoughts and prayers" were finally answered: In March, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill requiring background checks on all gun sales, and just one month earlier, in February, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed a similar proposal into law.

Both bills are part of a broad slate of gun-sense legislation that statehouses across the United States managed to pass in 2019, giving gun-control activists cause to celebrate even as Congress has struggled to bypass a Republican-controlled Senate to advance gun-safety laws at the federal level.

In addition to Nevada's background check law, Sisolak also signed legislation on Friday establishing an extreme risk law in the state, which will mandate the responsible storage of firearms and prohibit the sale and possession of bump stocks. Earlier this year, New York, Colorado, and the District of Columbia all enacted red flag laws—which are aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of individuals who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others—bringing the total number of states to adopt the policy up to 15. And in addition to the 16 states that rejected bills that would have armed teachers and repealed gun-free school zones in K-12 schools, 11 states rejected bills that would have forced colleges and universities to allow guns on campus, and three new states—Arkansas, Minnesota, and North Dakota—rejected so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws, which critics argue contribute to an uptick in vigilantism.

The victories are thanks, in part, to the ramped up grassroots efforts of gun-safety groups like Everytown for Gun Safety (which includes the gun violence prevention group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America) and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which outspent the National Rifle Association by a formidable margin for the first time in recent history during the 2018 mid-term elections. The resultant blue wave flipped key governors mansions in states like New Mexico, Nevada, and Michigan, and also helped to turn over legislative chambers in seven states.

In the wake of those victories, gun groups have dispatched organizers to fight on the ground in newly blue states like Nevada and New Mexico in order to ensure that the gun-sense candidates appointed there maintain the political momentum needed to make good on their campaign promises.

Shannon Watts, the founder Moms Demand Action, says that the push to enact common sense gun legislation at the state level should serve as a roadmap for federal lawmakers hoping to do the same.

"That's how social issues work in this country; Congress is where this work ends, not where it begins," Watts says. "You have to build a political movement doing the unglamorous heavy-lifting of grassroots activism, and that's what we've been doing for six years. You have to build momentum in statehouses and boardrooms that eventually point the president and the congress in the right direction."

In February, Democrats in the House of Representatives made significant progress on gun control for the first time in nearly 25 years, passing the Bipartisan Background Checks Act in a 240 to 190 vote. If approved, the legislation would require background checks on all firearm purchases—including those made privately online or at gun shows. But while some progressives heralded the legislation as the first meaningful step along a path to ensuring gun safety, the bill still faces an uphill battle: Not only is it likely to face steep political opposition in a Republican-controlled Senate (Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota said that it was "unlikely" that the measure would even be taken up), Republicans in Congress also managed to tack on an amendment requiring that federal immigration officials be notified in the event that a non-U.S. citizen attempts to purchase a gun.

Last Thursday, House Democrats introduced two new gun-violence prevention bills: One aimed at stemming the production of the blueprints for 3-D printed firearms, and another that would incentivize all state and local governments to require prospective gun owners to obtain a license before making a firearms purchase.

As political gridlock and National Rifle Association spending have stalled federal efforts to make meaningful strides on gun reform, the successes of gun-control bills in state legislatures are serving as proof that gun control can be part of a winning agenda.

Even at the federal level, despite a failure to pass policy, the gun-control movement has been successful in centering the gun-control debate in the American political conversation. The 2019 congressional session marked the second since 17 students and faculty members were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and in the intervening months student activists and grassroots coalitions have made sure that the call for tightened gun-control restrictions has remained an ever present part of the national discourse. The strategy seems to be working: Among the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders who have put forward proposals on gun control thus far, all support stronger gun laws, as does the Republican candidate, Bill Weld, who plans to primary President Donald Trump in 2020.

Gun-control advocates also celebrated the elections of several fierce gun-safety candidates at the federal level—including first-time Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath, who helped co-sponsored the bill to close the background check loophole. By Watt's estimate, a total of 40 gun sense and gun violence survivor candidates ran for office in 2018. Of those, she says, 17 were elected—but groups like Moms Demand Action have no plans to stop there.

"We know that when we elect gun violence survivors and women to office, that they legislate on this issue," Watts says. "We expect to have many more running in the next election."

Another boon to the gun-control movement has been an NRA beset by scandal, as investigations into shady financials and the organization's role in Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics threaten to erode its influence. Polling from the progressive think tank Navigator Research published in late 2018 showed that the NRA had also sustained lasting reputational damage in the wake of the Parkland shooting, with more than half of respondents reporting an unfavorable opinion of the NRA and its leadership, then- President Oliver North and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre (North has since been suspended from his role over an alleged intra-organizational coup).

As Watts sees it, a weakened NRA could put gun-safety activists within striking ground on key gun-control efforts.

"Their agenda is toxic, and, on the other hand, the gun-safety movement is stronger than it's ever been," Watts says. "The NRA goes into 2020 with its hands tied behind its back, and we will take advantage of that," she adds.