In the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections, several journalists noticed that Democratic political candidates were unusually willing to make gun control a central part of their platforms. A Pacific Standard analysis of the legislation introduced by the 116th Congress shows lawmakers have made good on their promises to make gun-control legislation a primary focus: With the exception of the 113th Congress, the 116th Congress has introduced almost three times as many gun-control laws in their first month as any other recent new Congress.
Notably, the 113th Congress began its first legislative session just one month after a man gunned down six- and seven-year-olds and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
In past years, the issue of gun control had seemed too politically risky to run on. As one Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, Jason Crow, running against a Republican incumbent, Mike Coffman, told the Washington Post in early November: "The convention in swing districts like this is, don't take it on, not in a purple or light blue district. It's a wedge issue."
But a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February of 2018, kindled a mass movement for firearms restrictions among young citizens, helping some Americans to be more gun law friendly and politicians to embrace the call for gun control. "I believe the danger is in not taking this on anymore," Crow told the Post. He would go on to win Coffman's seat, representing suburbs outside of Denver, Colorado.
This January, Congresspeople introduced 33 bills primarily concerning firearms, 21 of which call for more gun control, eight for protecting gun rights, and four for authorizing firearms buyback programs or research into gun violence. In the 111th, 112th, 114th, and 115th Congresses—which together span the last decade—the very first month saw only 11 to 18 new bills introduced having to do with guns. In some of those years, there were more gun rights bills introduced than gun-control ones. In the first month of the 113th Congress, after Sandy Hook, lawmakers introduced 26 gun-control bills.
There's no guarantee that any of these new bills will be adopted. Since 1973, fewer than 8 percent of all bills introduced in Congress have become law, according to data collected by GovTrack.us. Gun-control laws in 2019 face an additional challenge: a divided Congress, with the House of Representatives controlled by Democrats and the Senate controlled by Republicans, who tend to favor gun rights over restrictions. Of the 26 gun-control bills introduced in the 113th Congress, which had a Republican-majority House and Democrat-majority Senate, all failed. Eight of the 113th's gun-control bills have since been reintroduced unsuccessfully, sometimes in multiple Congresses.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, is an unpredictable factor. Since the Parkland shooting and demonstrations, he has said he supports some firearms restrictions, then seemed to back off from those comments. Following the shooting of 59 concertgoers in Las Vegas in 2017, the Trump administration angered gun-rights hardliners by pushing for a federal ban on bump stocks, devices that help semi-automatic rifles fire faster and which the Las Vegas shooter had used. In December of 2018 the Department of Justice announced a ban on bump stocks, which will take effect in March.
Whether or not the 116th's bills pass, their sheer quantity is a mark of how much more important gun control is to Americans now than it was in the recent past, political scientists say.
"I think it reflects the fact that there is a new sense, especially among Democrats, that the gun issue is worth talking about and worth pursuing. That's significant because, for more than a decade, the Democratic Party was missing from the gun debate entirely," says Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York–Cortland who's written several books on gun laws in America. "That really yielded the debate to the gun-rights side."
The gun-control side's enthusiasm points to something else extraordinary. In polls, Americans have long shown interest in stricter gun laws immediately after big tragedies dominate the news cycle, but the issue typically falls in their lists of priorities quite quickly. The reason the 113th Congress introduced so many gun-control bills in January of 2013 was because there had just been one of the most horrific mass shootings in American history.
Although there were many mass shootings in December of 2018, there wasn't anything on the scale of the Sandy Hook shooting. Instead, Spitzer attributes the sustained push for gun control mainly to the movement that the Parkland students started nearly a year ago. Last year, for the first time in a federal election, gun-safety groups were able to outspend gun-rights groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Spitzer admits there's no "specific empirical data" to support the idea that student activism was what helped keep gun violence in the foremost of Americans' minds. Still, he thinks: "It's the single more important factor." At no other time in American history had the survivors of a school shooting organized the way the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students did, according to Spitzer.
Just one month into the new Congress, the results of that outcry are apparent.
How Did Pacific Standard Track Gun Bills?
Pacific Standard searched GovTrack.us, a website that collects detailed information about bills, using the keywords "ammunition," "firearm," "gun," "Second Amendment," and "weapon." We also checked GovTrack.us' "Firearms and Explosives" topic page for every Congress, and called bill sponsors or talked to experts to help classify bills as "gun control," "gun rights," "supporting gun research or buyback programs," "other" (for example, a bill putting more resources into intercepting illegally trafficked arms from Mexico), or "not relevant." To view the full methodology, an enumeration of the gun bills that members of the 116th Congress sponsored in January, and comparisons with prior congresses, click here.