After years of inaction, Congress is on the verge of passing legislation toughening gun laws. The proposal, which has already received an early procedural vote, follows two horrific mass shootings that rocked the country in May. In Buffalo, a white supremacist killed 10 blacks in a supermarket. In Uvalda, Texas, 19 children and two teachers were killed by a lone gunman who was eventually killed by police.
Potential legislation is modest compared to the reformers’ wish list – there is nothing to make background checks universal, nor are there any restrictions on the assault weapons used in both recent mass shootings.
But the states are a different story: in the weeks since Buffalo and Uwalde, many states have adopted or are seriously considering much stricter measures. Among them are tight restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as an increase in the age limit for the purchase of weapons. (Both shooters in these cases were 18 years old.)
This poses a dilemma for reformers. The resulting uneven patchwork of laws is easily circumvented. A New York subway shooter, for example, would have to fill out a long application for a handgun in New York City, where he could only legally buy a 10-round magazine. Instead, he bought a Glock 17, which he used to shoot in Ohio.
“The issue of federal action cannot be underestimated,” said Noah Lumbantobing, spokesman for the March for Our Lives. “In this country, we need a floor for what gun security looks like… However, the actions of the state are where it happens.”
The Congressional proposal, unveiled Tuesday, aims to close the “boyfriend loophole” and encourage states to implement red flag laws. Federal law prohibits individuals convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, but the so-called “boyfriend loophole” skips cases when it comes to less formal relationships. Red flag laws allow a judge to temporarily disqualify a person from owning a firearm if evidence shows that it poses a danger.
The bill will also direct more than a quarter of a billion dollars to less controversial programs with a successful track record, such as community violence responses, mental health services, and suicide prevention.
The slow-moving Congress on gun reform, however, pales in comparison to the aggressive actions taken by several liberal strongholds in response to the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uwalda over the past few weeks.
New York passed package of laws it raised the age to purchase semi-automatic rifles to 21, banned body armor for most people outside of law enforcement, and tightened the red flag law.
New York’s 2019 red flag law came under scrutiny after it failed to stop a Buffalo shooter. At the age of 17, he spoke of a desire to commit murder-suicide, which led to a police report and a psychiatric examination – neither of which prevented him from buying a gun, which he used the next year.
Delaware ready to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles and the limitation of magazines to 17 rounds. Washington state implemented the lawadopted in March, which limited magazines to 10 rounds.
Store restrictions, designed to make it more difficult for so many people to be massacred at once, became the main legal requirement of the reformers.
Several other gun control measures are moving through the state legislatures in California and New Jersey.
Other state laws remain in development. The California State Assembly, which has already passed a statewide version of the expired assault weapons ban, is considering whether gun owners should be required to provide liability insurance.
And New Jersey legislators are looking through a bunch of bills filed earlier this year with little interest to see which ones could ride the post-Buffalo and Uvalde fury and become law. Raising the age to buy a rifle, banning guns over .50 caliber firing cartridges over 5.54 inches long, and making it easier to prosecute gun makers are all possibilities.
For the past two decades, Democratic-led states have tried to restrict access to firearms and revive elements of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. after mass shootings.
On the other hand, the Republican-led states were largely moving in the opposite direction, making it easier to carry handguns in more places.
Since the Republicans control most of the states and governorships, it looks like the inertia of the states will continue. But if there’s a state worth watching to judge whether a broader Republican shift on gun reform is in the works, it’s Texas.
Few states have done more to promote gun freedom than Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott (right) signed legislation in 2015 to allow hidden license holders carry firearms on college campuses. Texas removed the requirement to obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm in 2021, joining the ranks of gun-banning states.
Texas also leads the nation when it comes to mass shootings. And even before Uvalde, it also led the nation in child gun deaths, with the number of children dying from firearms every year. doubling Abbott’s tenure.
Abbott has largely resisted the Democratic minority’s push for reform in response to mass shootings in the past. His refusal to call a special session of the legislature to consider gun reform after Uvalde and rejection of calls to raise the age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles indicate that he is still cold on reforms.
But the sight of so many young children dying in Uvalda added to the pressure to act. Whether this will be made into law when the state legislature meets biennially in January will largely depend on the outcome of the gubernatorial race.
Former US Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Democrat) launched a far-sighted bid to oust Abbott in a state where Democrats have not won a national election since 1994.
A former mayor and El Paso Representative, O’Rourke made gun control his most pressing issue in the Democratic presidential primary after the 2019 Walmart shooting. Uvalde raised a question again at the top of his agenda.
The election is likely to be a referendum on state gun policy. If Abbott beats O’Rourke, there will be little incentive for the legislature to reconsider an approach that seems to be working for the Republican Party in voting.
According to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, a strong Democratic showing, however, could spur Texas Republicans to change their approach.
“If Beto can keep Abbott’s win in the low single digits, we can tie that to gun control,” Jones said. “But if, on the other hand, Abbott beats Beto by 10 to 15%, there will be little pressure for any gun control reform.”
But before O’Rourke’s victory, Derek Cohen, senior fellow at Texas criminal justice reform group Right on Crime, didn’t expect the state legislature to change its strategy. Instead, pressure from Uvalde is likely to unleash a flurry of bills as the 2023 session opens, with few going anywhere.
“We will see every political proposal that exists in the world,” Cohen said. “But states are usually where they are because of where they are.”
“It all sounds so defeatist,” Cohen added. “But that only highlights the complexity of the problem.”