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National Issues

State legislatures lead the way on gun-control laws

Following the Dec. 2 murder of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, we heard a renewed call for reforming our gun laws. Of course, over the past several years, we’ve heard similar pleas after mass shootings in Oregon, South Carolina, Colorado, Connecticut and elsewhere.

The persistent political narrative suggests that calls for policy change are futile; that any legislation at the national level will be killed by the powerful gun lobby; and because of our permissive gun laws, the United States will continue to have more gun violence than any other developed country in the world.

This sentiment is understandable give the history of the gun control movement (pdf). For the past several decades, the gun control movement has faced a better funded and politically savvy opponent. The National Rifle Association and its allies have stopped gun reform at all levels of government: the bureaucracy (by stopping data collection on gun violence), the political arena (by swinging tight races), and the courts (by exempting guns from federal consumer-safety laws).

However, by focusing on the intransigence in Washington and the discouraging history of gun reform, the mainstream media has missed gun reform progress at the state level. Since the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the gun control movement has gained momentum and demonstrated political prowess it lacked over the past several decades.

Take the issue of firearms and domestic violence. Firearms pose a serious risk for women in abusive relationships. In 2011, more than half of American women (pdf) murdered with firearms were killed by romantic partners or family members. When guns are present in a domestic violence situation, the risk of homicide for women increases by 500 percent. Despite this evidence, laws at the federal level remain weak and full of loopholes.

State legislatures, however, have recently responded with an energy that gun-control advocates have not seen in years. Since 2009, state legislatures have passed 30 new laws that address the role guns play in domestic violence. In only the last three years, 18 states have passed laws preventing citizens convicted of domestic violence from obtaining firearms. And on Thursday, Connecticut’s governor announced that he would sign an executive order barring people on federal terrorism watch lists from buying firearms in the state.

In another contrast to the national narrative, some of these new laws come from states with Republican governors. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana both signed legislation that protects survivors from firearms in the last several years. This show of bipartisanship suggests the possibility of across-the-aisle collaboration.

After so many devastating mass shootings on American soil, it is difficult to stay positive about the possibility of real reform. But the smaller political victories at the state level could mean we are witnessing the beginning of a gun reform movement that had previously been missing.

Sierra Smucker, from Los Angeles, is a Ph.D. student at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. She studies how policy design can influence citizens’ political engagement and is particularly interested in policy addressing violence against women.

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