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From concealed carry to eliminating permits, gun restrictions have loosened since Sandy Hook

Kenny Wolfam open carried a pistol while counter-protesting a "Moms Demand Action" protest in response to a new Texas gun law on June 17, 2021.MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

KENNESAW, Ga. — One day before a mass shooting in Texas killed 19 fourth-graders and two adults, former vice president Mike Pence stood onstage at a campaign rally here and praised Governor Brian Kemp for eliminating the need to get a gun permit to carry a concealed weapon in public, drawing cheers from Kemp’s delighted Republican base.

Last year in Missouri, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law making it a crime for law enforcement to help enforce federal gun laws, threatening $50,000 fines if they do.

And in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican widely believed to have presidential aspirations, signed seven pro-gun bills on one day last year, including the state’s own permitless carry bill and a measure allowing guns in hotel rooms.

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“Texas will always be the leader in defending the Second Amendment, which is why we built a barrier around gun rights this session,” Abbott said at the time.

Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill to allow permitless carry at a sporting goods store in Douglasville, Ga., on April 12. SB 319 allows a "lawful weapons carrier" to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed. Bob Andres/Associated Press

In the 10 years that passed between the slaughter of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the mass murder in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, the lack of action on gun control became a perennial source of frustration — and fear — for millions of Americans.

And while it is true that Congress has not passed major gun control legislation during that time, the idea that nothing has changed is not quite right. While many Democrat-led states have implemented new gun restrictions in recent years, Republican lawmakers in many states have loosened them — and a Supreme Court ruling expected in the next few weeks could accelerate that trend further by declaring unconstitutional the restrictive gun licensing requirements used in New York and some other blue states.

“In general, things have gotten a lot more permissive, and they’re about to get more permissive still,” said John Donohue, a law professor at Stanford who tracks state gun legislation.

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Gun safety advocates have notched victories in populous states such as New York and California, and the advance around the country of “red flag” laws, which allow authorities to confiscate guns from people who make threats or show other signs of instability, stands as a bright spot for the movement. But conservative states have made it a point of pride to defy federal gun laws and make it easier to carry guns despite the drumbeat of mass shootings — moves experts say have made those states less safe.

Jackie Barden, the mother of a Sandy Hook victim, looked on as Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy hugged her husband, Mark Barden, after Malloy signed far-reaching gun control legislation into law in 2013.EPA

“In the reddest states, gun laws are weaker and in the bluest states gun laws are stronger,” since Sandy Hook, said Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a group founded by the former congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she was shot in the head in 2011 in an assassination attempt and mass shooting.

All told, there are 21 states that have passed permitless carry laws since 2012 — a list that includes politically purple states Maine and New Hampshire in addition to deep-red ones such as Oklahoma and Arkansas — according to Giffords. Research by Donohue and others has found that those laws, also known as right-to-carry laws, are associated with increases in aggregate violent crime.

Over that period, eight states have created so-called stand your ground laws, which offer immunity to people who use deadly force in public to defend themselves against perceived threats without a duty to try to retreat or deescalate, according to the group. And since 2012, five states, including Missouri, have passed “extreme nullification” laws, which discourage the enforcement of federal gun laws. And there have been laws around the country expanding the places where people can take their guns.

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“It just goes to show, for all of the mass shootings and despite the spike in gun violence, gun-rights advocates are just pushing hard and aggressively for loosening gun laws, and they’ve been remarkably successful,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law who specializes in constitutional rights and gun policy.

The passage of these laws has been championed by groups including the National Rifle Association, and coincided with the rise of aggressive new pro-gun organizations that believe the NRA does not go far enough.

“At the state level, there’s been a real push to restore rights,” said Christopher Stone, communications director for the National Association for Gun Rights, which was founded in 2000, and has pushed for pro-gun laws including permitless carry. “Our goal is to be no-compromise, and not stand back even when it’s tough. ... We fundamentally will not cut deals.”

The laws have also coincided with the deepening of the partisan divide when it comes to guns, with Republicans moving ever more to the right to placate their base.

“There’s this entrenched opposition within the Republican Party, to virtually any proposal that seeks to restrict access to guns,” said Eric Ruben, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas and a fellow at the non-profit Brennan Center for Justice in New York. “That has become almost an identity of one of the two major parties.”

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Ruben pointed to Texas as an example of how the Republican Party has evolved on guns over the past decade. It is a state with a shocking number of recent mass shootings: 26 people in an attack at a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017, 23 people in a racist shooting in El Paso in 2019, and eight more in a shooting spree in Midland and Odessa weeks later, to name a few. But it also is one where lawmakers have seen fit to allow guns on college campuses, expand open carry laws, and declare themselves a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.”

“My time in the Legislature has been a slow drumbeat of breaking down gun safety,” said state Representative Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso, in an interview. He said he found the GOP’s embrace of permitless carry for handguns particularly shocking.

“No safety training, no responsibility,” he said. “That was the bill that 10 years ago was laughed at by most mainstream Republicans that I served with ... which seems like a lifetime ago, that these type of concepts were thought of as just fringe.”

Abbott has disputed the idea that stronger gun laws prevent mass shootings, and said his recent loosening of gun laws had nothing to do with the massacre in Uvalde.

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“No law that I signed allowed him to get a gun, the gun that he did get,” Abbott said on Friday.

In some cases, the passage of pro-gun laws has coincided with moments of political need. In Georgia, Kemp campaigned on the idea of permitless carry during his first race for governor in 2018, as he sought to defeat a challenger in a competitive primary. He then signed the bill in April as he was fighting off a Trump-backed primary challenge.

The measure has frustrated Democrats. Asked why his state has loosened its gun laws instead of tightening them in the wake of mass shootings, Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia, a Democrat, blamed “political pandering to a small, hard-core, activist cohort for whom any common sense gun safety measures are anathema.”

Democrats opposing the bill held a press conference down the street from where Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill allowing permitless carry at a gun store in Douglasville, Ga., on April 12.Bob Andres/Associated Press

Despite this hard-right turn in many states, there have been some high-profile advances in gun safety laws. Giffords counts 48 states plus Washington, D.C., that have passed what they consider significant gun safety laws between the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012 and the end of 2021. (Some states have passed gun safety bills in addition to measures that weaken gun control.)

One month after the Sandy Hook shooting, former governor Andrew Cuomo of New York muscled through a gun safety package that included an expansion of the state’s ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks, and more.

Eleven states, including Washington and Nevada, expanded background checks. In 2016, one year after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California passed a suite of gun control regulations by referendum, including background checks for ammunition purchases and a ban on high-capacity magazines.

And after a teenage gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day in 2018, students from that high school successfully persuaded Republican lawmakers in Florida to pass a modest package of gun safety measures, including a red flag law. There are now 19 states with such laws, according to Giffords. That shooting also motivated new gun control laws in other states, including Vermont, which had few restrictions before that.

Gun reform advocates lined Pennsylvania Avenue while attending the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, D.C., spurred by the shooting that took place on Valentine's Day of that year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.Win McNamee

Some advances, however, have been rolled back by the courts. Just weeks ago, a federal judge overturned a California law that stopped people younger than 21 from buying semiautomatic weapons. Aspects of New York’s ban on high-capacity magazines were also overturned.

And legal experts believe the Supreme Court is likely to take more teeth out of states’ ability to restrict guns when it rules next month on a challenge to a New York law that requires people to demonstrate that they have a specific reason to carry firearms in public to get a license to do so, which is otherwise known as “proper cause.”

During oral arguments, the court’s conservative majority appeared sympathetic to the idea that such a requirement infringes on Second Amendment rights. If they were to overturn it, similar laws in six other states, including Massachusetts, could also fall, which would mean the loosening of gun restrictions in states where a quarter of the country’s population lives, said Ruben, the Brennan Center fellow.

The court could also go further and upend the standards judges currently use to determine whether gun restrictions are legal, he said.

Donohue, the Stanford professor, is hopeful that Chief Justice John Roberts will not want his name associated with a relaxation in gun laws that could lead to more gun deaths, and could persuade Justice Brett Kavanaugh to join him. But he is hardly optimistic.

“It’s a bleak period if you’re averse to gun violence,” he said. “If you’re a mass killer or a criminal, it should be a good day in the days ahead.”

Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described Texas Representative Joe Moody’s comments on permitless carry. Moody was shocked by Republicans supporting that policy.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her @jessbidgood.