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OPINION

Gun safety is starting to work as an electoral issue

A state focus holds the most promise for important gains on smart gun laws.

A firearms dealer posted a sign outside the Littleton Mill.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It’s been a huge frustration of gun safety advocates: Even though public opinion polls show that Americans strongly support reasonable gun laws, at the federal level, it’s been nigh unto impossible to take significant action.

The legislation Congress passed last year illustrates that point. Although it was certainly worth passing, the legislation stopped well short of measures that enjoy broad public support, such as expanding background checks to all firearms purchases.

Given that dynamic at the federal level, I’ve often noted that gun-safety efforts should focus hard on progress at the state level.

On Wednesday, Everytown for Gun Safety emphasized the way gun safety is evolving as an electoral issue and the prospect for progress in state capitals.

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Exhibit A was Illinois, where Governor J.B. Pritzker just signed a new law banning assault-style weapons, large-capacity magazines, and mechanisms that increase a gun’s firing speed, while strengthening the state’s red-flag gun law and requiring that potential buyers, except for members of the military, be 21 before purchasing guns or ammunition. (That law, of course, faces legal challenges from gun-rights organizations.)

That’s not the only hopeful sign. Minnesota Democratic state Representative Dave Pinto, who is also a county prosecutor, said prospects for better gun laws there improved markedly in November, when his party flipped the state Senate, held the House, and reelected Democratic Governor Tim Walz.

“Voters sent a clear message, which is that gun safety is a winning and popular issue in Minnesota,” Pinto declared.

In Michigan, too, the environment has become more favorable; Democrats flipped both branches of the Legislature, while Governor Gretchen Whitmer won landslide reelection.

According to NBC News’ national exit poll of the November election, 56 percent of 2022 voters backed tougher gun laws, with three-quarters of that group supporting Democrats. Meanwhile, a post-election poll of voters in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wisconsin commissioned by Everytown found a healthy majority reported that gun safety was an important consideration in their voting decisions and that, by margins of at least 11 percentage points, voters said they were more likely to back “a Democrat who supports strengthening gun safety laws” than “a Republican who opposes more gun restrictions.”

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Now, it would be a stretch to suggest gun safety was the driving issue of 2022. It’s also important to note that even in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican and a staunch opponent of gun control, won an easy reelection victory over Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who emphasized gun safety.

Yet it’s certainly fair to say that in an array of competitive states, supporting tougher gun laws was an advantage and not a liability. And that’s important as the push for stronger laws goes forward.

There’s more work to be done even in Massachusetts. One particular need, noted longtime gun-safety leader John Rosenthal, cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence, is to ban the possession, manufacture, and assembly of so-called ghost guns, firearms that can be bought online in kit form, without a background check, and assembled later.

Gun safety is an area where the House, under former speaker Robert DeLeo, led impressively. Ron Mariano, the current speaker, has tasked Representative Michael Day, Democrat of Stoneham, with reviewing the state’s gun laws to ensure they are sufficient and work well both individually and as a composite scheme. Day told me he will soon embark on a listening tour around the state to hear from citizens about their concerns, with the goal of having legislation ready for consideration later in the year. First stop: Cape Cod Community College from 6 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 9, a session that will focus on the link between guns, mental illness, and the rising incidence of suicide.

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Asked about concerns bubbling on the Internet that the House wants to ban all semiautomatic firearms — a category that includes any self-loading weapon, even something as basic as, say, a deer rifle with a five-round magazine — Day replied: “We recognize recreational gun owners — hunters and sportsmen — as responsible gun owners. Those are not people we look at as threats to safety.”

So, sportsmen, no need to get the vapors.

Indeed, as Representative Marjorie Decker, Democrat of Cambridge and lead author of the state’s red-flag gun law, notes, Massachusetts’ approach to guns has made the Commonwealth one of the safest states in the nation on firearm fatalities, without big consequences for gun ownership. (Unless, of course, one thinks it’s vital to possess an assault-style weapon.)

“The vast majority — some 97 percent — of the people who apply for gun permits receive them,” Decker said. “Every day we are proving to states around the country why having thoughtful, responsible gun laws leads to thoughtful, responsible gun owners.”

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Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.