In December 2012, after an unspeakable tragedy, many gun violence prevention advocates thought their moment had arrived. If the slaughter of 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School could not sway lawmakers to put more controls on guns, they believed, what would?
But more than three years later, Congress has passed no major gun laws and there are few who believe the mass shooting in Orlando on Sunday, the deadliest in US history, will have any greater impact on federal gun laws.
Instead, gun control advocates said Monday they will continue a more strategic battle they have been waging state-by-state since the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
Over the past three and a half years, 42 states have passed 138 laws to strengthen gun regulations and 11 states enacted what advocates call major changes to gun laws, said Mark Prentice, the communications director for Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence prevention group cofounded by former US representative Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head in a mass shooting in 2011.
Though “it has been a trying 36 hours,” Prentice said, “there is a sense of optimism” within the gun violence prevention movement. “There has been a lot of progress at the state level” since a federal proposal to expand background checks on gun buyers failed in Congress in 2013.
“It is happening slowly, but it is happening,” said John Rosenthal, a founder 0f the Massachusetts-based group Stop Handgun Violence.
Nine states have added or expanded background checks on their own, according to a tally provided Monday by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national organization that merged this year with Giffords’ group. Twenty states strengthened gun laws related to domestic violence, and at least 19 states, including Florida and Massachusetts, passed laws aimed at improving databases used in background checks., according to the center.
In 2014, then-Governor Deval Patrick signed a law that allows chiefs of police to go to court to keep rifles and shotguns away from people they believe too dangerous to be armed.
Lindsay Nichols, senior attorney for the law center, said the movement has focused on strengthening background check rules “as part of a big nationwide movement to see that every transfer of a gun is preceded by a background check, because federal law has this huge glaring loophole.” Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, but not other individuals who are selling a gun.
“In the past year, Oregon enacted it and Washington did it by ballot initiative. This year there will be initiatives in Maine and Nevada on background checks as well. Those are the big changes,” she said.
The movement scored a victory within the last few weeks, Nichols said, when Connecticut enacted a law prohibiting a person from possessing a gun while subject to a temporary restraining order. “That’s a very important victory,” she said. “That’s such a dangerous period of time. So many victims do lose their lives after they get a court order.”
Omar Mateen, who shot and killed 49 people and injured 50 more in the nightclub massacre Sunday in Orlando, had a Florida firearms license. Within the last few days he legally purchased a handgun and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
The powerful national gun rights organization, the National Rifle Association, said Monday evening that “gun laws don’t deter terrorists,” and criticized President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for their calls for more controls.
“They are desperate to create the illusion that they’re doing SOMETHING to protect us – even though their policies won’t keep us safe,” the NRA said in tweets attributed to Chris W. Cox, director of the organization’s political arm. “Their transparent head-fakes should scare every American because it will do nothing to prevent … a future attack.”
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Gun Owners’ Action League could not be reached Monday evening.
Julia Wyman, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, a New York-based national network, said the movement may pick up experienced allies from the LGBT community after Sunday’s shooting at the Pulse, a gay nightclub.
“LGBT communities have been so effective at genuine grass-roots mobilization,” Wyman said. “It pains me to think they were the target of this hateful crime, but at the same time this is a community that has unbelievable power and backing. This is causing a lot of sympathy. We want to work with them. And we hope they reach out to people like my organization. We want to work with them on the local level.”
Wyman said the network’s priorities include pursuing regulations on military-style weapons, expanded background checks, a push to deny firearms to domestic abusers, and education around guns and suicide.
She said advocates are also “on constant defense” against proposals to loosen gun laws. “The gun lobby has a very, very effective grass-roots [network] at the state level,” she said. “It’s underestimated just how effective it is. Those are the people who will go out and slate people to run for office and do all that foundational work.”
Jerry Belair, president of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, said advocates for gun violence prevention could learn a lesson from their political opponents.
“The gun lobby votes on one issue,” he said. “This year I made the decision to vote on one issue, which I’ve never done before in my life. It came down to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and I went for Clinton. On the gun issue she’s the strongest person out there.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on Monday called for the reinstatement of a national ban on assault weapons — semiautomatic weapons with at least two specific banned modifications and the ability to accept detachable magazines. A previous ban expired in 2004. Massachusetts enforces a statewide ban on such weapons.
“It just shouldn’t be the case that a single person can go out and buy a gun and then walk into a building and shoot over 100 people in short order,” she said in an interview.
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