Gun-control advocates have scored major victories in red states as well as blue ones in recent years, bolstering their optimism even as they acknowledge that odds remain long that Washington will respond with federal legislation to the twin massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio.
Activists and experts say their success in enacting gun-control legislation at the state level reflects the growing public clout the movement has gained since 20 first-graders and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
While Congress has not passed meaningful gun-control legislation in decades, achievements in more than 40 states reflect the strength of a movement that is able to go toe-to-toe with the historically powerful National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups, activists contend.
“When you hear people say 20 first-graders were killed at Sandy Hook and nothing happened and that’s when it all became hopeless . . . that’s just false,” said Kristin Goss, a Duke University political scientist who studies the gun-control movement. “The gun violence prevention movement of today is just leagues larger, more strategic, better funded, more energetic than it was probably at any point in history.”
Sandy Hook and, later, the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in particular, sparked the formation of new groups and energized a young generation of activists who have in turn been the force behind legislative change, experts and activists say.
“There is progress being made,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, an anti-gun-violence group formed after Sandy Hook that boasts nearly 6 million supporters. She said she finds it “so frustrating” to hear people say nothing happened after that shooting, “because we happened,” noting her group tripled in size after Parkland.
Since Sandy Hook, 45 states and Washington, D.C., have put into place more than 300 new gun laws, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a national advocacy organization based in San Francisco.
In the year and a half since Parkland, where a former student killed 17 students and staff with a semiautomatic rifle, lawmakers across 32 states and D.C. have enacted 110 gun safety bills, according to the Giffords center. Those include measures to strengthen background checks, close private sale loopholes, and implement “red flag” laws that give judges the power to temporarily strip weapons away from people identified as a danger to themselves or others by law enforcement, family, or other close associates.
In 16 states, Republican governors have been the ones to sign the post-Parkland laws. That includes Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who put his signature on a red flag law a year ago, making the state one of 17 to put that particular type of law in place.
And on Tuesday in Ohio, the Republican governor bucked his party and called on the GOP-led state Legislature to pass a slew of gun bills, including a red flag law and a measure that would require background checks for nearly all sales.
‘‘We can come together to do these things to save lives,’’ said Governor Mike DeWine.
Each horrific shooting gets more people off the sidelines and fighting for stronger gun laws, Watts said. Her group takes credit at the state level across the country for thwarting efforts that would have allowed guns on college campuses, armed elementary and high school teachers, repealed laws requiring permits to carry concealed guns, or established expansive “stand your ground” self-defense rights even in cases where retreat is an option.
This year alone, gun-control activists defeated bills backed by the gun lobby in 26 states, according to the Giffords center. Legislation to arm teachers and other civilian staff on K-12 campuses — an NRA-backed proposal for which President Trump expressed support after the Parkland massacre — failed in 18 states.
But the NRA and gun rights movement have hardly been neutered, despite being mired in scandal and in-fighting. Top staff have been accused of mismanagement, and in recent months, the NRA’s president was ousted and its top lobbyist resigned amid the turmoil..
Yet the nation’s most powerful gun lobby continues to be a powerful force in Washington, particularly with key Republicans and the president.
“Since 2013, states have enacted into law nearly 2½ times the number of bills protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners as compared to bills restricting those rights. That’s because Americans fundamentally support the right to defend themselves and their loved ones,” said NRA spokesman Lars Dalseide.
The group says they count 272 pro-gun bills enacted into law since 2013, compared to 113 gun-control measures.
Among other state-level victories, gun rights groups have succeeded in expanding the places people can carry guns in public as well as dramatically relaxed concealed carry laws, said Goss, the Duke professor. In 2019, two states – Indiana and North Dakota — passed laws aimed at allowing guns in some K-12 schools.
The NRA released a statement Monday praising Trump’s 10-minute speech in which he claimed “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger — not the gun.” The line echoes the NRA’s stance that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
And despite the president’s earlier tweets expressing support for Democrats and Republicans to work together for “strong background checks,” Trump has not called for any new gun laws.
Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut who has been pushing for tougher gun laws since Sandy Hook, said he’s “pretty skeptical” Congress will pass any stronger gun laws now. Two bills tightening background checks that passed the House this year with bipartisan support — and are opposed by the NRA — remain stalled in the Senate. The White House also threatened to veto both bills.
But supporters of stronger gun laws point to the 2018 midterm elections as a major reason they feel optimistic they will eventually prevail — even in Congress — over the NRA and its allies.
“Voters have always told us that they care about this issue and they support common sense measures like universal background checks,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Melrose, a member of the House leadership who helped lead the Democrats’ candidate recruitment during the 2018 cycle. For the first time, Democrats found that voters were putting it as one of their top issues “and looking for candidates who would support that,” she said.
That was true in Republican districts, swing districts, and Democratic-held districts, Clark said. “That was a noticeable change in 2018.”
There were 43 federal races where a candidate backed by Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun-control organization funded by former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, went head to head against an NRA-endorsed candidate — and 77% of the NRA candidates lost, according to Everytown.
For further evidence of the political shift on gun issues, activists point to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, where candidates seem to be competing to be the strongest on the issue — following two elections, 2008 and 2012, where Barack Obama avoided the topic.
Rather than focus on the turmoil at the NRA, Murphy said, “Republicans should be more worried about the fact that 18 NRA A-rated members of Congress lost their seats in 2018. Republicans just refuse to acknowledge that in a relatively short amount of time, guns have become a voting issue for swing voters and a turnout issue.”