Congress deadlocked on guns, but statehouses are active

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Congressional inaction on gun measures since the Sandy Hook massacre stands in relief to the scores of bills approved by state legislatures over the past year, some expanding gun rights, some restricting them, and altogether illustrating the stark lack of common policy ground nationwide.

Political and cultural fights continued too with both sides claiming seesawing victories that have breathed little new into the conversation about firearm rights and the related issues of safety and mental health in American society.

Five days after the Sandy Hook shooting, President Barack Obama vowed to make gun measures a “central issue” to his incoming second term. The next month he laid out a detailed reform strategy, and by April a major piece of the effort seeking expanded background checks for gun buyers reached a vote in the Senate, where it failed.

Deadlock is nothing new for the 113th Congress. What may be surprising is more than 100 bills approved by governors from Juneau to Tallahassee tackling gun issues from all sides. States such as California and Connecticut strengthened assault weapon bans; such others as Arkansas and North Carolina loosened gun bans in schools; and many strengthened the reporting of prohibited gun buyers to the federal government.

PG graphic: Gun restrictions since Newtown
(Click image for larger version)

Pennsylvania approved no gun-related bills in 2013, but in January solved a two-year logjam in reporting hundreds of thousands of mental health records to a federal database used to conduct gun-buyer background checks.

The key case study for the shifting ground is Colorado. Legislators in the home of two of the nation’s worst shooting incidents — at a Columbine high school and an Aurora movie theater — voted in March in expand background checks and limit the size of ammunition magazines. Firearms supporters inside the former frontier state struck back in September by ousting two leading Democratic gun control advocates from the state Senate. Another resigned her suburban Denver seat Nov. 27 fearing a similar recall vote loss.

Proxies from the outside also played a role. Advocates for tougher gun rules — led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — spent $3 million in failed efforts to defend the Colorado senators from recall. Bloomberg personally spent $350,000 on defense, matching the National Rifle Association’s support of the recall movement.

His group Mayors Against Illegal Guns bought advertisements in the Pittsburgh market last spring pushing for expanded background checks for gun buyers, and when the U.S. Senate effort — led by Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin — to do so failed, his group ran more Pittsburgh ads thanking Mr. Toomey for trying.

Overall in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, pro-gun advocates led by the NRA spent about $1.4 million lobbying Congress early this year to just more than $100,000 by gun control advocates, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found.

Vice President Joe Biden announced efforts in June to relaunch the Obama administration’s gun law overhaul — which included 23 White House executive orders that did not require legislative approval — but Congress spent most of the summer and fall instead fighting over the government shutdown and the rollout of the administration’s health care law.

A cultural snapshot of the state of the American conversation over guns happened on the back page of the December 2013 issue of Guns & Ammo. In an essay called “Let’s Talk Limits,” longtime contributing editor Dick Metcalf sought some middle ground: “[Way] too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement,” he wrote. “The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, all need to be.”

The column caused a volcanic negative backlash. Within days Guns & Ammo issued an apology to readers, Mr. Metcalf was fired and the magazine’s editor resigned.

Guns project

Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.

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