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After Mass Shootings, Action On Gun Legislation Soars At State Level

Protesters call for House Speaker Paul Ryan to allow votes on gun violence prevention legislation in Washington, D.C., on July 6.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Protesters call for House Speaker Paul Ryan to allow votes on gun violence prevention legislation in Washington, D.C., on July 6.

There's an all-too familiar fight that takes place after horrible events like those in Dallas and Orlando, centered around firearms and how — or even whether — to regulate them.

Gun-control advocates and Democrats call for tighter regulations. Gun-rights groups and Republicans argue that blame shouldn't be put on inanimate objects, but on the people pulling the trigger. Both sides dig in. And it seems that nothing changes.

A frustrated Dallas Police Chief David Brown challenged federal lawmakers to debate gun control earlier this week, saying, "Do your job. We're doing ours."

State Vs. Federal

While it's true that Congress has failed to pass new gun laws after mass shootings, despite Democrat-staged sit-ins, presidential pleas and other vocal efforts, the sense that nothing changes is wrong. At the state level, a lot changes in terms of laws.

More than 20,400 pieces of gun-related legislation have been proposed following mass shooting events in the past 25 years. Of those bills, more than 3,000 have become law, according to a working paper recently released by researchers at the Harvard Business School.

"It's not that nothing changes after a mass shooting," says Deepak Malhotra, one of the paper's authors. "A lot of the action on [gun control] happens across states instead of at the federal level."

The researchers looked at legislation that was proposed following mass shooting events between 1990 and 2014, and their research found two major things: mass shootings do increase the amount of gun-related bills that get proposed and passed; the nature of that legislation — whether it tightens or loosens gun laws — depends on the dominant political party and ideology of the state.

"If you have a Republican legislature in your state and you have a mass shooting, the net effect if you look at the actual bills that get passed is there's a significant increase in bills that loosen gun restrictions," Malhotra says.

Democrat-controlled states showed no such effect. Bills that tightened gun regulations did get proposed after mass shootings, just not at a noticeably higher rate.

A good example of this is California, where the state's governor recently signed six gun-control bills into law, many of which were in response to the shooting in San Bernardino, where 14 people were killed.

"We've covered a large spectrum when it comes to gun safety measures," says state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, "from high-capacity cartridges to domestic violence and temporary restraining orders."

Six gun laws sounds like a lot, but for comparison, California passed 11 gun-related laws in 2013 and approved four others in 2014. It's not unusual for the deeply blue state to pass a number of laws tightening restrictions on firearms in a given year.

'Instruments Of Defense'

Republican-controlled states are different. Gun-related legislation doesn't come up as often as it does in Democrat-led states, and when it does, the aim often isn't to tighten regulations, but to loosen them.

Take Tennessee: Last July, a gunman killed four people and injured three more at a military recruiting station and a Navy building in Chattanooga — two places that were gun-free zones for everyone except police.

"[The shooting] confirmed even more the idea that gun-free zones left those servicemen and women as literally sitting ducks," says state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden.

In response, the state has since approved five bills related to guns, including one sponsored by Holt that allows full-time employees of public universities to carry handguns on campuses, where guns were previously banned.

"When we put instruments of defense in the hands of law-abiding citizens, in my opinion, I think we see a decrease in criminal statistics," Holt says.

Similar opinions have been voiced in Florida, another Republican-controlled state, since the Orlando shooting. Nightclubs like Pulse, where 49 people were killed, are considered gun-free zones under current state law. At least one Republican lawmaker has said since the shooting that he thinks gun-free zones should not be public policy in Florida.

Democrats are hoping to buck the trend and tighten gun laws in the red state, proposing to ban gun sales to people on federal watch lists — similar to legislation that's being debated nationally.

"Certainly, it's not going to be an easy vote to win," says state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. "But we put something forward that I believe is narrowly tailored for both parties to get behind."

It's hard to predict how the Republican-led legislatures in Florida and Texas will respond to the recent shootings. The scale of the Orlando shooting, the deadliest in recent history, makes it different from previous incidents. And the fact that the five victims of the Dallas shooting were law enforcement officers, not citizens, makes it different as well.

If history is any indicator, though, it's likely that both states will pass gun-related legislation in the coming year.

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Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Jeff Landa