Swing-state legislatures diverge on election-year gun measures

Amanda Hernández | (TNS) Stateline.org

States continued to diverge on gun policy this year, with especially intense debate in the swing states that will decide November’s election.

In Michigan, legislators are considering at least half a dozen gun bills that would create storage requirements and establish gun-free zones. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are still debating measures that would ban sales of untraceable guns and gun parts, prohibit bump stocks and make some procedural changes related to gun purchases. Meanwhile, Republican legislators in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina have sought to make it easier for people to procure guns and to carry them in more places.

This past week offered reminders of the continuing salience of guns in American life.

Last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 2018 rule — issued by the Trump administration — that banned bump stocks, which are attachments that transform semiautomatic rifles into weapons that can shoot hundreds of rounds per minute. The administration issued the rule after a gunman used semiautomatic rifles equipped with a bump stock device to kill 60 people and injure more than 500 others at a Las Vegas music festival.

And on Saturday, a gunman opened fire at a splash park in Rochester Hills, Michigan, injuring nine people — including two children. The violence came three years after a student opened fire at Oxford High School in the same county, killing four people and injuring seven.

Mass shootings that occur close to election seasons typically have a significant effect on the country’s perception of guns, according to experts.

“If there are any particularly horrendous shootings in the months to come, that has a way of pushing the issue back to the forefront of the agenda,” Robert Spitzer, a gun policy expert who has written six books and over 100 articles on gun policy, told Stateline.

Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and GOP candidates nationwide have made crime and public disorder main themes of their campaigns — even though most crime measurements are trending downward.

Gun policy has been a topic of debate for decades, but has become especially prominent as the number of gun-related deaths and mass shootings has grown almost every year since 2014, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that tracks gun violence in the United States.

Gallup poll from October 2023 found that the majority of U.S. adults, or 56%, support stricter gun laws, while 31% think they should remain as they are and 12% prefer less strict laws. Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center survey from June 2023 found that 60% of U.S. adults say gun violence is a major problem in this country.

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Other states — including Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia — also considered gun-related legislation this year.

Electoral impact

Voters who support gun rights are often highly mobilized and consistently turn out at the polls because of their strong personal connections to firearms, according to politics and gun policy experts.

In contrast, voters who support gun safety measures are harder to mobilize because they are more likely to prioritize other issues, such as the economy or foreign policy.

“A small but highly motivated minority can often win the day politically over a large but fairly apathetic majority,” said Spitzer, an emeritus professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and an adjunct at the William & Mary Law School. “That’s kind of the short version of how you explain what’s been going on in gun politics in America.”

Extensive academic research and numerous studies can support either side of the gun policy debate. Politicians will use whatever data or studies that best support their platforms, according to political communications experts.

For example, left-leaning Democratic politicians often cite studies suggesting a correlation between stricter gun policies and lower crime rates, according to Jacob Neiheisel, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo.

But gun rights think tanks and organizations also produce research supporting their position, including the claim that crime rates drop when more people carry guns, Neiheisel added.

Experts stress that, regardless of party or position on gun policy, it’s important for people to understand how the data was collected and to be aware of potential biases.

For example, politicians often rely on annual national crime and victimization data produced by the FBI, but these datasets measure crime differently — a fact that is not always well understood by politicians or voters.

This allows some politicians to lean on the sources that best support their arguments on gun policy, according to Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Miami and former director of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“It’s not that the data are wrong. It’s not that the data lie. It’s just that there are different data measuring different things,” Piquero said. “But if the average person doesn’t know that or doesn’t take the time to understand … then they are an ill-educated voting populace.”

Campuses and polling places

In Michigan, legislators are considering at least half a dozen gun bills, including measures that would establish firearm storage requirements and prohibit guns in certain state-owned buildings and within 100 feet of polling places, drop boxes, early voting sites and absentee ballot counting boards.

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“Being that we don’t want firearms at polls or counting boards is very reasonable and very much needed in the spirit of promoting democracy — allowing people to cast their votes without fear of intimidation,” said Democratic state Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou, one of the sponsors of the elections-related gun bills, in an interview with Stateline.

Tsernoglou said she expects both bills to pass this session. While they have already cleared the House and Senate, the bills await another vote in the House before advancing further. The legislature adjourns in December.

The Wisconsin state legislature, now adjourned, considered a handful of gun bills during its session. One bill sought to prohibit credit card companies from mandating specific merchant category codes for firearms retailers and prevent governmental entities from compiling lists of firearm owners based on background checks. This bill passed the legislature, but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in March.

Another proposed bill in Wisconsin sought to ban firearms in buildings or on the grounds of publicly or privately owned colleges and universities in the state. This bill did not advance in the legislature, but Democratic state Sen. Kelda Roys, the bill’s lead sponsor, plans to reintroduce it during the next legislative session.

“We have now a whole generation of young people that have grown up with this horrible specter of gun violence following them through their education,” Roys said.

In Georgia, a measure that bans firearm purchase tracking was signed into law in April and will go into effect in July.

A proposed bill in Arizona would have allowed people with valid concealed carry permits to carry firearms on university and college campuses.

Another Arizona bill under consideration would have prohibited local governments from restricting or banning gun shows within their respective jurisdictions. The Arizona legislature has adjourned, and neither bill advanced.

State legislators in Pennsylvania are still considering at least six gun bills, all of which would further restrict gun purchases and ownership. Some of these bills would ban future sales of assault weapons, outlaw the purchase, sale and production of untraceable guns and gun parts, and reduce the time judges have to notify the state police about people with mental health records from a week to about four days for background checks.

While some of these bills have failed in the House, the Pennsylvania legislature adjourns at the end of November, so there may be more activity closer to the upcoming election.

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Permitless carry

State legislators in North Carolina may consider at least two gun-related bills this session, with sponsors planning to reintroduce and garner support for their proposals.

One bill would make North Carolina the 30th state to allow permitless concealed carry or “constitutional carry,” meaning it would be legal to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

The bill’s supporters point to FBI data in arguing for the measure.

“Crime rates go down when you have armed citizens. There’s no doubt about that. The FBI holds that up time and time again,” said Republican state Rep. Keith Kidwell, one of the bill’s sponsors, in an interview with Stateline.

The gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina is pushing for the supermajority Republican legislature to pass the bill, arguing that there has been no increase in violent crime in any of the states that have adopted constitutional carry.

In North Carolina, people are no longer required to apply for a pistol purchase permit from a sheriff, but they must still go through the sheriff for a concealed carry license. Grass Roots North Carolina would like to see the state enact a constitutional carry bill to remove this requirement.

“We are particularly interested in passing [the bill] to make sure that we can keep some of these urban sheriffs from obstructing people from carrying concealed firearms for self-protection,” said Paul Valone, the group’s president, in an interview with Stateline.

The other bill would establish a so-called red flag law in North Carolina. At least 21 other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws, which typically allow a judge to take someone’s firearms away if they are deemed to be a harm to themselves or others.

Many gun rights groups argue that red flag laws infringe on Second Amendment rights and the right to due process.

“I don’t care which right it is, you don’t take away people’s rights without the due process of law,” Kidwell said, adding that he will work to prevent the bill from advancing.

Democratic state Rep. Marcia Morey, a former judge and the bill’s lead sponsor, told Stateline in an interview that the bill includes specific protections to prevent any infringement on due process rights.

“It’s just about keeping people safe, and the safety, I think, preempts any right to possess a gun,” she said.

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

©2024 States Newsroom. Visit at stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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