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Image: Gun Enthusiasts Attend NRA Annual Meeting In Indianapolis
Guests look over rifle scopes in the Vortex booth at the 148th NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits, in Indianapolis, Ind., on April 27, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

Talking policy: How gun laws have changed since Newtown

Activists have forced significant changes in gun laws in response to mass shootings, especially at the state level in recent years.

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It’s been almost a decade since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and gun safety activists have pushed Congress to pass expanded background checks and a new version of the Assault Weapons Ban the entire time, only to meet a wall of Republican opposition. With Americans mourning yet another attack on children, many supporters of gun restrictions are despairing about whether the political system will ever listen to their demands. 

But, as Vox’s Marin Cogan notes, cynicism about America’s response to gun violence can sometimes go too far. For one, activists have forced significant changes in gun laws in response to mass shootings, especially at the state level in recent years. In some cases, they even secured bipartisan support. 

The 2018 Parkland shooting, which set off a wave of youth activism led by student survivors, prompted over a dozen states to pass “Red Flag” laws. These allow people, typically family or law enforcement, to petition a judge to remove guns from individuals who they fear pose a threat to themselves or others. In Florida, the process has been initiated almost 6,000 times since then-Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law in 2018. The Uvalde shooting is prompting the Senate to take a look at a federal version, though its chances are uncertain. 

There have been some smaller federal changes in response to the specifics of individual mass shootings. The Trump administration banned bump stocks at the federal level after their use in the Las Vegas shooting drew widespread attention. Congress passed the Fix NICS Act in 2018, which sought to improve background check records, in response to the Sutherland Springs church shooting, whose perpetrator should have been barred from buying firearms.

These may seem like modest tweaks given the scale of the crisis and a surge in day-to-day gun violence since the pandemic. Not every new gun law is effectively or easily enforced either, although research suggests some state measures, like background checks, can reduce gun deaths. Americans are deeply divided on gun issues, and many states, like Texas, have loosened their laws in the same period. A 6-3 conservative Supreme Court is likely to go further in striking down state gun restrictions. The sheer scale of gun ownership in America, which famously has more weapons than people, also makes it harder for any one law to change the overall environment.

But politics is unpredictable and there’s often more movement under the surface than you might realize. Whatever you think the solution ought to be, don’t assume your voice doesn’t count.