WASHINGTON — What a difference a decade makes for America's gun laws.
Just months after a horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School shocked the country in 2012, the gun violence prevention movement suffered a devastating defeat with the failure of a popular and bipartisan federal background checks bill. President Barack Obama had just won re-election after he reassured voters, “I believe in the Second Amendment.”
Ahead of the 10th anniversary Wednesday of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, as killing sprees have become more frequent and public support for tougher firearm laws has grown, the apparent invincibility of the gun lobby on Capitol Hill has shown cracks. Congress passed the first federal gun safety law in 30 years in June to tighten background checks and offer "red flag" grants for states that allow families and police to try to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people before they commit violence.
On the state level, 525 “significant gun safety laws” have been adopted in the decade since Sandy Hook, according to a new report by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the advocacy group led by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived a shooting in January 2011.
“Nearly every single state in the nation has passed at least one significant gun safety law since Sandy Hook,” concluded the report, first obtained by NBC News.
It found that 21 states passed community violence intervention laws, 37 states took up domestic violence prohibitions, 20 states embraced "red flag" protection measures, and 29 states toughened background checks. In addition, 18 states approved laws that make it more difficult for children and young adults to access firearms.
The Giffords report ranked states for gun laws from the toughest to the most lenient and found that from 2012 to 2020, gun deaths “rose 46% in the five states with the weakest gun laws” but by just 7% in the five states with the strongest gun laws.
“Ten years ago, we set about the work of building an anti-gun-violence movement that would eventually be more powerful than the gun lobby. We’ve reached that point,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who represented Newtown in the House at the time of the Sandy Hook shooting and has been a major advocate for gun restrictions since then.
“I wish it hadn’t taken 10 years, but we are now the more powerful force on this issue,” he said in an interview.
A new landscape
The passage of the new laws reflects a political landscape transformed by rising gun violence. An electoral realignment has pushed rural pro-gun rights voters toward the GOP, making well-educated suburbanites the new swing voters. They're more likely to favor tougher gun laws, and they were crucial in electing Democrats who share that view, including President Joe Biden in 2020. In the 2022 midterm elections, the 11% of voters who cited gun policy as their top issue backed Democrats by 23 points, according to NBC News exit polls.
“This past year has been a watershed year for gun safety,” Gabby Giffords said in an email responding to written questions, citing the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Biden signed into law in June. “The shift in public opinion has been hugely important to these changes. Gun violence has gone from being a political third rail to a kitchen table topic in just ten years. Nearly every American will know a victim of gun violence in their lifetime.”
Republicans no longer have the same political advantage they once had in fighting gun limits. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who led a filibuster of the background checks legislation in 2013, was one of 15 Republicans who voted for the Safer Communities Act last summer, saying he hoped it would be “viewed favorably” by key suburban voters.
Still, gun safety advocates face tall hurdles to achieving other goals, like banning semi-automatic assault-style weapons and large-capacity ammunition. A recent House-passed bill to ban what advocates call "weapons of war" has no path to passage in the Senate.
The structure of the Senate is a hurdle, with a 60-vote rule to pass most bills and disproportionate voting power for smaller, more rural states with gun cultures. Republicans just won control of the House, almost certainly ending hopes for stricter gun laws for the foreseeable future. And the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court has taken an expansive view of the Second Amendment, having decreed in June that the Constitution confers a right to carry a gun outside the home.
The NRA responds
Asked about Murphy’s contention that the gun lobby has weakened over the last decade, National Rifle Association spokesman Lars Dalseide responded: “There are residents in 25 states with constitutional carry with more to come and tens of millions of new gun owners who would disagree with his assertion.”
“The best way to combat crime is to declare war on criminals. Politicians who dance around the issue and blame anyone and anything but the criminal who commits the crime are a big part of the problem. Without criminals there would be no crime,” Dalseide said in an email. “The work to protect and preserve the Second Amendment is perpetual.”
Even red-state Republicans who voted against the Safer Communities Act say they’ve felt pressure to act on gun violence. Many say the real problem is mental health, not gun laws.
“Certainly there’s been a big focus on the Sandy Hook types of shootings — and not just gun violence, all that comes about along with it, mental health, primarily,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “I think people are very concerned.”
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said, “My concern is that we not infringe on those individuals who are law-abiding and exercising their Second Amendment rights, while still doing everything we can to keep the public safe from people who would do them harm.”
Asked about the obstacles ahead, Giffords said her movement is in it for the long haul.
“Substantive change rarely happens overnight. I’ve had to relearn to walk and talk since I was shot in 2011,” she said. “I’m motivated to work hard every day not just to regain these abilities, but to fight for a safer future so that no other families and communities have to live with the pain and trauma of gun violence.”