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With Washington Stymied, It's Up to the States to Pass Gun Reform

As President Obama expresses frustration over Washington politics, gun policy reform has increasingly moved to the nation's state legislatures.
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President Barack Obama's frustration over the stymied status of federal gun control reform isn't new.

After all, he sounded similar notes after similar senseless tragedies in such places as Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut — each time urging congressional action.

"Every country has violent, hateful or mentally unstable people. What's different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns," the president told a gathering Friday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco. "So I refuse to act as if this is the new normal or to pretend that it's simply sufficient to grieve, and that any mention of doing something to stop it is somehow politicizing the problem."

And each time, legislative action fell short.

This time too, despite the president’s pointed remarks about gun violence and the political roadblocks to gun policy reform in the wake of the Charleston church shooting, it is unlikely that Washington will revisit the issue.

The political will just isn’t there.

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"I don’t expect we will see new federal laws passed in the near future despite broad public support for gun safety laws," said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

"There is too much resistance from some federal lawmakers, many of whom cave to the gun lobby (and gun manufacturers) versus heeding the call of their own constituents," he said.

The will certainly wasn’t there in 2013 when, despite widespread public support, Senate Republicans, along with some Democrats hailing from rural states, sidelined the administration’s efforts at sweeping gun control legislation. In a series of votes, the lawmakers rejected an assault weapons ban and high-capacity ammunition magazines as well as bipartisan background check legislation.

Instead, in the years following the 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the fight over gun policy has increasingly moved to the state level where a spate of legislation has been debated in statehouses.

Gun rights and gun control advocates have waged fierce and well-funded battles at the state levels in a fight that experts say could ultimately help determine the direction of national policy.

Gun rights advocates say the president’s recent comments reflect exactly why more action was needed on the state level.

"The Independent Firearm Owners Association wonders why the president is again proposing restrictions on the rights of American gun owners who haven't done anything wrong/illegal with their guns," Richard Feldman, president of the gun rights group the Independent Firearm Owners Association said in a statement.

“He must be so troubled by his embarrassing lack of policy craftsmanship that he's willing to blame anyone except his own poorly designed, marginally executed, anti-democratic Executive Orders from two years ago," Feldman said.

Gun policy analysts say the uptick in state-passed measures began after the massacre in Sandy Hook. A month after that mass shooting in which 20 children and six adults were killed, the White House announced 23 executive actions on gun control in 2013.

By April of that year, state legislatures had enacted more than 40 new gun laws.

According to an analysis conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, state lawmakers enacted nearly 70 gun related measures in 2014.

While in years past, the flurry of gun laws reflected a stark divide between "red" and "blue" states, in 2014 there were also measures aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those convicted of domestic violence — and those efforts tended to include such staunchly Republican states as Alabama and states like Washington with large numbers of Democratic voters.

"This is where you see some red states getting involved in gun control," said Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy group based in San Francisco.

Alabama, Nevada, South Carolina, Vermont and Washington all have new laws to try and keep guns from domestic abusers. Louisiana and Oregon also passed similar legislation which is awaiting signature, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

And while more than a dozen states weighed legislation that would allow concealed weapons to be carried onto college campuses, Texas approved such a measure.

Twenty-two states had bills that would allow guns to be concealed and carried without a permit. Kansas and Mississippi passed similar bills into law, but such measures failed in at least 14 states, with several more pending, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

All of these efforts at the state level could eventually put pressure on members of Congress to do more in the way of reform, policy experts say.

"Public opinion polling data released just a couple of weeks ago showed public support for gun safety laws hasn’t shifted down since post-Newtown, even among gun owners,” Webster said. “So at some point, I do think voters will hold their elected leaders accountable for their inaction on the issue. And in the meantime, we are seeing more and more states pass laws to prevent criminals and other high risk groups from legally getting guns through the state referendum process."

The president is hoping for just such a groundswell.

"We have to feel a sense of urgency," the president said on Friday. "Ultimately, Congress will follow the people. And we have to stop being confused about this. At some point as a country we have to reckon with what happens. It is not good enough simply to show sympathy."

— Alana Heller contributed to this report.