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Gun Rights Expand in Era of Mass Shootings

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/18/2018 Nicole Hong

The Florida school shooting that killed 17 people has prompted national leaders to again call for stricter gun laws, but such measures face a tough road as a wave of states have moved to expand gun owners’ rights.

In the past six years, after three of the deadliest shootings in modern history—at a Las Vegas concert, an Orlando nightclub and a Connecticut elementary school—efforts in Congress to tighten gun regulations have all failed. Legislation in states, meanwhile, has led largely to wins for supporters of broader gun rights.

In a recent push, 12 states—including West Virginia, Kansas and Missouri—now have laws allowing residents to carry concealed handguns without getting a permit from authorities. Permitless-carry laws are pending in at least 19 states, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control group.

North Dakota, Georgia and a growing number of other states have recently passed laws giving gun owners the right to carry firearms to places such as public parks, concerts, bars and churches.

At least 22 states have pending bills to allow guns in schools and colleges. In Texas and other states, licensed gun owners can bring concealed handguns into classrooms, dorms and other parts of public university campuses. Oklahoma passed a law in 2015 allowing certain teachers and staff at K-12 schools to carry handguns in school if they undergo a training program.

A new law in Iowa lets children under 14 possess firearms with adult supervision and reduces restrictions on carrying guns into courthouses and city halls.

David Kopel, a University of Denver law professor and gun-rights advocate, said he expects the Florida shooting to give a boost to pending state bills that seek to bring more guns onto school grounds.

“You don’t necessarily want everyone bringing a gun to the PTA meeting,” he said, but arming teachers who have extra training and special permission from the administration is something “more and more people are supporting.”

Gun-control advocates say allowing guns in more public spaces, including school property, endangers public safety by heightening the risk of gun violence from unintentional shootings and from conflict escalation. They say armed civilians are often unable to shoot accurately in a crisis situation.

The failure to pass or introduce sweeping gun-control measures in most state legislatures is largely due to the mobilization of pro-gun voters and the influence of the National Rifle Association, according to legal experts. They say there are more voters who go to the polls solely to express their support for gun rights than there are for gun control.

“There are a lot of single-issue, pro-gun voters, and elected officials are scared of them,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA Law School. “A lot of people have become convinced that any gun control will lead to total confiscation of guns,” posing a major challenge for candidates who support gun control.

The NRA has long been a powerful force in funding state legislature battles, helping to drive expansions in gun rights such as the advent of “stand your ground” laws, which give people more leeway to use lethal force against an attacker. A spokeswoman for the NRA declined to comment.

To be sure, since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a growing grassroots gun-control movement has slowed the expansion of gun rights in some areas, including the enactment of stronger background checks in certain states.

Twenty-five states have in recent years passed laws restricting gun ownership for domestic abusers, an initiative that has gained bipartisan support. Republican governors such as Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Chris Christie in New Jersey all signed bills limiting firearms access for people subject to restraining orders or convicted of domestic violence.

Jonas Oransky, the deputy legal director for Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group, said he hopes momentum in statehouses will spur federal action on gun ownership for domestic abusers, but added that he doesn’t expect major federal legislation to pass on gun control.

“It’s a real battle,” Mr. Oransky said.

Divergent gun laws in Republican and Democratic states have become especially significant after the House of Representatives passed a bill in December that would enable people who legally carry concealed guns in one state to carry them in the other 49 states.

© michele eve sandberg/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Under the law, gun owners in states like New Hampshire, where permits aren’t required, would be legally allowed to carry guns into states with strict permitting regimes, like New York.

A Senate vote on the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act hasn’t been scheduled, but advocates on both sides of the gun debate say the bill is their top legislative priority this year.

The NRA has called the law necessary to replace the patchwork of concealed carry laws in states, while opponents say it would threaten public safety and drag down gun-licensing standards across the country.

To circumvent gridlock in state legislatures, some activists have turned to the ballot box as a way to restrict gun laws. In 2016, voters in Nevada passed an initiative to expand background checks on private gun sales, after Gov. Brian Sandoval had vetoed a similar bill in 2013.

In the wake of the Florida shooting, gun-control advocates also are making a new push for “red flag laws,” which allow family members and law-enforcement officers to petition a judge to temporarily prohibit someone from having guns if he or she is exhibiting warning signs of danger.

California, Indiana and three other states have passed such laws. The legislation is pending in 18 other states.

President Donald Trump has signaled his support for gun rights, becoming last year the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to speak to the NRA. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the NRA endorsed Mr. Trump earlier than any other nominee in the group’s history and spent more than $26 million in advertising on his behalf.

Mr. Trump made no reference to gun laws in his speech last week responding to the Florida shooting, focusing instead on mental-health issues.

Write to Nicole Hong at


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