WASHINGTON, D.C. - In Arkansas, new laws let citizens carry their guns into churches, in Indiana college students can now bring their firearms to class. But in states such as Colorado and Washington, new laws impose strengthened background checks on people buying guns and five states now have a ban on all assault weapons.
The only thing clear about guns is that the nation remains divided, and the 242 gun bills that have passed in states since the 2011 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, only make the gun debate murkier.
There’s also no clarity on the national stage – and no action. The federal conversation around guns is all but dormant. Indeed, the topic was noticeably absent from President Obama’s recent State of the Union address.
“Right now it’s not really easy to get anything done at the federal level. Fortunately the states have really done a great job of acting on this issue,” said Laura Cutiletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “That is where things need to start because it’s so hard to get things done on the federal level.”
After major gun legislation failed to pass in Congress in the wake of the Newtown shooting, gun control activists focused their efforts state by state. But while those groups worked to pass measures such as background checks and restrictions for those with mental health issues, citizens in other states moved to do the opposite.
“They thought that they were going to be able to push through all kinds of gun control measures on the federal level, they failed and decided to start this initiative process… [and] decided that they can use the millions and millions of dollars from the guys backing them, like [former New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg, at a more effective level in states than at the national level,” said Dave Workman, communications director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, a group committed to maintaining state gun rights. “There’s a public backlash against rich people trying to buy elections. The impression is that these guys are using this money as a weapon to take away our civil rights and we are trying to fight back.”
In reality, both gun control and gun rights groups have spent a significant amount of money trying to sway states.
Pro-gun control groups like Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety and former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions have spent significant funds. In 2014 Everytown, spent about $335,000 on local candidate races. Gifford’s PAC spent about $8.2 million, including almost $2.5 million on Democratic candidates and almost $5 million against Republican candidates.
The National Rifle Association has been dolling out the cash, too. The NRA estimated that it spent about $35 million on state and legislative races in 2014 and roughly $4 million on ads in Arkansas, Colorado and North Carolina in September.
In 2014 alone 123 firearms laws were passed. And both the gun rights and gun control movements chalked up victories. Looking purely at numbers, the gun rights movement has been the most successful. Two thirds of the bills passed across the U.S. in 2014 weakened restrictions. Some of those bills reaffirm in state constitutions a citizen’s right to bear arms, others weaken restrictions for carrying guns in places like bars and airports.
But the gun control movement also has had some pretty big victories, largely by taking cues from the gay marriage and recreational marijuana movements before them that used citizen-introduced ballot initiatives to pass legislation in states.
Two of their major victories were initiatives that passed stricter background checks in Colorado in 2013 and Washington state last year. So far Nevada is the next state that will vote on background checks through a ballot in 2016.
Other victories for the gun control movement include passage of domestic violence bills. In 2014 , seven states enacted such laws — five of them were red states.
In the case of domestic violence, “it is so stark and the statistics are so strong. ... It makes it really clear how much more lethal a situation is when a firearm is involved,” Cutilletta said. “The gun lobby doesn’t push back as much with those kinds of laws.”
So far, how the gun debate will shape up in 2016 remains unclear. If pro-gun control groups can get Nevada to pass its legislation, it could be the start of a new era, but it also could mean major pushback from the states that fear firearm restrictions.
“2016 is the national election, it’s going to bring a lot of people out on both sides of the issue—it could or could not be a watershed moment,” Workman said. “I think a lot depends on what happens in Nevada. ... But, I think that what might happen is a backlash against this demagoguery. There are pro-gun lawmakers at every legislature in the country, they saw what happened in Colorado and Washington and they didn’t want it to happen in their states.”