“Taking all those things together, it’s a draw,” said Tim Daly, who directs the campaign on guns and crime policy at the liberal Center for American Progress.
In a political environment long dominated by the NRA, advocates for stricter gun control have claimed momentum ever since the 2012 massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Despite the failed push at the federal level, an additional half-dozen states have enacted background check laws, bringing the total to 18 nationwide. And while the number of new state gun-control laws in 2015 was less than the flurry enacted in 2013, advocates say they have improved their record in fighting NRA-backed attempts to expand gun rights and protecting legislators targeted by the NRA in elections. “We have, I feel, the wind at our backs for the first time ever,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “It’s not a third rail anymore.”
The NRA’s biggest victories came in Kansas and Maine, which passed laws allowing gun owners to carry concealed firearms without a permit. Gun-rights supporters have cheered the new “open carry” and “campus carry” laws in Texas, although they have both forced local businesses and governments to prepare citizens who may be unsettled to see guns openly displayed in public. Some business owners are taking advantage of a provision allowing them to put up signs banning guns from their stores, while city officials in Dallas released a video aimed at discouraging residents from calling 311 or 911 every time they see someone carrying a holstered gun. (“Only call 911 if you encounter a person who is in violation of the law,” a city spokeswoman advises, referring to people who are carrying guns outside a holster, intoxicated, committing a crime, or “acting in a reckless or suspicious manner.”)
The California protective-order law was a big win for gun-control advocates, who say it’s the most expansive such measure in the country. It will allow police or worried family members to take action if a person makes threats or displays disturbing behavior that falls short of warranting arrest or involuntary commitment. It was designed in response to the 2014 shooting rampage by Eliot Rodger in Isla Vista near the UC-Santa Barbara campus. Sheriff’s deputies had previously been dispatched to Rodger’s apartment after his family raised concerns to mental-health workers, but left without touching his stash of firearms. The bill passed despite concerns that it would infringe on the constitutional rights of people who hadn’t committed a crime. “We think this is a very promising model for other states to follow,” said Ari Freilich, a staff attorney at the California-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
If the state-level battle over gun laws has become a more evenly matched tug of war in recent years, both sides seem to be pulling harder. As gun-control advocates have stepped up efforts to restrict access in blue and purple states, the NRA and its legislative allies have argued that the key to preventing mass shootings is to arm more people in more places, such as schools and college campuses. Despite their defeats in Kansas, Maine, and Texas, gun-control advocates backed with millions from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg boast about stopping NRA-backed efforts to enact campus-carry laws in 14 of the 16 states where bills were introduced. “These are bills that would have sailed through the statehouses in the past,” Watts said.