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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

US swings towards tighter gun laws ahead of midterm elections

Individual states act as Republicans and Democrats seek to tap growing public anger over mass shootings

Students rally in Washington on March 14, 2018 to demand laws to prevent gun violence. AFP
Students rally in Washington on March 14, 2018 to demand laws to prevent gun violence. AFP

Gun control campaigners are winning the battle to impose new firearms laws across the USA in the wake of February’s mass shooting at a Florida high school.

While gridlock in Washington and the reluctance of the Trump administration to take on the gun lobby has led to little being done by the federal government, the same cannot be said for individual states where more than half have brought in new legislation.

The issue is also high on the agenda in the mid-term elections next month where, in addition to congressional races, voters in 36 of the 50 states will vote for a governor.

Clearly, the political landscape has changed.

While the US is unlikely to ban private ownership of guns, the argument against tighter controls — on the grounds that they undermine Americans’ rights to bear arms under the constitution's Second Amendment — is resonating less among voters.

The message has not been lost on Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican governor who faced two mass shootings during his term — the 2016 slaughter of 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando and February’s shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 14 students and three staff dead.

Florida Republicans and Democrats joined forces to bring in a raft of controls, from raising the minimum age of gun ownership to 21 to imposing a three-day waiting period on all gun sales.

Florida was among nine states to outlaw bump stocks, devices which make it possible to unleash a rapid and deadly volley of bullets with a semi-automatic weapon.

“Every student in Florida has the right to learn in a safe environment, and every parent has the right to send their kids to school knowing that they will return safely at the end of the day,” Mr Scott said when he signed the bill.

Rather pointedly, he added: “This is a far different way of operating than the typical inefficiency we see from the federal government in Washington.

“Politics in DC seems to always get in the way of actually enacting measures that will help American families.”

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The evidence suggests that Mr Scott’s views are shared by the majority of governors throughout the US.

Since the Parkland shooting, 26 states have passed a total of 66 separate gun control measures.

Six states have brought in legislation requiring buyers to undergo background checks before they can receive their weapons. Eight states have passed laws allowing the authorities to impose “extreme risk protection orders" under which firearms can be confiscated from an person who poses a threat to themselves and others.

Nine states have barred domestic abusers from owning guns, and six have tightened laws which allow people to carry concealed weapons in public.

“It's clear that so much of the conversation changed after the Parkland massacre,” said Max Samis, spokesman for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

“It galvanised the nation and a lot of the credit must go to the students of Parkland and the 'March for Our Lives' when students throughout the US took to the streets to demand tougher laws.”

While the Democrats are making the running on the issue, Rick Scott is not the only Republican governor ready to act.

Governor Phil Scott of Vermont, who once was given an A rating by the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby group, signed off on the most restrictive laws in the state’s history.

He acted after police foiled an alleged plot by a shooter to stage a massacre at a local high school. He not only raised the minimum age for gun ownership to 21, but also gave police powers to confiscate weapons, tightened controls on firearm sales and limited the number of rounds a weapon could fire without reloading.

Mr Scott was pilloried by NRA supporters who accused him of treachery to the cause of gun ownership.

Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, has infuriated the NRA by turning down the group’s money.

The gun lobby group seems to be on the back foot, with current figures showing that it is being outspent by its opponents in state elections.

Candidates across the country appear to be burnishing their anti-gun credentials as association with the NRA becomes increasingly toxic.

“I think what makes it unique is the volume of public support. Polling shows that these are changes the overwhelming majority of people want,” said Andrew Patrick, media director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

“I think it is going to be a huge issue in the mid-term elections," he said.

“I believe the NRA is in its weakest position for some time with it facing highest disapproval rating for years.

“I don’t think they are used to being held at arm’s length.”

The NRA was approached but declined to comment.