Shortly after last year’s shooting massacre on the Las Vegas strip, Ohio Gov. John Kasich convened a working group to explore possible reforms to state gun laws.
A Republican, Kasich appointed panel members who supported the Second Amendment and came from across the political spectrum. Their work accelerated after the Valentine’s Day slaughter at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
They eventually produced a legislative package that included what Kasich called “sensible changes that should keep people safer.” The legislation was introduced by a Republican lawmaker in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
It went nowhere.
Among other objections, the Republican leadership raised constitutional concerns about a provision allowing courts to order that weapons be seized from individuals showing signs of violence.
“The way we put it together, the fact that you had people on both sides of the issue — I would have thought something would have happened,” Kasich said. “But the negative voices come in unison and they come strongly.”
The Ohio experience is not unusual. The Colorado Legislature has seen similar rebuffs.
Rocked by the 1999 Columbine High School, 2009 Platte Canyon, 2012 Aurora theater and Arapahoe High School shootings, lawmakers in the divided Legislature refused to compromise.
Aurora Sen. Rhonda Fields, who lost her son and his fiancé to gun violence, said she believes Colorado has made some progress on keeping guns out of the wrong hands, including passing universal background checks after the Aurora massacre.
“I’m waiting for the nation to catch up to what Colorado has done,” Fields said.
But that progress hasn’t necessarily been easy. Every year it seems Republicans make an attempt at legislation to roll back those laws. GOP gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton has promised to sign such repeals if they make it to his desk.
“We all want to work, live and recreate in safe communities,” she said. “How we do that (as political parties) differs.”
The Democratic-controlled House passed bills to ban bump stocks and enact a red flag law that had the support of many police officers and prosecutors. But the Republican-controlled Senate quickly assigned those to a “kill” committee and defeated them.
A far-right gun-rights group, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners has excoriated southeast Aurora state Rep. Cole Wist, a Republican, for working with Democrats to pass a red-flag bill, popular among many conservatives.
“To me, the Second Amendment and individual rights demand the highest respect. That’s the basis of where I come from,” said Republican Sen. Tim Neville, one of the capitol’s most ardent gun rights activists.
The Colorado House returned the favor by rejecting Republican plans to allow concealed guns on school grounds and repeal the state ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, a law passed after the Aurora shooting.
Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed by James Holmes as he celebrated his 27th birthday in the Aurora theater, said he is encouraged that the state has maintained the post-Aurora ammunition limits and is calling for further gun control as he runs for a Colorado state House seat currently held by Wist. Sullivan sees long-term promise in gun-control efforts by Parkland students and survivors of other mass shootings.
“It’s like any major change. It can take 20, 30, 40 years,” Sullivan said. “I tell the Parkland kids that this is the natural progression of things.”
Arapahoe County Sheriff Dave Walcher, a registered Republican who is currently up for re-election, publicly supported the state’s red flag bill last legislative session.
He said he was swayed to support the measure following multiple police fatalities in Colorado jurisdictions at the hands of mentally unstable people last year.
“I want law abiding citizens to have guns if they want them, but I don’t like crooks having guns and I think people having mental health, not just challenges, but mental health emergencies — we need to do smoothing to get guns out of their hands,” Walcher said.
Walcher, who has several decades of experience across multiple Front Range law enforcement agencies, said he was at the scene shortly after Douglas County Deputy Zack Parrish, 29, was shot and killed by a gunman with PTSD last New Year’s Eve.
“That, to me, was one of those incidents that there’s all these red flags, there’s all these warning signs,” he said.
Shortly after Parrish was killed, Walcher said his own officers arrested a man in an apartment near Parker Road and East Florida Avenue who displayed similar behavior as the gunman who killed Parrish.
“We had a guy who was coming off the rails,” Walcher said. “He had PTSD, he had a formal level of training in fire arms, his family knew he had problems, maybe he had stopped his medications — it was really going down this road of what happened in Douglas County.”
After establishing probable cause, Walcher’s officers executed an arrest warrant and apprehended the man without incident. Upon searching the suspect’s home, Walcher said officers found nearly 10 guns — including pistols, rifles and shotguns — all loaded and staged throughout the apartment in unincorporated Arapahoe County.
“That’s the kind of guy who clearly, in my opinion, has mental health issues, he has weapons, he’s threatening … that’s the type of person who, if he didn’t commit a crime, we don’t know what could have happened,” Walcher said. “It’s a tough deal. And I’m a gun guy, but I’m tired of cops getting killed.”
Republican State Rep. Alex “Skinny” Winkler, who replaced embattled state Rep. Steve Lebsock following a litany of sexual harassment claims, voted against Colorado’s red flag legislation this spring.
Winkler said the proposed bill was sloppily assembled and a partisan organ intended to gin up emotional reactions.
“It was hastily thrown together and hastily debated at the end of the session,” he said. “It was a political tool as opposed to trying to put forth good legislation.”
Winkler scoffed at the lack of details in the bill, saying there wasn’t an appropriate description of how the state would confiscate a person’s weapons, how they would be notified, and if it would be possible for the people to get their firearms back.
“I think that the hurdle was too low to take away someone’s Second Amendment rights,” he said.
But, Winkler said, he’s interested in continuing to discuss future red flag legislation and would consider voting for a more fleshed-out red flag bill.
“I’m interested in having the conversation … some Republicans don’t want to have the conversation, you know, ‘not from my cold dead hands’ — that’s not me,” he said. “If there’s a really good red flag bill brought forward that has due process, and evidence to take away someone’s Second Amendment rights, I could possibly be up for it.”
Democratic State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, who represents much of north Aurora in the sweeping House District 30, said she supported last session’s measure.
“I thought that our red flag legislation was very reasonable and responsible,” she said. “… To me, it’s a way for us to help people be safe and not permanently take away their firearms that they hold dear and important to them, which absolutely constitutionally is their right.”
She said the Legislature’s appetite for another red flag bill will largely depend on the outcome of this November’s elections.
BEEN THERE, NOT DONE THAT
An Associated Press review of all firearms-related legislation passed this year, encompassing the first full state legislative sessions since the Las Vegas attack, shows a decidedly mixed record. Gun control bills did pass in a number of states, but the year was not the national game-changer that gun-control advocates had hoped it could be.
Even in a year that included yet another mass school shooting and an unprecedented level of gun-control activism, state legislatures across the country fell back to largely predictable and partisan patterns.
“It’s exactly what happened after Newtown: The anti-gun states became more anti-gun and the pro-gun states became more pro-gun,” said Michael Hammond, the legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, referring to the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six educators.
The major exceptions were Florida and Vermont.
Both states have Republican governors and long traditions of gun ownership. Lawmakers passed sweeping legislation after the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 14 students and three staff members and after a foiled school shooting plot in Vermont days later.
The law signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott banned bump stocks, raised the gun buying age to 21, imposed a three-day waiting period for purchases and authorized police to seek court orders seizing guns from individuals who are deemed threats to themselves and others. The latter provision has already been used hundreds of times.
But no other Republican-dominated state followed Florida’s lead, the AP review found.
The Parkland shooting did slow momentum for additional gun rights bills in some Republican-led states, but others pushed forward with pro-gun policy agendas. They widened the definition of who can legally carry a weapon in public, allowed more concealed weapons in schools, churches and government buildings, and strengthened legal protections for people who claim they shot someone in self-defense.
In Tennessee, county commissioners were granted the ability to carry concealed handguns in their workplaces. Oklahoma approved a bill allowing permit holders to carry handguns while scouting. Nebraska lawmakers enacted a long-sought bill shielding all documents related to gun permits from the open records law.
In South Carolina, where a state senator was killed in the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, lawmakers rejected a simple bill requiring court clerks to enter convictions and restraining orders in a timely fashion to strip gun rights from people who have been disqualified from possessing firearms.
The most significant policy development, the review found, was the enactment of so-called “red flag laws” in eight states. Those laws allow police or relatives to seek court orders to seize guns from people who are showing signs of violence.
Five Republican governors signed those laws, which have been used to seize guns from hundreds of individuals already this year.
Supporters say the laws are proven to save lives, and they were a rallying cry amid reports that the suspected Parkland high school gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was deeply troubled yet allowed to own guns. Nine states also approved laws this year to ban bump stocks, the rapid-trigger devices that a gunman used as he shot hundreds of people at the music festival in Las Vegas, including 58 who were killed.
In North Carolina, where Republicans hold majorities in the legislature, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper asked lawmakers a few weeks after the Florida school shooting to pass new gun regulations, including more background checks and permit requirements.
But Republicans never took up gun-related proposals from him or legislative Democrats, whose efforts to force floor debate on them failed.
“We are really missing an opportunity for something serious for school safety,” said Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison.
Republicans instead approved money to hire more campus police officers, school nurses, psychologists and social workers, as well as to create a statewide phone app for students to report tips to deter school violence.
Democratic-controlled legislatures in states with already strict gun control laws, such as Illinois and New Jersey, made them tighter in the wake of the tragedies.
New Jersey expanded background check requirements to nearly all private sales and transfers of firearms and put into a law a strict definition requiring a “justifiable need to carry a handgun” for citizens to qualify for a permit. The Illinois Legislature extended an existing three-day waiting period to buy a handgun to rifles and other firearms, a measure signed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Advocates for stricter gun laws pointed to the changes in Florida and Vermont, the new red flag laws, the bump stock bans and laws meant to disarm accused domestic abusers as major victories in 2018. They say many of the laws passed with bipartisan support and could mark the beginning of a slow turn in their favor.
“We’ve got a lot more work to do, but I do think we’re seeing progress and the pace of progress is increasing,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, who said at least 55 bills backed by her group became law.
In Texas, for example, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had said the state should consider adopting some type of red flag bill. Supporters of the legislation were hoping for a breakthrough in the most populous of the GOP-dominated states, which has seen mass shootings at a high school and a church over the past year.
Instead, the Legislature’s Republican leaders have already declared Abbott’s idea dead, and the governor has backed away from it.
THERE HAVE BEEN A FEW CHANGES
Vermont was a rare case of a Republican governor signing into law far-reaching gun control measures passed by a Democratic legislature.
The action by Gov. Phil Scott was out of step with his previous position on guns and angered his political base. The Vermont law is similar to Florida’s but also requires background checks on most private firearms sales and bans high-capacity magazines.
Scott told a reporter the day after the Parkland shooting that he thought Vermont’s loose gun laws were adequate. But later the same day, he learned of what police called a near-miss high school shooting in a town along the state’s border with New York. Police have said a former student threatened to shoot up the school, hoping for more dead than the 32 killed during the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.
The next day, a visibly shaken Scott, a life-long gun-owner and hunter, called on lawmakers to consider “gun safety” legislation. The resulting restrictions were the first significant gun ownership limits in Vermont history and came after weeks of intense debate.
Ohio’s Republican governor never got the same chance as Scott.
A coalition of groups representing students, teachers, school counselors, police chiefs, pediatricians and Catholic clergy joined in a letter to state legislative leaders urging them to pass the changes recommended by Kasich’s panel.
State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Cleveland-area Democrat, said she could have told the governor it would fail. She said Republican lawmakers sound to her “like automatons” when the topic of gun control arises.
“They go to these automatic catchphrases that come right out of a pamphlet from either Buckeye Firearms or the NRA,” she said. “That’s what I think it’s about. I do believe it’s a case of follow the money.”
To express his frustration, Kasich refused to sign the next gun bill that crossed his desk, which waived certain concealed carry license fees and training requirements for current and former military members. It became law without his signature.
Asked months later about the defeat of his legislation, the governor said gun-control groups are simply not as unified as the pro-gun lobby.
“And so you,” he said, “you have disparate groups going against a force that totally knows what it wants.”
— Associated Press writers Jim Anderson in Denver, Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, contributed. Sentinel staff writers Quincy Snowdon and Kara Mason also contributed to this report.