Gun safety advocates push legislation in states as Parkland fervor fades in DC

Key Points
  • While the Hill and President Trump have made lots of noise after the Parkland massacre, they have made few changes to existing background checks.
  • Even that uproar has quieted down as protesters head home.
  • But gun safety advocates are making progress pushing state legislation in Democratic-leaning areas of the country.
Signs and flowers by the fence surrounding Stoneman Douglas High School. On February 14, 2018, a former school Stoneman Douglas student Nikolas Cruz entered the school at 2.30pm and proceeded to kill 3 teachers and 14 school children in a 7 minute shooting spree.
Giles Clarke | Getty Images

Washington answered the Parkland school shooting massacre with a political popgun. Beyond minor changes to existing background checks, President Donald Trump and Congress have mostly made noise.

Even that has quieted since youthful protesters went home last month. The recovery of firearms-maker stock prices to beyond pre-Parkland levels reflects the capital's fleeting Trump-era attention span — no match for the entrenched power of the NRA.

But that doesn't mean nothing is changing. Adopting the strategy Republicans used to block President Barack Obama in red America, gun safety advocates are pursuing incremental steps in Democratic-leaning areas of the country.

"In the immediate future, the states are where the action's going to be," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. The organization founded by billionaire ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg points to a series of recent advances.

Vermont has required background checks on all gun sales. Maryland legislators passed a "red flag" bill keeping guns from those deemed dangerous.

Rhode Island's governor signed an executive order for the same purpose. Oregon enacted a bill making it harder for stalkers and domestic abusers to buy and possess guns.

A bipartisan group of legislators in Minnesota is seeking tougher gun purchase background checks. Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont have all outlawed the "bump stocks" that turn semi-automatic weapons into machine guns.

What all those states have in common: They voted Democratic in the 2016 presidential election. Everytown and its gun safety allies are leveraging their political contours just as red state Republicans worked around a Democratic White House to challenge regulation and the expansion of Medicaid in the Obama era.

There has been some movement even in states Trump won in 2016. Florida — ground zero for the Parkland massacre — passed a red flag law and raised the age for rifle purchases to 21. Outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, courting swing voters in his close race for the Senate this fall, signed it over NRA opposition.

Kansas legislators passed a bill to bar those convicted of domestic violence from owning guns. The Pennsylvania Senate took a similar step.

Those signs of movement reflect a broad shift in national opinion. A Washington Post/ABC News Poll out Friday shows that Americans, by 57 percent to 34 percent, consider new laws to prevent gun violence a higher priority than protecting gun ownership. A 62 percent majority supports banning the sale of assault weapons, and 85 percent support red flag laws, the poll found.

Yet gun safety activists concede their inability to push those and other measures through the GOP-controlled Congress this year. They have focused their federal efforts on galvanizing voters for this fall's midterm elections.

Everytown has teamed up with liberal billionaire Tom Steyer's NextGen America and the organization of wounded ex-congresswoman Gabby Giffords on a national voter registration drive. Their goal is harnessing the youthful energy of what Feinblatt calls "the mass shooting generation," which has organized school walkouts and protests in Washington and across the country.

(One such walkout is scheduled for Friday, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school massacre.)

It remains uncertain how much that energy can do to lift notoriously low voter-turnout rates among young people, especially in midterm elections. And even a Democratic-controlled Congress would struggle to move gun control legislation anytime given opposition from a Republican president as well as Democrats representing more conservative rural areas.

Bloomberg's billions, however, give Everytown the luxury of patience.

"If you are gutsy on this issue, we support you," Feinblatt said. "This is not a sprint."