In Red States, ‘Gun Reform’ Means Making It Easier To Buy And Carry Guns

So far this year, mass shootings are on the rise. So are laws expanding gun rights.

This year, President Biden has worked to expand background checks and asked Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But at the state level, many legislatures are moving in the opposite direction.

At least 17 states, most of them led by Republicans, introduced bills this year trying to make it easier to buy, own and carry weapons, providing guns to teachers and declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. This continues a trend of Republican legislatures and governors increasing access to guns. “Many of these people … actually do believe that more guns [mean] people are safer,” said Sean Holihan, the state legislative director for Giffords, the nonprofit founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords that aims to stop gun violence. “The data shows us over and over again that that’s simply not the case.”

One of the most common types of new laws this year are those that allow handgun owners to carry a concealed gun without a permit. Florida, Nebraska and South Carolina have passed such laws, joining 23 other states that have passed permitless concealed carry since 2010. North Carolina advanced a similar law that was shelved earlier this month, but the state legislature did repeal a law that required a permit to buy a handgun, overriding the Democratic governor’s veto.

Other states have considered expanding the areas in which concealed weapons can be carried. In Mississippi, the state Board of Education implemented a policy last year to comply with a decade-old law that allowed guns in K-12 schools. In West Virginia, guns are now allowed on public college and university campuses, a similar law to one Tennessee considered. The Iowa state House passed a bill allowing legal gun owners to keep a weapon in their car on public grounds and decriminalized the carry of concealed weapons for certain people, like those deemed a danger to themselves or others. The Missouri House advanced a law allowing guns in places of worship and on public transportation.

Many of these gun-rights expansions are also geared toward schools. After the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers, the Republican Party promoted arming teachers as a way to increase school safety, and states have since begun passing laws allowing it. Last year, Ohio passed a law allowing teachers to be armed after 24 hours of training (down from 700 hours); this year, Mississippi passed a bill that would create a program to arm teachers, and Oklahoma has considered one similar to Ohio’s, though its legislative session is almost over. Texas’s legislature is considering a law that would offer a stipend to armed teachers, and Indiana has passed a bill allowing state-funded handgun training for teachers. However, most experts agree that allowing guns in schools simply increases the danger of a shooting.

We don’t know much about the effects most of these specific laws will have, because longstanding roadblocks on gun-related research mean we don’t know a lot about what kinds of gun laws prevent shootings, especially mass shootings. More than 20 years of research has found that increased availability of guns is associated with higher rates of homicide, and a 2014 study in the Journal of Urban Health found that a repeal of Missouri’s permit requirement for handgun purchases contributed to a 25 percent increase in firearm homicide rates in the five years that followed.

The most rural counties saw higher rates of gun deaths than urban counties, and over the last decade, the gap became even wider, according to a review of the literature published last month in the journal JAMA Surgery. Yet some rural sheriffs have declared themselves to be “constitutional sheriffs,” promising to not enforce any state or federal laws related to gun restrictions, like Michigan’s proposed red flag law, which is likely to be signed soon. This is despite the fact that red flag laws are largely designed to prevent suicides, which account for more than half of all gun deaths in any given year. Gun-related suicides are especially prevalent in rural areas.

Additionally, many states are working to prevent the kind of data collection that would tell us more about the relationship between guns and gun violence. The federal government doesn’t track gun purchases. To fill in the gaps in that data, the gun-safety advocacy community has tried to work with credit-card companies to track gun purchases, according to Holihan. But Arkansas, Florida, Montana and Utah are among the states that have passed new legislation preventing “discrimination” against gun manufacturers in an effort to stop that practice before it starts, and credit-card companies have backed away from it. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has also banned state agencies from working with banks that track gun purchases. 

Despite all this, Holihan sees a ray of hope for gun-safety advocates. Earlier this month, Texas’s House Select Committee on Community Safety passed a bill raising the age at which Texans can buy certain semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21. While the bill is unlikely to become law, the vote indicated that some Republicans do support gun restrictions under specific circumstances. Similarly, after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the state legislature raised the age for buying long guns to 21. (This year, a bill to roll the age limit back to 18 passed the Florida House, though it failed to make it out of committee in the Senate before the conclusion of the regular session.)

“With the way that gun violence is spreading across this country, and mass shootings are becoming more and more regular, it seems as if it’s almost a matter of time before every major leader has been somewhat affected by gun violence in some way,” Holihan says. “Perhaps over the course of the next few years we’ll see more Republican governors call upon their legislature to do something.”

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