Political action on gun control is the order of the day in the wake of the tragic Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting that left 28 dead, including 20 schoolchildren.
Underscoring the current impassioned but unfocused calls for action, there were 12,644 murders by gun in 2011 in the United States—the equivalent of a Newtown shooting every day—with little movement on gun control. Likewise, 2012 was a year that saw a string of headline making gun tragedies that created outrage in the media and among the public, with little political results so far.
One of the saddest and most polarizing stories of 2012 was the shooting death of Sanford, Florida, teenager Trayvon Martin, and the law that nearly allowed his killer to walk away with no legal repercussions.
Stand Your Ground, as the law is called, allows gun owners to shoot people in the street if the gunman feels the shooting is an act of self-defense. Stand Your Ground, as it applied to Martin’s slayer, George Zimmerman, provoked, for what seemed like the first time in years, a national conversation on America’s out-of-control gun violence.
In the months that followed Martin’s death by gunshot, a surplus of high-profile gun murders erupted across the country—most notoriously (until Newtown), the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting last June that killed 12 people and wounded 59. Less sensational, but equally disturbing, was the routine gun violence in Chicago that led to that city’s highest murder rate in decades—up 25 percent from last year.
Despite this horrific violence, gun control advocates have had a difficult time gaining political traction in 2012.
“For the most part, we’re playing a lot of defense,” Andy Pelosi, executive director of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, tells TakePart. “If we can stop something, it’s a win. Even though we’d also like to have some proactive victories.”
Proactive victories have been tough to come by. Pelosi says in his ideal world, states would be pushing universal background check laws for those trying to purchase guns. That isn’t happening.
The National Rifle Association spent $18 million on the 2012 elections—$11.4 million to defeat President Obama and the rest in key senate and legislative races to defeat Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Senator Bill Nelson in Florida, Tim Kaine in Virginia, Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, and Chris Murphy in Connecticut. They lost on all fronts.
Though the tide of public opinion may be shifting on Stand Your Ground, 25 states still have “shoot first,” “stand your ground” laws, like the Florida one that George Zimmerman claims provided him with the legal protection he needed to shoot Martin. Many states have vowed to review those laws. So far, however, no major changes have been made.
Florida, in the wake of the Martin shooting, put together a 19-member panel to investigate the seemingly obvious dangers in the law. After six months of supposed digging, the panel came back with a series of recommendations that could make it even easier to claim self-defense when shooting someone in public.
“The courts will have to get involved for any changes to happen in Florida,” says Pelosi. “I don’t think the legislature is going to take action. Even if the Florida law doesn’t change, there will hopefully be a carryover effect. Michigan, North Carolina and Mississippi are currently looking at amending or repealing their shoot first laws.”
Though it seems like a stretch that these Deep South states would take action on gun control, at least one notorious gun-obsessed state tempered its firearms fervor in 2012. In Arizona, two major attempts to expand gun-owner rights went down in defeat in the legislature—one to allow guns on college campuses, the other to create a new permitting system to carry weapons in public spaces.
“Those were strong victories in a very tough state for our side,” says Pelosi.
It’s likely the 2011 shooting of congresswoman Garbrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona, may have still been on legislators minds. That won’t last forever.
For the moment though, gun advocacy groups lack the electoral sway they once held in American politics.
As the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence recently noted, the National Rifle Association spent $18 million on the 2012 elections—$11.4 million to defeat President Obama and the rest in key senate and legislative races to defeat Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Senator Bill Nelson in Florida, Tim Kaine in Virginia, Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, and Chris Murphy in Connecticut.
They lost on all fronts.
The gun rights lobby may have had a tough 2012, but it doesn’t seem to be greatly deterred. A recently passed Louisiana gun bill struck down language in the state’s constitution regarding controls on concealed weapons, and also demands courts employ “strict scrutiny” when determining the legality of gun laws. That essentially means the burden of proving a gun restriction’s constitutionality falls on the government, rather than those challenging the bill.
“It hasn’t gotten a ton of attention,” says Pelosi. “It goes above and beyond what the Supreme Court has articulated on the 2nd amendment. The fact it was overwhelmingly approved in Louisisana perhaps isn’t surprising. The danger, however, is that this bill has the potential to move around the country.”
The tenor and desire for some sort of action on gun control is currently different, due to the horrific nature of the Newtown shooting. Advocates for containing gun violence, however, need to stay vigilant in 2013. Or, like the Trayvon Martin case, the political will for change will be lost forever.
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