Supporters of stricter controls on firearms are preparing to mount a multistate push to close loopholes and restrict access for those who pose a risk to themselves and others, reflecting a new focus for a movement long pilloried as nothing more than gun-grabbers.
Legislators in several states said they plan to introduce bills this year to ban devices like bump stocks and so-called ghost guns and to expand background checks.
The movement also hopes to give police and courts the authority to take guns away from those who pose a danger, measures known as extreme risk protection orders or “red flag” laws.
“We’re not sitting around waiting. We’re taking action,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) said in an interview.
The push for new gun safety legislation comes after Democrats made big gains in state legislatures across the country.
States like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Maine — all states where Democrats gained enough seats to wrest control of all levers of state government — are likely to be at the forefront of new gun legislation.
Few states plan a more ambitious approach than New York, where Democrats won control of the state Senate — and with it, complete control of state government for only the second time in two generations.
Democrats there are now planning bills to ban bump stocks and 3D-printed weapons, create a gun violence research center within the State University of New York system and expand the reach of hate crime bills, among other proposals.
"With Republicans controlling our Senate, they have resisted a lot of the common sense proposals that have gotten more traction in other parts of the country," said New York state Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D), who is sponsoring several measures this year. "Republicans had a one-seat majority, and they used it very effectively to block things."
Gun safety backers point to public polling that shows a new appetite for stricter controls, especially in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead.
A wave of student activism after the shooting even prompted Florida’s conservative governor and legislature to pass new gun safety measures.
“People are horrified by the mass shootings, but really more just gun violence more generally,” said Brian Egolf, the Democratic Speaker of the New Mexico state House.
“We’re just no longer willing to have laws that are lax and that let the flow of illegal firearms go unrestrained and unrestricted.”
And the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has faced funding shortfalls in recent months, was less active in this year’s midterm elections than they had been in previous election cycles.
“The NRA-endorsed candidates didn’t do so well in congressional elections this year,” said Loretta Weinberg (D), a New Jersey state senator who has pushed gun safety bills in previous years. “That shows the stranglehold is starting to diminish.”
An NRA spokeswoman did not return an email seeking comment.
Those who study the contentious debate around gun politics say gun control advocates have evolved in recent years.
Groups like the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety are focusing less on measures to ban specific types of weapons and more on legislation that prohibits specific people from possessing those weapons.
“There’s been a real sea change in the last five or six years in the policy strategies of gun violence prevention groups,” said Kristin Goss, a political scientist at Duke University. “The gun violence prevention movement has really zeroed in on a small handful of bills that they are going to go state to state and push.”
Chief among the safety measures likely to advance this year are the red flag laws, designed to allow authorities to take guns away from those who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others.
Eight states enacted red flag laws in 2018, according to the Giffords Law Center, and legislators in New York, New Mexico, Maine, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania are likely to consider their versions in 2019.
Eight states banned bump stocks, devices that simulate automatic fire, in the wake of an attack on a concert venue on the Las Vegas Strip in 2017 that left more than 50 people dead.
Next year, legislators in New York, Oregon, Maryland and Delaware say they plan to take up similar bills.
And three states — New Mexico, Maryland and Pennsylvania — will consider closing loopholes that allow some private sales to take place without conducting a background check.
“Any time money and guns are changing hands, there would be a background check. So it’s not just gun shows, it’s internet sales, Craig’s List, et cetera,” Egolf said. “We’ll join the rest of the states that have universal background checks.”
Several states are also considering creating research centers dedicated to studying firearms as a public health threat.
Congress has blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research into gun violence for more than 20 years, but states are beginning to fill the gap.
In 2017, California created the first state-funded research center, at the University of California-Davis.
This year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) rolled out $2 million in funding for a similar center at Rutgers University.
Legislators in Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii and New York are all contemplating creating research centers of their own.
"There's a lot of places where this conversation has been viewed as a non-starter where there's much more interest in moving forward with sensible proposals," said Kavanagh, who also heads the group American State Legislators for Gun Violence Prevention.
Gun rights advocates are making progress on their own slate of legislative proposals, including many measures aimed at allowing gun owners to carry firearms in more public places.
Twelve states currently allow gun owners to carry weapons without a concealed firearms permit. Legislators in Iowa, Texas, Virginia and North Carolina are likely to introduce similar versions next year.
Republican legislators in Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa and North Carolina are also likely to consider measures that allow more gun dealers to make sales without conducting a background check.
Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, but it does not require unlicensed dealers to do so, a loophole gun safety advocates have targeted for years.
In the last year, legislators in 27 states passed a total of 67 new gun control and safety laws.
Most of those states are under Democratic control, but Republican governors in 15 states — including conservative bastions like Oklahoma, South Dakota, Nebraska and Utah — signed at least some measures backed by gun safety groups.
“I have never been really optimistic on a national level. We have been able to do things in New Jersey that obviously needs to be part of a bigger picture. But for the first time, I’m beginning to feel optimistic,” Weinberg said.