Three months after the mass shooting of 20 young children in a school in Connecticut, states across America are adopting starkly conflicting approaches to reducing gun violence.
Colorado and New York are in the process of introducing some of the toughest gun controls the country has ever seen at local level. Meanwhile, in South Dakota and Georgia, Republican-controlled assemblies are rushing through radical pro-gun policies that include the first law in the US that will allow teachers to bear arms in the classroom.
In Denver, state senators on Monday began approving a slew of new laws that give Colorado some of the most rigorous regulations on gun ownership in the country. Out of seven new bills on the table, five look likely to clear the Senate and move towards enactment.
They include: bills to provide background checks on all gun purchases and to require the buyer to pay for the tests; a bill to limit the size of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds; another to force gun owners applying for a concealed carry permit license to undergo physical training; and a new law banning domestic abusers from having guns.
Two other provisions – a proposal that would have prohibited the concealed carrying of firearms on college campuses, and a bill to hold gun makers liable for the violent acts committed by those “negligently entrusted” with assault weapons – were dropped in Colorado after it became clear they lacked political backing.
Colorado’s progressive stance on gun controls is a reflection of the state’s sensitivity to mass shootings, having suffered two of the most notorious examples: the Columbine high school massacre in 1999 in which 12 students and a teacher died; and, just 20 miles away, the Aurora shooting last year where 12 people were killed in a cinema.
Tom Mauser, father of the Columbine victim Daniel Mauser, said that the package of reforms passing the Colorado legislature would “send a message to the rest of the nation and Washington DC that we can take steps to reduce violence”. He said Colorado was a “bellwether state, a purple state, and a pro-gun state, so when we show we can take reasonable moves to reduce violence that’s significant, given that we haven’t seen much coming out of the capital.”
But a very different response to the Newtown tragedy is being rolled out by states such as South Dakota. Last week it passed the country’s first law that specifically grants teachers the right to carry guns in the classroom.
The new law, passed with the active backing of the largest gun lobbying group, the National Rifle Association, gives school boards the power to create “school sentinels” – teachers, staff or parent volunteers armed to “protect students”. The South Dakota governor, Dennis Daugaard, signing the legislation, said it would “provide the same safety precautions that a citizen expects when a law enforcement office enters onto a premises”.
The vast gulf in political response to Newtown expressed by Colorado and South Dakota is replicated in several other states. New York has introduced stringent new controls that include a seven-bullet limit on magazines, restrictions on assault weapons and registration of all semi-automatic firearms.
On the other side of the divide, Georgia is in the process of throwing out previous bans on carrying guns in bars, churches and college classrooms. Towns in Georgia, Idaho and Maine are discussing the idea of forcing all their residents to own guns in what they say would be a move to increase security for their communities.
Such divergence in approaches to gun regulation mirrors the huge political fault line within Washington, where Congress members are at loggerheads over how to prevent another Newtown. Measures that would impose renewed restrictions on military style assault-weapons and an upper limit on the size of magazines appear to be in danger of failing in the US Senate, though an extension of federal background checks on all gun sales has a greater chance of success.
Should moves to increase gun controls falter at national level, the highly diverse steps that are being taken at state level are likely to become all the more important. Advocates of greater gun controls believe that though a large cavern exists between states, there is a growing emergence of a middle ground.
“On the extremes you can find a giant gap in America,” said Josh Horwitz, head of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “But you can also find a convergence in opinion, with more and more people agreeing that we must have universal background checks.”
Horwitz pointed to new polling from the coalition group Mayors Against Illegal Guns that suggested that though politicians may be miles apart, voters across America are in accord over the need for background checks on all gun sales.
Support for an extension of such FBI monitoring, that is designed to prevent criminals and mentally unstable individuals buying guns, is running at an impressive 91% in Georgia and 79% in South Dakota – bridging the gap with Colorado and New York where such controls are already being enacted.
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