SACRAMENTO — Congress failed to impose gun restrictions after the school massacres in Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla., and there’s little confidence that 21 deaths at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, will change matters now.
But states aren’t waiting.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy urged lawmakers to advance firearms safety measures, including raising the age to 21 for purchases of long guns and exposing gun makers to civil lawsuits.
In New York — where an 18-year-old in Buffalo was charged two weeks ago with committing a racist mass shooting — Gov. Kathy Hochul said she would seek to ban people under 21 from purchasing AR-15-style rifles.
And in California — where a politically motivated mass shooting erupted at a luncheon of older churchgoers this month — legislative leaders and Gov. Gavin Newsom fast-tracked tougher controls on firearms.
“We are getting a lot of inquiries even though a lot of state legislatures are out of session,” Nico Bocour, director of government affairs for the anti-gun-violence group Giffords, said after the Uvalde shooting. “In the wake of a lot of inaction by Congress, states want to step up and keep people safe.”
In Republican-controlled statehouses, however, the moves evoked an equal and opposite reaction. A day after Uvalde, rural conservatives in Pennsylvania and Michigan beat back Democratic attempts to force votes on long-blocked gun safety legislation.
And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican officials blamed the school massacre on a gunman with mental health problems, not gun laws. They accused Democrats of politicizing the situation with calls for gun control.
“Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge, period,” Mr. Abbott said a day after the Uvalde shooting.
The state actions come as hope for congressional consensus has waned to a flicker, not only on gun violence, but on an array of American social issues. As polarized politics repeatedly trump compromise in a narrowly divided Congress, liberal and conservative states have enacted disparate and often opposing agendas, erecting a patchwork of policies on a range of issues, including abortion and civil rights.
From Opinion: The Texas School Shooting
Commentary from Times Opinion on the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Since 2019, federal legislation to expand criminal background checks for gun purchases has twice passed the House only to languish amid Senate Republican opposition. On Thursday, a small, bipartisan group of senators said they would work through the weekend in a search for common ground.
“We beg you,” a group of school principals who survived past campus shootings wrote in a letter that was expected to appear as a full-page ad in The Washington Post on Sunday. “Do something. Do anything.”
But as they publicly mourned the tragedy in Uvalde, Republican senators showed scant signs that they had budged. And few believe that gridlocked Washington will accomplish much after seeing the same script play out before. The one modest proposal that seemed to show promise would kick decisions to statehouses: It would offer incentives for states to pass “red flag” laws aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill.
Roughly three in five state legislatures are Republican-controlled, but calls for action on gun violence have run high in the aftermath of Uvalde’s devastation. In Texas, where the National Rifle Association went ahead with a scheduled convention three days after the school shooting, the issue surfaced almost immediately in the governor’s race.
As authorities were still processing the crime scene, former Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke — who is challenging Mr. Abbott — interrupted the governor’s news conference to charge that the Republican had “done nothing” to protect Texans from gun violence.
“Somebody needs to stand up for the children of this state,” Mr. O’Rourke called to audience members as he was escorted from the gathering, “or they will continue to be killed.”
Last year, Texas passed a law allowing virtually anyone over the age of 21 to carry a handgun without a permit, making it the most populous among nearly a dozen states that have shunned most restrictions on the ability to carry handguns.
Mr. Abbott was scheduled to appear at the N.R.A. convention in Houston before deciding instead to send a video address and travel to Uvalde. But the state’s Republican officials seemed disinclined to tighten gun laws.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that, instead of restricting guns, school security and mental health care should be improved. But there remain serious questions about whether popular school-based security measures work against mass shootings, particularly when the attacker uses high-powered weapons. And in the Uvalde shooting, the school district had its own police force and school shooting plan, while the gunman was apparently never flagged for mental illness.
Nationally, a majority of Americans have supported stricter gun laws for decades, polls show. A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted this week showed overwhelming support among Americans for background checks, a ban on assault-style weapons and other gun restrictions.
But spikes in demand for gun control that occur after mass shootings also tend to revert to the partisan mean as time passes. The same poll also reported that a slim majority of Americans support arming teachers — a solution touted this week by the Gun Owners of America.
America’s long, bitter fight over guns has hardened lines to the point that refusing to compromise on the Second Amendment has become part of the identity of the Republican Party. The United States Supreme Court’s rightward shift on hot-button cultural issues has further emboldened Republican legislatures to pass conservative social policies once viewed as too extreme by courts and Congress — and prompted Democratic-led states to respond in kind.
After the Supreme Court in December preserved a Texas law encouraging private lawsuits against anyone who helps terminate a pregnancy after six weeks, California’s governor proposed parallel legislation to incentivize lawsuits against anyone who traffics in banned firearms.
At the time, Mr. Newsom’s social media call was seen as an impulsive retort that lawmakers weren’t sure whether to take seriously, as it came on a Saturday evening and ran counter to his previous view of the Constitution. It is now the foundation for the California bill that has drawn the most attention this week.
Also this week, a federal court upheld a New York law — the first of its kind in the nation — allowing civil lawsuits to be filed against firearm manufacturers and dealers. Passed last year, it is aimed at circumventing the broad immunity long enjoyed by gun companies. Other states have expressed interest, including New Jersey, where Governor Murphy called for a similar law last month.
But Republicans may look to other courts, particularly the Supreme Court, to block state laws on gun control after former President Donald J. Trump appointed a wave of conservative federal judges. This month, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that a state ban on sales of semiautomatic rifles to adults under 21 was unconstitutional.
Despite that decision, Governor Hochul announced Wednesday that she would seek to prevent people “not old enough to buy a legal drink” from purchasing AR-15-style rifles.
“We are not only leaning heavily on state legislatures now, but we have been for the past 10 years, particularly since the Sandy Hook massacre,” said Rebecca Fischer, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, referring to the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown that killed 26 people. “Strategically, we understood as advocates that we needed to be working with our state legislators to see real change, and that is where there has been most meaningful change.”
Research indicates that California’s approach has constrained gun deaths.
The state’s rate of firearm mortality is among the nation’s lowest, with 8.5 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2020, compared to 14.2 per 100,000 in Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A more recent analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Californians were about 25 percent less likely to die in mass shootings, compared to citizens of other states.
Even so, New York and other states pursuing strict gun laws are, in many ways, hampered by the lack of a coherent gun policy from Congress and the flow of illegal firearms from states with looser laws. Research shows that gun crimes in states with tough restrictions are often committed with firearms from more permissive states.
“California leads this national conversation,” Mr. Newsom said in the State Capitol alongside Democratic state lawmakers. “When California moves, other states move in the same direction.”