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Six Months After Newtown, States Are Taking the Lead

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It's hard to imagine a more grim anniversary marker for the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, the town where I grew up. Yet nearly six months later, here we are again. Just days ago, we witnessed a shooting spree in the California beachside community of Santa Monica, where the gunman, who killed five people, is reported to have used an assault rifle similar to the AR-15 used at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He also carried thousands of ammunition rounds. This was only the most recent in an all-too-long history of mass shootings in America involving high-capacity ammunition magazines.

These horrific events have now become an almost expected and at times almost unnoticed part of the news cycle. (The Santa Monica shooting, which started in the home of the shooter's father, spread to a public street, continued with an attack on one of the city's Big Blue Buses, and ended at a community college, rendered little more than a media ripple). We've also become all too accustomed to the daily thrum of gun murders, suicides, and fatal unintentional shootings that take place across the country. The NRA and its "corporate partners" in the gun industry have opposed and blocked even the smallest steps forward to regulate firearms and curb our national epidemic of gun violence. Unlike all other consumer products -- from motor vehicles to children's toys -- guns are not regulated by the federal government for health and safety.

This kind of obstruction has consequences for real people: families left bereft, communities devastated. Just a few days ago, Newtown was shaken once again after a phoned-in threat to Hawley School (my old elementary school) placed the community's schools on lockdown. As one mother, with children in both Sandy Hook Elementary School and Newtown High School, told a reporter, "It's a horrible, evil thing to do to this community. It's pure evil to put the staff and children through this, it's just awful. I'm very very shaken up, and quite stunned. I think [the] entire community is. It's just too raw." But even if our political leaders still refuse to take action, the families in Newtown aren't going to give up after six months -- their voices are only getting stronger. Neither are the grieving families in countless other communities touched by gun violence.

And despite the shameful lack of progress at the federal level, state governments are not sitting still. In the past six months, several states have passed gun violence prevention legislation that will save lives and help prevent future shootings.

Some of the states that have passed, or are currently considering strong gun violence legislation, include:

  • Connecticut enacted a strong package of laws, including: the strongest state assault weapons ban on the books; a ban on armor-piercing ammunition; a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines; and background checks for all gun purchases.
  • A new law in New York State strengthened its ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and required background checks for all gun and ammunition sales, as well as other measures.
  • Colorado put a new law in place that limits ammunition magazine capacity to 15 rounds and requires universal background checks for all gun sales.
  • California, which already has some of the strongest laws in the country, is moving forward with a legislative package that passed the state Senate at the end of May, and is now awaiting action in the Assembly. The bill requires that all semiautomatic rifles have non-detachable ammunition magazines with a capacity of 10 rounds or less, requires background checks for ammunition sales, and expands the prohibited categories for gun possession (for example, those with multiple drug/alcohol convictions within a three-year period). It also closes the "bullet button" loophole that now allows gun manufacturers to circumvent the state's assault weapons ban by exploiting a definitional weakness in the law.

Action in these and other states represents genuine progress over the past six months. Certainly, aspects of some of the state laws could have been even stronger, and distressingly, some states have actually gone in the opposite direction: weakening their gun laws. And there's no substitute for comprehensive, effective federal legislation that applies to the entire nation.

But in these states, legislators and governors have taken courageous action to help protect all of us from gun violence, often at significant political risk. They should be commended and their stories told. Policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels should follow their example -- before the next national tragedy.