In the Firearms Debate, Are We all Losing?
By John Mountjoy, CSG Director of Policy and Research and Strategic Initiatives
It’s tough to tell which side is winning the latest round of what has become America’s confusing gun control debate. Legislation has been introduced at the federal level seeking a reinstitution of the expired assault weapons ban and limits on ammunition magazine capacity. Universal background checks for all gun sales—including private sales—is also on the table. But like so many issues in the hyper-divided Congress, real action is taking place not in Washington, but in the states.
New York Leads the Way
Advocates for stricter gun laws won a sweeping victory in New York Jan. 15 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law that state’s SAFE Act—Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013.
The far-reaching package not only banned the sale of so-called assault weapons and restricted the sale of covered rifles already in circulation, but also further limited the legal capacity of ammunition magazines to seven rounds, down from New York’s already restricted 10 rounds.
In addition to other changes, the law adopted the toughest restrictions in the country on the purchase of ammunition, banning direct online sales to consumers and requiring the state police to track ammunition purchases in a new real-time database. New York’s new law also requires that all gun sales, including private party sales, go through the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check system.
In late breaking news this week, Justice Deborah Chimes of the New York Supreme Court’s 8th Judicial District has issued an order requiring the state to show good cause that the new law is constitutional. The state has until April 29 to respond or an injunction against the law may be entered.
By the Numbers
Other states are pursuing firearms-related restrictions, with the most popular initiatives focused on restricting access to and/or banning so-called assault weapons, limiting the capacity of firearm magazines and calling for universal background checks for all firearms sales.
CSG research into current proposed legislation shows that 18 states have introduced bans on so-called assault weapons, 20 states are seeking restrictions on firearm magazine capacity and 21 states have pending legislation on background checks for all firearms purchases.
Legislative support for one form of gun control does not necessarily translate into support for all methods. For instance, Colorado—the site of two of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history—is actively pursuing restrictions on magazine capacity and a universal system of background checks, but policymakers have yet to introduce a ban on certain types of weapons.
Gun control advocates, however, are meeting fierce resistance in the states. Over the past several state legislative cycles, the Firearms Freedom Act has gained modest acceptance in traditionally pro-gun states. Prior to this year, eight states had adopted such legislation, which seeks to pre-empt the enforcement of certain federal gun laws within a state on the grounds that firearms and ammunition manufactured, sold and possessed within a single jurisdiction are not subject to federal interstate commerce authority. Already in 2013, 15 additional states have introduced the act or some variation.
But state efforts to limit the application of federal gun control efforts don’t stop there. Thirty states have introduced measures prohibiting the enforcement of new federal gun laws adopted after Jan. 1 and call for specific civil and criminal penalties for anyone caught enforcing federal law. The constitutionality of the Firearms Freedom Act or any of the federal pre-emption measures have yet to be tested in court.
Notably, 17 of the states seeking gun control measures also are considering one of the federal pre-emption bills.
Finally, along the lines of pre-emption, the most interesting piece of pro-gun legislation to emerge yet this year is Missouri’s House Bill 633, which seeks to prohibit any member of the General Assembly from proposing legislation that further restricts an individual's right to bear arms by making such action a class D felony.
An under-reported consequence of more restrictive gun proposals is that manufacturers of firearms and firearms-related accessories are making the conversation as much about the economy as it is about public safety.
Magpul, the Colorado-based manufacturer of 10-, 20- and 30-round rifle magazines, has publicly stated its intent to leave the state should more restrictive gun laws be adopted. That’s not a threat to be taken lightly given Magpul’s 200 workers and its estimated $85 million annual contribution to the local and state economies—roughly the amount of federal funding Colorado stands to lose should federal sequestration cuts come to fruition.
Beretta, the nearly 500-year-old Italian firearms maker, has signaled its exploration of pulling up stakes in Maryland and relocating some of its North American manufacturing should that state adopt more restrictive firearms laws. Beretta has been a mainstay of the U.S. firearms market since the mid-1980s, when its 9 mm pistol was adopted as the sidearm of the U.S. military.
It’s not just the companies advancing the firearms-related economic talking points.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry this month dispatched a letter to 13 firearms manufacturers seeking to lure them to Texas from states in which more restrictive gun laws were in the offing. Similar invitations have come from Idaho’s economic development agency, as well as Mississippi’s Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn.
Private-sector reaction to more restrictive gun laws also may impact law enforcement’s ability to purchase the tools necessary to do their jobs. More than 100 firearms and firearms-related manufacturers and retailers have joined a boycott of sales to law enforcement agencies and personnel, as well as other government agencies, in New York citing confusing legal interpretations and policy disagreement.
On the flipside, certain public employee pension and retirement funds are actively seeking to divest themselves of interest in firearms and firearms-related manufacturers.
Last month, California’s State Teachers Retirement System approved divestment in companies that manufacture so-called assault weapons and higher capacity firearm magazines. A similar move also has been undertaken by the New York City Teachers’ Pension Fund and Chicago’s Municipal Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund.