Gun control legislation on tap in blue states

Democratic leaders are considering assault weapons bans, universal background checks and red flag laws.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D), left (Ron Johnson/Illinois State University via AP, Pool)

Democratic-led states are poised to take up a flurry of gun control measures when lawmakers begin returning for legislative sessions next week.

States where Democrats hold the governor’s office and the majority in the legislature, including in Connecticut, Illinois and Washington, are exploring assault weapons bans. In Minnesota and Michigan, where Democrats just secured state government trifectas, party leaders are eyeing universal background checks as well as red flag laws. Colorado will likely take up legislation to address gun industry immunity laws.

Nico Bocour, the government affairs director at Giffords, a gun-control advocacy group, said state legislatures have been a crucial battleground, but this upcoming session takes on even more importance given that gridlock is likely in Congress. After enacting the most sweeping gun law in decades this year, the split control of the two chambers puts the focus back on states.

“For a long time, states have been moving the needle on the issue of gun safety, where the federal government wasn’t,” Bocour said. “We do expect given the results of the election where gun-safety was a winning issue, and where several states were able to re-elect and elect new gun-safety majorities, that they will be continuing to fight on this important issue.”

The most ambitious efforts are taking place in Illinois and Washington, where Govs. J.B. Pritzker (D) and Jay Inslee (D), respectively, are leading efforts to implement assault-weapons bans.

Pritzker backs a bill introduced by Rep. Bob Morgan (D) that would ban assault weapons, ban high-capacity magazines and raise the age for buying firearms to 21. It would also add to the state’s red flag law. Such laws generally allow authorities and sometimes family members to petition judges to order the temporary seizure of guns from people thought to be a danger to themselves or others.

The Illinois governor said he wants the bill enacted before the anniversary of the mass shooting at a July 4 parade that left seven dead and dozens wounded in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Supporters of the bill are eyeing action as soon as the Jan. 4-10 lame-duck session.

In Washington, Inslee called for the legislature to pass legislation to ban assault weapons, require a permit to buy a gun and hold gun manufacturers liable in court.

“You need to get a license to drive a car in the state of Washington,” Inslee said at a recent press conference. “You need to get a license to go fishing. It’s time that you get a license to make sure you have safety training to purchase a gun in the state of Washington.”

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) proposed expanding the state’s existing assault-weapons ban to guns made before 1993 and guns with arm braces, which can make a firearm more stable and accurate. The ban would apply to sales and would not allow authorities guns already owned.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said she wants the newly elected Democratic majority to pass gun-storage requirements, universal background checks and red flag laws.

Incoming Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D) said in an interview that the chamber would consider those measures in response to a mass shooting in Oxford, Mich., north of Detroit, in November 2021.

“Those are certainly the three policies that are getting the most play right now and attention right now,” Brinks said. “I think that those are widely popular among our constituents and can make a big difference. We saw in particular in the shooting here in Oxford, Mich., that safe storage might have made a difference.”

Brinks did not rule out an assault-weapons ban push but said that Democrats would start with “things that we know we can succeed with.”

In Minnesota, incoming House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said in an interview that Democrats would pursue universal background checks and a red flag law, which she characterized as “among the most reasonable and realistic” steps that can be taken.

Hortman said she did not know if there would be a push for an assault-weapons ban.

In Colorado, Democrats want to repeal a state law that forces victims who attempt to file lawsuits against the gun industry to pay the defendant’s legal fees and costs in many cases.

The push in the Rocky Mountain State comes after New York, Delaware, New Jersey and California changed their liability laws to make it easier to sue gun makers. Thirty-three states have some gun industry immunity laws on the books, according to Giffords.

In 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death among children ages 19 and below, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 690 mass shootings in 2021, up from 610 the prior year and 273 in 2014, when the group’s records begin.

But passage of any gun-control bill won’t come easily. There will be opposition from gun rights groups including the National Rifle Association, which pledged to block legislation infringing on the Second Amendment.

“Every year, anti-gun lawmakers introduce hundreds — if not thousands — of gun control bills that do nothing to protect Americans or enhance public safety,” NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter said. “The NRA works in every state in America. We educate our millions of members and pro-2A voters on what’s happening where they live and in Congress. The coming year will be no different.”