In their refusal to take up real, concrete legislation at the federal level, it has become abundantly clear that our federal representatives are willing to trade “thoughts and prayers” and votes for NRA money. Much like many of our other fights at the federal level, it is extremely hard to convince a Republican-controlled Congress to do the right thing, even when our children’s lives are on the line. Therefore, we must turn to the states to pass laws to prevent gun violence in our communities.
The federal government can set standards and practices that apply to all states around gun safety. But states have the option of passing additional measures to protect their own residents from gun violence. States have different laws that range from good to terrible. To advocate for gun safety in your state, you should use this document to:
- Learn what the gun laws are in your state
- Learn what types of provisions states can put in place to prevent gun violence
- Work with gun reform advocacy groups to advocate for legislation in your state
Our partners at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action/Everytown for Gun Safety have done amazing research about gun regulations in each state. Check out their resources to find out the status of your state’s gun laws.
- Gifford's State Gun Law Scorecard
- Gifford's Gun Laws by State
- Everytown for Gun Safety Gun Law Navigator
There are a variety of provisions that states can enact to reduce the number of dangerous weapons that can be legally purchased, prevent people who pose a heightened risk to community safety from acquiring guns, and ensure that those who do own guns are taught how to use them safely. Unfortunately, only a handful of states have enacted these common sense gun laws.
Ban assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines
Assault weapons are military-grade weapons. Their purpose is to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. These types of combat-style weapons are designed for warfare and do not belong in the hands of everyday citizens, yet they can be purchased commercially in most states. Only seven states plus DC have banned assault weapons and only two others regulate them.
Large capacity ammunition magazines hold up to 100 bullets, which allow a shooter to fire repeated shots without having to stop to reload. These are the types of weapons that are often use in mass murders. Again, no citizen needs the ability to fire such a large number of shots in a row, even for hunting. The time it takes to reload a gun allows time for intervention by law enforcement and for victims to escape a lethal situation. Only eight states plus DC have banned large capacity magazines.
Ban bump stocks
Bump stocks are devices that allow rifles to fire more rapidly, allowing a semi-automatic weapon to behave like an automatic one. These devices only exist to make guns even more deadly. At least 15 states are considering legislation to ban bump stocks after they were used in the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more in October 2017.
Universal background checks
Federal law requires background checks on firearms sold by federally licensed firearms dealers. However, 40% of all gun sales in America occur privately at gun shows, flea markets, over the internet, or between individuals. Therefore, if a state has not implemented a policy to close this loophole and require a background check for private sales, it is possible that people who would ordinarily fail a background check (e.g., convicted felons or domestic abusers) would be able to obtain a firearm legally. Universal background checks remain the most effective policy to reduce gun violence in our communities, yet only 19 states require them. States can implement laws that close this federal loophole and require background checks on all gun sales.
Age limit on gun purchases
Under current federal law, an 18 year old can legally buy a semi-automatic rifle (compared to the requirement that they be 21 to purchase a handgun). Some states have passed laws to increase the minimum age to 21 for certain types of gun sales, but states could pass laws to make 21 the minimum age for all gun purchases.
Waiting period laws mandate that a period of time elapse between a gun purchase and the physical transfer of the gun to the owner. They allow gun owners to think about their intentions and allow more time for a thorough background check to take place. Only nine states and DC have waiting periods laws.
Extreme risk protective orders
Extreme risk protection orders (ERPO) allow families or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from the possession of individuals who may be at risk of injuring themselves or others. Only two states allow ERPOs to be initiated by family members.
Require gun owners to be licensed, registered, and complete safety training
We require licenses for all sorts of activities, like driving and fishing. Yet most states do not require a license before purchasing a weapon that can kill people. Only 14 states have some form of gun licensing in place, and only 8 of those states require some sort of safety training to obtain a license. Requiring gun owners to register their firearms ensures gun owner accountability, yet only 6 states and DC require registration of some or all guns.
Eliminate “shoot first” laws
Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old teenager, was shot walking home because he “looked suspicious” (read: because he was black). His killer, George Zimmerman, was found not guilty due to Florida’s “shoot first” or “stand your ground” law, which allows a person to use deadly force in a public place in self-defense, even if such force can be avoided by the person’s retreat. Shoot first laws are a threat to public safety because citizens are able to shoot anyone they deem to be “suspicious.” In a nation with a deeply embedded history of systemic racism, these laws disproportionately affect our communities of color. A study conducted by the Urban Institute concluded that when the attacker is white and the victim is black, the homicide is 281% more likely to be found justified than if the victim is white. 35 states currently have “shoot first” laws that need to be eliminated.
Prohibit military-grade weaponry from being transferred to police
We cannot talk about gun violence without discussing the tragic killings of people of color at the hands of police in this country. Black men are killed by the police at a rate that is nearly three times higher than that of white men. 35% of the unarmed people killed by police in 2017 were Black, even though Black people make up only 13% of the population.
Following the militarized policing of protests in Ferguson, MO in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order in 2015 to place limits on the sale of surplus military equipment to state and local police departments. The logic is simple: police should not need things like grenade launchers or tanks to carry out their duties. Indeed, there is evidence that suggests that the militarization of police forces results in more civilian casualties—a result that does not fit with the police ethos to "protect and serve."
In August 2017, as part of their ongoing efforts to push a white supremacist agenda, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions rolled back Obama’s executive order, allowing police departments access to military-grade weaponry once again.
States can legislatively reinstate these limitations to prevent military-grade equipment from being infused into our communities.
You can try to find out what gun legislation is being considered in your state at Fast Democracy by selecting your state and using the search term “firearm.” But advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action, Everytown for Gun Safety, and Community Justice Reform Coalition have been fighting to end gun violence in our communities for decades. The best thing to do is to team up with these expert advocacy groups and join their efforts to fight for gun reform in your state!
Important considerations for gun safety advocates
- Be careful of the language you use when talking about gun safety to ensure that you are not reinforcing harmful stereotypes about communities of color. Here is a great resource about how to talk about gun safety.
- It is important to remember that our current law enforcement policies contribute to structural discrimination and the mass criminalization of people of color. When we talk about preventing gun violence, we should consider how any policies we propose that involve law enforcement could target or harm communities of color.
- Avoid categorizing all people with mental illness as inherently threatening. Mental illness is already stigmatized in this country and only a very small subset of mentally ill people actually commit violent crimes.