The Real Fight on Guns Starts Outside of D.C.

Why you should care

Because Washington cannot lead the way.

The AR-15 is America’s most popular rifle. That’s true for both law-abiding gun owners, like my family member in the Atlanta suburbs who owns three of them, and heinous mass shooters like Nikolas Cruz, who more than a month ago gunned down 17 students and staff at a school in Parkland, Florida. 

Today, half a million people are expected to rally in Washington, in the wake of yet another school shooting Tuesday in Maryland. And although the March for Our Lives mission is broad, most marchers aren’t shy that they are talking about this gun: “We are saying we want to regulate semiautomatic weapons and the accessories that make them fully automatic,” Emma González, one of the faces of #NeverAgain, told Ellen DeGeneres. The outpouring of activism has merit, particularly for those energized by democracy in action. But gun control activists will be disappointed if they expect Washington to offer solutions. Remember how federal lawmakers promised a bipartisan bump stock ban after the Las Vegas shooting last October but then couldn’t even muster a vote?

Just as lawmakers are divided, so too are even the Parkland kids, who share a school and a trauma. 

The smart bet for meaningful reform is in the states. See Florida, where the Republican-controlled state house passed a bill that raised the minimum age for gun purchases to 21, created a three-day waiting period for prospective gun buyers … and banned bump stocks. It’s not just happening in the Parkland students’ home state. A hundreds-strong protest in Vermont’s state capital forced concessions from the House minority leader and others that they would look into gun regulations. Since Parkland, several states have considered bills making it easier to take guns away from people deemed dangerous. Such “red flag” laws already exist in five states, from blue California to red Indiana.


Some conservative states have reacted in the opposite direction as the shooting debate raged in recent years. Idaho passed a law allowing all residents over 21 to carry concealed firearms without a permit. Texas trained some teachers to be armed “school marshals” and increased mental health spending. State legislatures have become the most important gun-rights battleground, with Congress gridlocked and more than 40 states having NRA-backed “preemption laws” on their books, which bar local municipalities from adopting more stringent gun laws than their state.

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Students participate in a protest against gun violence on Capitol Hill, on Feb. 21, 2018.

Source Alex Wong/Getty

Just as lawmakers are divided, so too are even the Parkland kids, who share a school and a trauma — from the fiery liberal David Hogg to equally strident conservative Kyle Kashuv. Perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising: Last year, both Gallup and Pew Research Center polling showed that millennials are no more liberal on gun control than their parents and grandparents, despite leaning more left on just about every other major issue. In fact, Pew found they were more conservative on two suggested gun control proposals: banning assault-style weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

A Gallup survey conducted in early March has public support for stricter gun laws at 67 percent, its highest since 1993. But the issue is far from settled. Democrats can’t simply harp on gun reform. There are other solutions that can help address school shootings now, such as better reporting systems for possible violent behavior — an especially urgent demand considering how many people warned about the Parkland shooter. Suburban and rural school districts can follow their urban counterparts and add metal detectors, and all schools can do something as simple as fix broken intercoms.

An assault weapons ban is popular, but how effective would it be? As it stands now, anyone can illegally adjust a pistol or rifle to shoot just as many bullets, and just as quickly. Many marchers, including James Croft, the outreach director for the Ethical Society of St. Louis, argue for a complete gun ban. “The idea that people have a moral right to own a firearm is mistaken, philosophically confused,” Croft says. But that kind of rhetoric is going to instantly turn off a lot of people in places like my hometown in Georgia. So even as activists will draw the nation’s eyes to Washington today, they should look to the states to enact real change.

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