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One year later, experts say Parkland was 'turning point' in gun debate

In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 photo, student volunteers help out at a booth to encourage on campus voting for students during a Vote for Our Lives event at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 photo, student volunteers help out at a booth to encourage on campus voting for students during a Vote for Our Lives event at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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America vowed this time would be different and, to an extent, it has been.

One year after the mass shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, many states have acted to restrict access to firearms by dangerous individuals, but little has changed on the federal level.

According to the Giffords Law Center, which was founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and her husband after she was wounded in a 2011 mass shooting, states passed 69 gun control measures in 2018, the most in five years. New restrictions on firearms came from both Democratic and Republican state legislatures.

“We will never stop demanding that our leaders listen to the youngest generation and take long overdue action to keep our children safe. When the students of Parkland bravely took a stand to call for change, we stood by their side. America marched with them for a safer future and voted with them to elect more leaders with courage. We can solve this problem,” former Rep. Giffords said in a statement Thursday.

The new gun laws passed in 26 states and the District of Columbia included:

  • Seven states enacted extensions or improvements of background checks
  • Nine states and D.C. enacted laws banning the use of bump stocks and trigger activators
  • Five states tightened concealed carry laws
  • Eleven states passed laws to help keep firearms away from domestic abusers
  • Eight states and D.C. passed extreme risk protection order statutes
  • Four states passed new restrictions on firearm purchases by those under 21
  • Nine states passed laws to fund urban gun violence reduction programs

This was the first time in at least six years that gun restrictions outpaced pro-gun measures across the country, according to The New York Times. Only nine new state laws were passed loosening limits on firearms, including two “stand your ground” laws and several bills making it easier for residents to carry guns in schools, places of worship, or businesses.

The Parkland shooting shook the nation in a way other school shootings have not, in part because the students who survived the tragedy refused to let it fade from the public consciousness as mass shootings usually do when the dust clears and the blood dries. Victims often eschew media attention, but the students embraced it.

“The most useful way to think about is after past shooting incidents, the country’s attention was riveted on the event, the issue of gun violence, but that whole cycle tended to be pretty brief and then politics kind of returned back to normal,” said Robert Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control” and a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland.

It is difficult to say whether this has resulted in a permanent shift, but Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA Law School and author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” sees some reason to believe it has.

“I think Parkland was a turning point in the gun debate, that the students injected new passion into the gun control movement and pushed gun control to the top of the Democratic agenda,” he said.

Many of the Parkland students and their families remain committed to activism a year later, and some are working to institutionalize the March for Our Lives they launched last March.

“Parkland really provided a platform for young people to mobilize and have their voice heard,” said Kristin Goss, co-author of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know” and a professor of public policy at Duke University.

Unlike in earlier shootings, the students also found a firmly established network of gun violence prevention organizations in place to assist them and amplify their message because of work that began after the Newtown elementary school shooting in 2012.

“The parents, classmates and teachers who survived the Parkland shooting have taught us a powerful lesson: One of the best ways to cope with wounds that will never fully heal is working to spare others from tragedy. These remarkable survivors have inspired millions to join the growing movement to create a safer future for all Americans,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement Thursday.

The stepped-up activism surrounding gun control also made it a central issue in the midterm elections, with gun control organizations outspending the National Rifle Association nationally for the first time.

“Gun control was an issue in numerous elections won by Democrats,” Winkler said.

Democrats, who have called for action on gun violence prevention after dozens of mass shootings in recent years, have embraced the issue more aggressively since taking control of the House of Representatives. On the eve of the anniversary of the shooting, the House Judiciary Committee approved gun control legislation for the first time in years Wednesday.

After a long and contentious hearing, the Democrat-led committee sent two bills to the House floor—one expanding the use of background checks for nearly all gun purchases and another eliminating a “loophole” that allows a firearm purchase if the background check is not completed within three days.

“Today’s vote by the House Judiciary Committee represents the most progress the gun violence prevention movement has made in years. It’s been one year since Parkland, 16 months since Las Vegas, two and a half years since Pulse, seven years since Sandy Hook, 20 years since Columbine, and 25 years since Brady Background Checks were passed into law. We have quite a bit of lost time to make up,” Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement.

Democrats celebrated the passage of the bills, which the NRA has dismissed as “misguided and ineffective,” but even if they do clear the full House, they have little hope of passage in the Republican-led Senate. Still, experts say to vote was a notable development.

“It’s significant first because it’s been a long time since any new gun measure was approved by either house of Congress,” Spitzer said. “Second, it’s significant because the Democrats clearly believe—even though the bill will surely fail in the Senate—they believe it’s a helpful issue for their party and their candidates.”

Winkler also recognized the Parkland shooting’s influence in what legislation did not pass in the last year.

“One way in which Parkland may have made a difference is preventing the NRA’s effort to loosen federal gun laws,” he said. “The NRA had two big agenda items when Trump was elected—national reciprocity for concealed carry and lifting the ban on silencers. Neither of those laws were adopted.”

There is one major exception to the pattern of inaction on the federal level: bump stocks. The devices that enable a semi-automatic weapon to fire like an automatic firearm became highly controversial after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017 that killed 58 concert-goers and injured hundreds of others.

Late last year, the Justice Department announced bump stock devices would be banned, giving gun owners until mid-March to destroy them or turn them into law enforcement. A federal school safety commission convened after the Parkland shooting also recommended in December that states adopt laws to keep guns from “individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.”

While the urgency surrounding gun control efforts lasted longer than usual after Parkland, it has inevitably begun to fade. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows attitudes toward guns declining.

Immediately after the shooting, 71 percent of Americans said gun laws should be stricter, but that has fallen to 51 percent. About four in 10 now say firearm restrictions should be an immediate priority for Congress, down from 52 percent in April 2018, but experts doubt the movement has lost all its momentum.

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“The movement is much broader and better resourced and more pragmatic and strategic than it has been in the 20 years I’ve been studying it,” Goss said.

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