Media Understate Success Of States In Substantially Strengthening Gun Laws

A new report from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (LCPGV) debunks the flawed media narrative that state gun laws have, on balance, loosened nationwide since the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

Contrary to this narrative, a May 2 LCPGV report notes, “significant or sweeping” legislation strengthening gun laws has been enacted in eight states since Newtown, compared to four states that have put into law substantial legislation weakening gun laws.

The faulty media narrative on state gun laws emerged from a December 2013 New York Times report that analyzed 1,500 gun bills introduced into state legislatures in the year following Newtown. Of 109 bills that became law, 70 loosened restrictions while 39 strengthened restrictions on firearms.

Mistaking quantity for quality, numerous media reports oversimplified the Times report to misleadingly suggest that Newtown caused gun laws to be weakened. The Washington Post's GovBeat blog cited the Times in an entry that argued “gun control is losing, badly.” An editorial by The New York Daily News used the Times data to declare 2013 “another year of the gun.”

John Nolte, a columnist for conservative, wrote that the Times report evidenced "[t]he failure of the mainstream media's months-long crusade to exploit the horrific murders at Sandy Hook Elementary into restrictions against our Second Amendment civil rights." National Review Online's Greg Pollowitz used the Times figures to argue "[i]f the gun-control movement is serious about making legislative changes and not just getting headlines, it needs a new strategy."

The Times report was also featured on cable news. On the December 15, 2013, edition of Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace cited the Times figures to tell Mark Kelly (a gun safety advocate and husband of gun violence survivor former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) that “I think I have to say you have not had much success this past year.” The Times report has also been used to push the false narrative on MSNBC, with the most recent citation occurring on April 23.

Bucking the trend, Mother Jones used data on 2013 gun laws and state population figures to demonstrate that “more than 189 million” Americans live under stronger gun laws since Newtown.

LCPGV's report debunks “the media's predominant narrative from last year that, after Newtown, more states weakened gun laws and the gun lobby 'won'.” According to its figures, which also include laws enacted in 2014, 70 enacted laws loosened gun restrictions, 64 laws strengthened gun laws, and 38 laws had a minimal impact.

Significantly LCPGV's analysis found "[o]f the 64 bills enacted to strengthen gun regulation, 8 new gun laws made very significant and, in some cases, sweeping changes to the way the state regulates firearms. Alternatively, only 4 of the laws enacted to weaken gun regulation were significant or sweeping."

As LCPGV explains, media has erred in treating “small bills” that change gun laws as equal to significant legislation that bans assault weapons or requires background checks on gun sales:

Despite popular belief, in the last sixteen months since Newtown, the media has incorrectly portrayed the complicated and nuanced activity in fifty different state legislative bodies. The new laws have been tallied, and often, have been inappropriately equalized. Small bills which keep concealed weapons permit holders' information private have been categorized as having equal weight to sweeping new laws that require background checks and ban assault weapons.

According to LCPGV, states that enacted “significant” or “sweeping” legislation strengthening gun laws include California (ten bills enacted, including improvements to California's assault weapons ban, child access prevention law, and prohibited persons law), Connecticut (strengthened assault weapons ban, created permitting requirement for long guns and ammunition, among other measures), Colorado (required background checks on gun sales, banned large capacity magazines), Delaware (required background checks on gun sales, reporting of lost and stolen firearms), New York (strengthened assault weapons ban, closed “private sale loophole,” among numerous other provisions), New Jersey (prohibited individuals on Terrorist Watchlist from buying a firearm), Maryland (numerous provisions including strengthened assault weapons ban and handgun licensing), and Illinois (strengthened background check requirement, required reporting of lost or stolen firearms).

Four states significantly loosened their gun laws: Alabama (enacted state constitution amendment requiring gun laws to be evaluated under legal principle of “strict scrutiny”), Illinois (enacted concealed carry of firearms in public), Alaska (enacted Stand Your Ground), and Georgia (expansive legislation allowing guns in bars, airports, churches, extension of Stand Your Ground to those in illegal possession of firearms, and other measures).

The measures defined in LCPGV's report as “sweeping” or “significant” were all enacted prior to the Times report, with the exception of Georgia's “guns everywhere” law which was signed into law in April.

LCPGV's report also identifies 2014 state trends towards stronger gun laws, noting, “This year, the policies designed to strengthen state gun laws that are making progress in the state legislatures revolve mostly around domestic violence and mental health prohibitions. Indiana, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have already enacted new laws to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers. Twelve additional states are currently considering bills on this crucial topic.”

While the December 2013 Times report was well-researched and accurate, it was unfortunately twisted by media and folded into the tired narrative that the gun lobby always wins. A nuanced view of gun legislation and other gun safety efforts shows that is anything but the case.

Top image via Flickr user coolrevolution