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'Do Something!': Republican-led States Grapple with Responses to Mass Shootings

A Virgin Mary painting, flags and flowers adorn a makeshift memorial for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019.

A Virgin Mary painting, flags and flowers adorn a makeshift memorial for the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at a shopping complex in El Paso, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. Andres Leighton/AP Photo

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he’d be open to discussing gun control proposals, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott emphasized the need to address mental health issues.

Republican leaders in Ohio and Texas are in the spotlight as the country reels from two mass shootings over the weekend that collectively killed 31 people and injured dozens more.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said “everything’s on the table” regarding gun policy changes following a mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine people in Dayton.

Meanwhile, in Texas, where a gunman is believed to have posted an anti-immigrant manifesto before allegedly killing 22 people at an El Paso Walmart, the governor and lieutenant governor said violent video games and mental health are issues that should be addressed.

Republican lawmakers have historically pushed back against gun control proposals broached in the wake of mass shootings in the U.S.—in Virginia earlier this year, after a mass shooting at  municipal building in Virginia Beach, the Democratic governor tried to hold a special session on gun control. Republican lawmakers ended it 90 minutes after it started. 

But since the Parkland school shooting in February 2018 in Florida, gun control activists have had more success in state legislatures, sometimes even those controlled by Republicans, with more than half of states last year approving at least one measure to restrict gun access. “Legislators are starting to realize that mass shootings can happen in their state anytime,” Allison Anderman, the managing attorney at the Giffords Law Center, a gun-control group, told Stateline in 2018. 

Both Ohio and Texas are represented by Republican governors and legislative bodies controlled by Republicans who are now facing calls to “do something” about the states’ lenient gun laws.

“Democrats and Republicans have different views on the causes of these types of mass shootings,” said Josh Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project. “While a plurality of Democrats is likely to cite current gun laws as primary factor driving mass shootings in America, a plurality of Republican voters are going to say mental health is the primary cause of mass shootings in America. And I think that is the reaction you see from politicians in the wake of these tragedies.”

After Saturday’s shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott pointed to collaborative discussions that produced legislation providing money for student risk assessments and mental health initiatives, which the state passed last year after a school shooting in Santa Fe.

"I can tell you that perhaps the most profound and agreed upon issue that came out of all of those hearings was the need for the state and for society to do a better job of dealing with challenging mental health based issues,” he said of the Santa Fe shooting, which killed 10 people.

There is public support for some gun control measures in Texas—specifically a “red flag” law that would require people to surrender guns if they were found to be risks to themselves or others. Polling this year by the Texas Politics Project found 72% of Texans expressed support for “allowing courts to require a person determined to be a risk to themselves or others to temporarily surrender guns in their possession.”

When asked whether they generally favor stricter gun control, Texans were less supportive—49% were in favor of stricter laws, while about 47% either favored fewer restrictions or leaving gun laws as they are.  

Blank said that while most Texans favor adoption of red flag laws, Republican politicians often don’t agree, tending to be more concerned highly vocal and motivated Second Amendment advocates who see “any further restriction on gun laws as something of a betrayal.”

Federal efforts on measures like universal background checks are currently stalled. The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation in February to require checks for more gun purchases, but the Republican controlled Senate has not taken up the measure.

On Monday, President Trump said the country must “seek real, bipartisan solutions” to address gun violence and he called for efforts to address mental health, get guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, and improve efforts to identify would-be attackers based on social media activity before the strike.

He stopped short of calling for any broader reforms sought by Democrats to limit gun sales or expand universal background checks.

“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger—not the gun,” Trump said. 

In Ohio, Gov. DeWine told local media that he was open to exploring all gun policy options in the wake of Sunday’s early morning attack. He held off on endorsing any particular course of action when pressed on specific proposals over the weekend, but is expected to hold a press conference Tuesday morning to discuss gun and mental health policy proposals.

“We’re open to discussion, this is a debate that certainly should take place,” DeWine told local media

On Sunday night, a crowd at a vigil in Dayton drowned DeWine out as he spoke, with protesters chanting, “Do something!”

Joyce Lee Malcolm, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, said rushing to propose legislation without understanding the specifics that led to a mass shooting would do little good to prevent the next attack. She pointed to the approach taken by lawmakers in Virginia following the June shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12 people.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session to take up gun control measures, but Republican lawmakers voted to adjourn the session without taking up a single bill.

“The Republican majority in the assembly voted to adjourn until November, when they had more opportunity to actually look into the particular incident that spurred this,” Malcolm said. “I think that made a lot of sense rather than racing to pass some legislation that most probably would have had no effect and have no effect in the future other than maybe depriving a lot of people of rights.”

Northam on Monday chastised Republican lawmakers in his state, saying “gun violence is an emergency, felt across our communities daily.” He called on legislators to return to the state capital to take up his proposals.

Earlier this year, Boston University researchers found that laws that restrict who can buy firearms rather than policies that limit availability of certain types of firearms can be most successful at reducing rates of gun-related homicides.  In a report released this year by the Rockefeller Institute for Government, those researchers said universal background checks, red flag laws, and prohibitions on gun ownership by people with a history of past violent misdemeanors, threatened violence or other crimes could be prioritized to reduce gun violence.

After the mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Republican lawmakers embraced some gun control measures. The move came after relentless activism from students at the school. 

Then-Gov. Rick Scott signed into law policies meant to improve school safety and restrict gun access. The laws passed by the state raised the age to purchase a rifle from 18 to 21, instituted a three-day waiting period for long-gun sales, and established red flag protection orders that made it easier for law enforcement to seize firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. 

But Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody is currently fighting another measure pushed by gun control advocates, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban assault rifle sales in the state. She argues it is “far-reaching and misleading.”

Advocates say they want to try to bring the issue to voters on the 2020 ballot, telling the Miami Herald they are targeting guns “that have been used to devastating effect in mass shootings like those that occurred in Parkland and at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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