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The shooting left 19 students and two educators dead, renewing calls for stricter gun laws. But the issue has been at a standstill for years in Congress amid Republican opposition and states remain divided.
When a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut nearly a decade ago, library clerk Mary Ann Jacob huddled in a closet with 18 nine-year-olds and three educators.
The trauma of that day came rushing back when Jacob heard about Tuesday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
“I was right back in that closet, remembering the fear and horror we experienced trying to be brave for the kids we were with, when we were more frightened than we’ve ever been in our lives,’’ Jacob said during a press conference Wednesday morning on the steps of the Connecticut Capitol.
“We know that the reasonable gun laws put in before and after Sandy Hook have reduced gun deaths here but the patchwork of state-by-state gun laws endangers us and those in states around us,’’ she said. “I’m sick and tired of this happening time and time again.’’
At least 19 children and two educators were killed at Robb Elementary School Tuesday, in the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook.
The tragedy set off a fresh round of calls for federal gun control legislation, even as the effort in Congress has stalled for years in the face of strong Republican opposition
State legislatures on both sides of the gun divide have been much more assertive in passing new laws.
“Mass shootings can be catalysts for changes in gun law,’’ said Joseph Blocher, a constitutional law professor at Duke Law School who studies gun rights and regulation.
“After Sandy Hook, and perhaps even more significantly after Parkland, we saw a lot of state-level changes in gun law,’’ Blocher said, referring to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed 14 students and three staff members.
Blocher said “red flag” laws, in particular, have proliferated after Parkland. These measures aim to stop mass shootings by authorizing police, with a court order, to temporarily seize the firearms of people who a judge has found to be an immediate danger to themselves or others. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted a version of this legislation.
Yet, Blocher noted, other states have responded to mass shootings by further deregulating guns. “So the gulf continues to grow,’’ he said.
According to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control research group founded by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Texas has some of the nation’s weakest gun control laws.
In 2021, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation allowing state residents to carry a handgun without a license or training, so-called permitless carry.
“Texas safeguards the 2nd Amendment,’’ Abbott tweeted in September, when the law took effect. “Texans who legally own a gun are now allowed to carry it in public. No license or training is needed.”
The change came after a spate of mass shootings in the state, including a Walmart in El Paso, a school in Santa Fe and a church in Sutherland Springs.
“The greatest push for deregulation has come at the state level,’’ Blocher said. “A few decades ago, only one state had permitless carry; now more than 20 do. A few decades ago, only a handful of states preempted local gun regulation; now more than forty do.”
Four months after the Sandy Hook school shooting, Connecticut moved in the opposite direction. The legislature, with bipartisan support, enacted a sweeping measure that broadened the definition of what constitutes an assault rifle and banned the sale of gun magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds.
At Wednesday's press conference, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, said there are “eerie similarities” between the shootings in Uvalde and Sandy Hook.
Lamont decried the fact that the debate over gun control has become "an incredibly partisan argument right now in our society...it wasn’t that way 30, 40 years ago."
Even in Connecticut, more could be done to tighten the state’s gun laws. Lamont supports a bill banning “ghost guns,” firearms that are sometimes assembled at home and lack serial numbers.
Ultimately, Lamont said a federal approach is needed. “These borders are pretty pourous when it comes to guns,’’ he said. “I’ve got stuff coming down from the North Country, I’ve got illegal guns coming up from Georgia and the South as well. It’s pretty easy to ship that stuff.
"I need the feds to step up, I need Congress to step up...I need people doing the right thing," he said.
Looming over the gun control debate is a U.S. Supreme Court case: the court is currently considering a Second Amendment challenge to New York’s system for issuing concealed carry permits.
“The Court is widely expected to strike down the [New York] law, which will increase the number of guns in public places,’’ Blocher said. “And that, in turn, will make it all the more important for state and local officials to come up with proper rules about sensitive places like schools, government buildings, bars, political rallies and the like.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, was among the public officials calling for stronger gun restrictions in the wake of this week's shooting.
Hochul wants to raise the age to 21 from 18 for people to buy AR-15 style rifles. Semiautomatic weapons of this sort were used by the gunman in Uvalde, as well as the 18-year-old suspect who killed 10 people in a racially motivated shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York less than two weeks ago.
"How does an 18-year-old purchase an AR-15 in the State of New York, State of Texas? That person's not old enough to buy a legal drink," Hochul said. "I want to work with the legislature to change that. I want it to be 21. I think that's just common sense."
The New York proposal could draw a legal challenge. A federal appeals court earlier this month overturned a California law barring the sale of semi-automatic rifles to people under 21, ruling that the restriction violated the Second Amendment.