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While state approaches to gun laws vary widely, some see places where both sides of the debate can find agreement. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Friday, April 21, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, with electric vehicle rebates in such high demand that at least two states have to hit pause on their programs, Colorado considering capping interest rates on medical debt, and another state weighing whether to create a food stamp czar. But first we’ll start with the proliferation of gun legislation this week.
It has been a busy week for gun bills with movement on both ends of the regulation spectrum. Most notably, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill that will allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit, and, on the other end of the issue, the Washington Legislature blocked the sale of dozens of semi-automatic rifles.
Once Republican Gov. Jim Pillen signs the bill into law, as he has indicated he will, Nebraska will be the 27th state to allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Just two weeks ago, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a similar bill.
And Washington is set to become the 10th state to ban the sale of AR-15s and other guns it classifies as assault weapons, when Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signs that state’s gun legislation, as he has already said he would.
These bills are emblematic of the party and ideological divide on gun rights—one that seems here to stay for the time being. Still, there does appear to be bipartisan support for certain approaches that would curb gun violence.
In a webinar hosted by the Rockefeller Institute of Government this week, legislators from three Democratic-controlled states talked about gun policy priorities in their states. While many of the approaches discussed would be nonstarters in more conservative states, the group did identify through their comments potential bipartisan avenues.
Red Flag Laws
One such avenue discussed is red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection order laws, that empower courts to temporarily remove guns from those posing a danger to themselves or others. The laws are already in effect in at least 19 states and Washington, D.C., according to the gun safety advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
On Wednesday, Michigan took a step toward becoming the 20th state to pass a red flag law when the legislature there passed the last bill in a trio of gun safety measures. The other two measures, which Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law last week, expand background checks to all firearm purchases and create penalties for those who fail to keep guns out of the hands of children.
Whitmer, who asked for a red flag law earlier this year in her State of the State speech, is expected to sign the red flag bill into law.
"The time for only thoughts and prayers is over," Whitmer said in the speech. "It's time for commonsense action to reduce gun violence in our communities."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee made a similar plea to the legislature this week—albeit to no avail. In an 11th-hour push, the Republican governor threw his support behind legislation for an order of protection law, which would allow courts and law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people for up to 180 days if a judge finds a person poses a "current and ongoing" risk of serious harm to themselves or others.
"To be specific, I’m proposing that we improve our state’s law so that it protects more Tennesseans and reaches more individuals who are struggling and in need of mental health support," Lee said. "There is broad agreement that this is the right approach. It should be that simple. But sadly, it’s not."
The legislature adjourned today without taking up the legislation. Instead, lawmakers sent a bill to the governor this week to shield Tennessee gun and ammunition manufacturers and sellers from lawsuits. That measure had been in the works before the shooting at the Covenant school in Nashville that killed three children and three staff members.
Red flag bills were introduced this legislative season in 11 other states as well.
Another approach that observers see as an opportunity for bipartisan support are gun storage laws.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported findings that the death rate of America’s children and teens dramatically increased between 2019 and 2021—and guns were responsible for the largest share of the increase. It’s the biggest increase in U.S. child mortality in more than 50 years, according to the study.
Just last week, a safe firearm storage law was signed in Michigan requiring gun owners to store their firearms in a locked container or use a locking device if they have a child in the house. The law also updates the state's criminal code with penalties for those who fail to store their firearms safely.
Connecticut, which passed the country’s first red flag law, already has a safe storage law. The state is currently working on legislation that will update its safe storage laws to apply to cars and other areas outside the house, said Connecticut state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Democrat, on the gun policy webinar.
“[We’re] trying to stop and prevent the theft,” he said, adding it is an issue that garners bipartisan support.
Stand Your Ground Laws
And the last bipartisan avenue to curb gun violence discussed was around efforts to clarify so-called stand your ground laws, which say that when a person perceives a threat in a place where they have a right to be, they are permitted to respond immediately with physical, even lethal force. The first stand your ground law passed in Florida in 2005.
Last year, a study published by JAMA Network Open, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that these laws were associated with an 11% increase in monthly firearm homicide rates.
A discussion on at least adding more clarification to when these laws apply comes as two men this week were in court for shooting people who essentially made innocent missteps onto the wrong property.
In a courthouse in Fort Edward, N.Y., Kevin Monahan was denied bail on Wednesday in a case where prosecutors say he fatally shot Kaylin Gillis, 20, after she and a group of friends mistakenly drove up his driveway while looking for another friend’s house.
In a small courtroom in Liberty, Mo., Andrew D. Lester pleaded not guilty in the shooting of Ralph Yarl, 16, who had come to Lester’s door mistakenly thinking it was the address where his younger siblings were waiting to be picked up.
Also this week, three people, including a 6 year-old child, were shot when they chased a ball into a neighbor’s yard in North Carolina and two Texas cheerleaders were shot when they got in the wrong car.
“In a nation with more firearms than people, getting firearm deaths to zero is not realistic,” said Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University.
But, he added, a healthy, data-driven dialogue is possible around issues that both sides of the political divide care about. Questions lawmakers should ask themselves include, “Who should have access to firearms and under what circumstances? Who can carry and where can they carry? Under what circumstances can they fire? How should firearms be stored around home? What services can we provide for safe storage outside of home?”
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here every Friday for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. Have a great weekend.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs, and Notable Events
- Hitting the brakes on EV rebates. New Jersey residents looking to buy or lease an electric vehicle won’t be able to get a government rebate—at least temporarily—because the state program is so popular that it’s already running out of money, officials said. The Charge Up New Jersey program has disbursed an estimated $35 million for the fiscal year ending this July, according to the state’s Board of Public Utilities. Now in its third year, the program gives state residents up to $4,000 when they buy or lease a new electric vehicle. A rebate program in Oregon will also have to pause next month because too many people are applying and the program is running out of money.
- A blow to election integrity. A North Texas elections official who was lauded by top state officials—and his critics—as one of the best administrators in the field has submitted his resignation. Heider Garcia, who faced death threats, has been the elections director in Tarrant County since 2018. His resignation comes months after County Judge Tim O’Hare, the county’s top executive, took office. O’Hare ran on a campaign that prioritized election integrity and frugal spending of tax dollars. Soon after he took office he debuted a county election integrity task force, despite the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud. Meanwhile, several Republican-led states have recently announced their departure from the Electronic Registration Information Center, citing partisan efforts to control election outcomes and threats to election integrity. But it remains unclear how those states will maintain accurate voter rolls on their own.
- Confronting medical debt. In Colorado, House lawmakers approved a measure last week that would lower the maximum interest rate for medical debt to 3%, require greater transparency in costs of treatment and prohibit debt collection during an appeals process. The bill now goes to Gov. Jared Polis to sign. If it becomes law, Colorado would join Arizona in having one of the lowest medical debt interest rates in the country. North Carolina lawmakers have also started mulling a 5% interest ceiling. An estimated 100 million Americans have amassed nearly $200 billion in collective medical debt—almost the size of Greece’s economy—according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
- Executions paused again in Ohio. Gov. Mike DeWine issued three reprieves of execution last Friday, citing issues with obtaining drugs for lethal injection. DeWine has repeatedly expressed his concern that if pharmaceutical companies find that Ohio used its drugs to put people to death, they will refuse to sell any of its drugs—not just the ones used in executions—to the state. As a result, DeWine has said there would be no more executions in Ohio unless state lawmakers pick an alternative execution method—a step the legislature has so far shown no interest in taking. The governor has repeatedly pushed back death-row inmates’ execution dates since taking office. He is far from alone. As it has become harder and harder to obtain the drugs involved in lethal injections, most states are either pausing executions or turning to older methods, such as firing squads.
- Settling a water dispute. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reached a tentative settlement with Maryland, other states and environmental groups that sued the agency in 2020, charging that federal officials weren’t doing enough to stop Chesapeake Bay pollution originating in Pennsylvania. The settlement requires the EPA to, among other things, look for ways to reduce pollution from agriculture in Pennsylvania—the state’s biggest source of water pollution—and stormwater runoff from urban and suburban land. As part of the settlement, the EPA commits to increase compliance and enforcement efforts, as long as it has the funding to do so. The proposed settlement will be published today in The Federal Register, triggering a 30-day public comment period. When the comment period closes, the EPA will work out final details with the plaintiffs.
- A food stamp czar? Out of more than half a million food stamp recipients in Connecticut, nearly 3,800 live in towns where there are no retailers that accept food stamps. To remedy the issue, the legislature is considering a bill that would create the Office of the Food Access Advocate. This office would support food insecurity programs and community-led efforts, provide an informational hotline and manage food insecurity data, among other things. It would also provide tax breaks for certain grocery stores opening in underserved areas.
- Food banks buy local. The Maryland Department of Agriculture is teaming up with local food banks to get locally sourced food from Maryland farmers and watermen onto the tables of people in need. Using federal grants, the state will cut checks to the food banks totaling $6.1 million. “This is a huge win for the Chesapeake Bay, for watermen and for the hungry. It’s about connecting and growing to make farmers more profitable while addressing the food deserts and shortages inherent in our system,” said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Kevin Atticks, speaking at the announcement. Gov. Wes Moore, who was on hand, highlighted the need for the program, pointing to the fact that 1 in 3 Marylanders is food insecure.
Picture of the Week
After one of the wettest winters on record, California hillsides are exploding with color. Referred to by some as a "superbloom," the wildflower takeover is dominating hillsides so intensely that the blooms are visible from space. Streaks of poppy orange and bright, lemony yellows can be seen in satellite imagery across canyons and hilltops that for years—thanks to years of record drought—have been brown, barren areas. (Photo credit clockwise from top left: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images, Mario Tama, David McNew, and Mario Tama via Getty Images)
Government in Numbers
The number of people living in counties with F grades for daily particle pollution, the most reported in the last 10 years, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air report. Released Wednesday, the report also found that people of color were 3.7 times as likely as white people to live in a county with three failing grades.
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