Columns, Opinions

Simshauser ’20: States’ Rights, Revised for Liberals

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, gun control has once again been pushed to the forefront of public discourse. While there was considerable public outrage in the days immediately following the massacre, one could not be blamed for taking a cynical outlook on the status of gun control in this country. If we failed to catalyze lasting momentum for gun reform after Sandy Hook, Las Vegas or countless other mass shootings, why would this prove any different?

However, persistent activism, especially from students who survived the harrowing experience, has subverted this cynical view. By continuously ​holding protests​, ​speaking on national television​ and publishing op-eds, they have ensured the cultural resonance of this debate — a seemingly impossible task in the Trump era. Even the president, speaking on live television last Wednesday, urged Congress to resurrect gun reform legislation from the Obama era. Naturally, this elicited considerable opposition from GOP lawmakers, and given President Trump’s erraticism (he also promised a DACA deal), significant gun reform from either house of Congress in the GOP-controlled legislative branch seems unlikely. Instead, it has been in state legislatures where the most ambitious gun reform bills have been proposed and where immediate action has been taken. This recent swell in state-level gun control legislation reflects the importance of local political action given the context of federal inaction.

Rhode Island has been especially active in enacting gun control following the Parkland shooting. On Feb. 22, the state joined a coalition with New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut; these states have pledged to share registries of individuals prohibited from owning firearms within their borders. The coalition also plans to share data regarding the sale of firearms and gun trafficking within the Northeast corridor in hopes of lowering the number of weapons left circulating in an illicit secondary market. And while these five states are historically Democratic strongholds, the inclusion of Massachusetts, and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, ensures the coalition was not formed solely along party lines.

Moreover, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has wielded executive power to pass immediate measures to curb gun violence; she signed an executive order Feb. 26, modeled after existing “red-flag” laws, which empower judges to seize guns from individuals who show warning signs of violence. While this law alone would have tangible benefits — a 2016 Duke University study found that red-flag laws in Connecticut ​reduced statewide suicides​ — Raimondo hopes that her executive order will presage more sweeping and durable gun reform laws. “The executive order is an immediate step we can take,” Raimondo said last Monday. “It sets the table for a complementary legislative effort.”

The “complementary legislative effort” Raimondo spoke of is less abstract than it seems; there is already a proposed bill from Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston) and Rep. Jason Knight (D-Barrington) to ban assault rifles within the state. Miller did not mince words when asked about the importance of his legislation: “Assault weapons are meant to kill and maim as many people as possible, as quickly as possible — they are weapons for mass shooters, not recreational hunters.” Miller’s rhetoric may appear severe, but it remains accurate. Assault rifles — specifically AR-15s — have been involved in ​practically every recent mass shooting​; the grim list includes Sandy Hook, Las Vegas and Parkland.

Miller and Knight’s proposed assault rifle ban intersects with two significant aspects of the gun control debate. Firstly, it shows the changing attitudes towards military-grade rifles, the weapons of choice for mass shooters. Outlawing assault rifles would not be the salve that liberals dream of, and would almost certainly lead to increased sales of non-assault semi-automatic rifles, which can possess nearly identical lethality. But only debating the functional effects of this ban is myopic — the fact that state legislators feel compelled to act swiftly on gun control reflects the shifting public consensus on the subject.

Additionally, the proposed ban exemplifies the power of state legislatures to pass laws that oppose the espoused policy of the presidential administration. It is reminiscent of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s actions to combat climate change; in July 2017, Brown extended California’s cap-and-trade program, a thorough repudiation of Trump’s attitude toward global warming (just a month earlier, Trump had withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Accord). The leader of California’s state senate, Kevin de Leon, said in December 2016 that, “California will not deviate from our leadership because of one election.” De Leon’s rhetoric was echoed last week by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when he outlined the importance of joining the aforementioned gun registry coalition: “This is a federal government that’s gone backwards on this issue … Trump has pledged allegiance to the (National Rifle Association) and he’s delivered for them.”

While liberal policies have little hope of being implemented at the federal level for the foreseeable future, state legislatures controlled by Democrats can enact policies that oppose the regressive measures proposed by the national government. Indeed, California’s actions toward climate change were echoed in liberal actions toward gun reform in the Northeast; it proves that inaction at the federal level does not preclude states from pursuing their own progressive policies. The actions taken in these states reflect the importance of Democratic campaign success beyond the national races; looking ahead to the 2018 midterms, Democratic activism should not be limited to Senate seats when gubernatorial races and state legislatures exist as possible bastions for the progressive agenda. If Democrats are serious about enacting gun reform, activism at the state level may be a more practical route — Rhode Island can act as an instructive example for other states.

Derek Simshauser ’20 can be reached at derek_simshauser@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.