After yet another confusing week of Twitter tirades, no one knows what, if any, changes to the nation’s gun laws President Donald Trump would actually support. But the lack of clear leadership from the top of the GOP isn’t stopping the momentum that seems to be building at the state level to re-examine the nation’s disparate gun laws—and this time, it’s not just Democrats leading the charge.
Over the weekend, the majority of America’s governors descended on the nation’s swampy Capitol and gun control was on the top of many of their minds—lending an unusual urgency to this staid annual meeting where governors from both parties pretend to put partisan disagreements aside and focus on common ground, like on the low-hanging fruit of infrastructure and education.
The focus on guns was a testament to the powerful teenage voices who have called B.S. on the nation’s political and lobbying class in the aftermath of the terror, heartbreak, and sorrow that engulfed their high school in Parkland, Florida, after 17 students and adults were gunned down on Valentine’s Day with a legally obtained assault rifle.
“We are entering a new era of activism—a new era of citizenship,” Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) told a large scrum of reporters while he made a brief stop in Washington. “You see these young people and they’re saying, ‘We don’t want any political double-talk.’ And they’re going to change our country. And it’s great and I’m excited about it. And I’m optimistic about it. So, the issue’s not going to go away.”
Kasich is open to many of the ideas now being floated around political circles, including one to make it easier for the loved ones of people suffering from mental illnesses to get the courts and law enforcement to intervene and remove guns from what could quickly escalate into another deadly situation inside their homes or in crowded public places.
“I mean I think that’s something that we’re going to explore aggressively. Could that happen? It ought to happen,” Kasich said. “What about the large capacity magazines? Yeah, I would think that that’s something we should deal with. To me, I don’t think you need to have these large capacity magazines. But where that all translates at the end, I don’t know.”
That lack of clarity is in part due to Trump himself, who last week seemed to signal a willingness to improve the nation’s lax background check system, before he appeared to double down on his newfangled plan to train and arm the nation’s educators.
But many of the nation’s governors—including some high-profile Republicans—find that proposal either outright laughable or terrifyingly dangerous. And they’re starting to take action on their own home turf, with or without the support of Trump and the NRA.
The dominos started to fall when Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), a fierce conservative and longtime NRA-ally, announced his support for modest new gun restrictions that he would have normally fiercely opposed, including raising the age to purchase a gun to 21.
As Rick Scott was in Florida grappling with the physical and emotional carnage left in the wake of yet another high-profile mass shooting, another Republican governor was also changing his tune on guns. Up in sleepy, picturesque Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott was dealing with his own heart-pounding case involving guns and schoolchildren.
Just before the deadly rampage in Florida, Vermont law enforcement officials were able to stop an 18-year-old from carrying out his own alleged attack that Scott says was “eerily similar to Florida.”
“It was averted due to the brave young woman who came forward with some information that led us, law enforcement, to uncover a plot by a young man to do significant harm in a high school,” Scott told The Daily Beast.
“After reading the affidavit, the credible good work of law enforcement and others, it led me to do some soul searching in that respect, because I thought we were insulated from this in Vermont, but I learned in a short amount of time that we weren’t.”
Vermont’s Republican governor is a proud gun owner and ally of the firearm industry. But at the end of last week, he turned heads when he called on his state legislature to fast-track a bill to temporarily take guns out of the hands of people deemed dangerous. He’s also now open to forcing people under 21 years of age to get training before buying a firearm (yeah, that’s currently not on the books in many states).
Phil Scott still remains on the fence on many gun control measures, but he signaled that he’ll consider signing a bill that his Democrat-controlled legislature is voting on this week that would require universal background checks for gun purchases. While this Republican is still wrestling with how to head off the potential fallout from his gun rights allies locally and nationally, he reports having a change of heart.
“We’re the safest state in the nation and we probably have some of the least amount of gun laws as well, but, again, my opinion changed after reading the affidavit,” Scott added. “I would offer that anyone who questions my moving in a different direction should read the affidavit themselves.”
The specter of the NRA and even more vocal, and often much more radical, local gun rights groups puts many in the GOP in what they perceive to be a political bind. But some Republican governors are now more willing to buck what’s become party orthodoxy on guns.
“There’s always political risk, but at the same time we’re talking about the lives of kids and innocent men and women and people,” Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV) told a gaggle of reporters in Washington over the weekend.
After dealing with the aftermath of last year’s Las Vegas massacre, which was the most deadly shooting in modern American history, Sandoval helped usher through gun reforms in Nevada, and reports the debate on guns is changing in other states too.
“It’s a conversation that has to be had. The status quo isn’t working,” Sandoval added. “Given what happened in Florida and has happened in other places, we need to have that conversation.”
Many members of his party still don’t want to have that conversation, which many experts say is because of the NRA’s stranglehold on the contemporary Republican Party.
This weekend, when The Daily Beast asked Wisconsin governor and failed Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker about gun control, he reverted back to the NRA’s usual guidance for responding to mass shootings and went mum.
“What do you think about the president calling for arming teachers?” The Daily Beast asked as Walker and an entourage of staffers and state troopers made their way to a bank of elevators in the fancy hotel the governors took over, mere blocks from the White House.
“I’m focused on the transportation,” Walker replied.
“So you’re not even tuned in to the national debate?” The Daily Beast asked.
“I’m not talking about that,” Walker said as he impatiently waited for a slow elevator to whisk him away. “Not talking about that right now. No, I’m not here as a national figure. I’m here as a governor.”
Walker may pretend gun violence is a national issue that doesn’t touch his state, but a cursory look at Wisconsin’s history shows that’s not the case. In 2012, it was the site of the slaughter of six worshippers at a Sikh temple. And in 2017, when Milwaukee went from being ranked ninth to 15th among America’s most deadly cities, it prompted cheers at home.
Meanwhile, just last week, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island announced a new pact to combat gun violence that includes more information-sharing among law enforcement and more research into next-generation smart gun technology.
The Democratic governors from those states announced their new partnership last week in the aftermath of the Florida slayings, even as gun control advocates despaired at the inaction from Trump and the Republican controlled Congress. But the NRA, Trump, and his GOP surely didn’t bank on those highly visible, grieving Florida high school students, who seem to have changed the debate—at least for now. That’s why advocates are cautioning patience will likely be needed on any sweeping, national gun reforms.
“I’ve given up on Congress,” newly seated Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) told The Daily Beast. “My only hope is with these kids, because our generation has failed. They actually may be the ones to get this done.”