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States take lead in passing gun laws

Gun control groups are frustrated with Congress.

Despite the pleas from students across the country for Washington to do something about gun violence, the states seem to be ones listening.

In the aftermath of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that took the lives of 17 students, at least two states have moved to pass more stringent gun regulations. A handful of Republican governors — including Ohio Gov. John Kasich — are also pushing proposals, while giving props to the students who are demanding that their voices get heard.

The recent legislation comes on top of state laws banning bump stocks — devices that convert semi-automatic guns into automatic ones — that were passed in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a country concert in Las Vegas last October that killed 58.

“States have begun stepping up and passing laws,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has been frustrated by Congress’ inability to pass laws since an intruder entered elementary school in his home state in 2012 and killed 26 people, including 20 first-graders. Still, he cautioned, “even with strong laws, we are at the mercy of states with the weakest laws.”

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Earlier this month, Florida passed a bill that banned devices to make a semiautomatic weapon an automatic one; raised the minimum age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, and added a provision that could help arm school employees. Oregon, meanwhile, passed a measure adding stalking to the list of convictions that would result in a prohibition of owning or possessing a firearm or ammunition.

In Ohio, the most marked change has been Kasich’s call for new gun control measures, including legal protections to keep firearms from potentially dangerous people; keeping firearms from domestic violence offenders and those with a protective order filed against them; closing gaps in the background check system; banning bump stocks and barring the sale of armor-piercing ammunition.

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Kasich stopped short, however, of calling for a ban on assault weapons — a suggestion he appeared to support on Sunday talk shows. Instead, he deferred to a bipartisan panel he’d tasked with coming up with recommendations.

A Dayton Daily News story on Sunday asked each candidate for governor in Ohio what their position was on a number of issues, including banning the sale of assault weapons, banning bump stocks and allowing CCW holders to carry weapons on school grounds. The two Republican candidates — Mike DeWine and Mary Taylor — appeared to oppose most of the proposed restrictions on guns, though Taylor says she is much stronger on gun rights than her opponent.

On the Democratic side, Dennis Kucinich appeared to be the most ardent supporter of further gun restrictions, and carries an F rating from the National Rifle Association. Fellow Democrat Richard Cordray received an A rating from the same group.

Training approved

Congress last week took its first action since the Florida high school shooting when the House passed a school safety measure that would create a new federal grant program — funded at $50 million a year — to train students, teachers and law enforcement on how to identify signs of gun violence. The bill would also establish anonymous tip lines where people could report threats of violence, and authorizes $25 million for schools to beef up security by adding technology such as locks, panic buttons and metal detectors.

But the bill contained no gun-related measures — frustrating gun control groups.

“Congress is failing the American public,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. He said he was stunned when the Florida Legislature passed its gun law, saying that until now, the NRA has had a “stranglehold” over the legislature.

RELATED: Parkland students lead walkouts to protest gun violence

Elsewhere, he said, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has endorsed a bill that would require gun owners convicted of domestic violence to surrender their weapons. The Maryland General Assembly last week advanced that bill, as well as another one banning bump stocks and a third allowing family members or law enforcement agencies to seek court orders preventing those deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others from owning a gun.

Kasich and Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder have both talked about legislative packages that would include greater gun control measures. And in Utah, a proposal to beef up the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense legislation went down — but so did a bill that would have allowed police to temporarily take the guns of those deemed a threat. In West Virginia and New Hampshire, measures allowing guns on college campuses also were defeated.

“Republican governors, Democratic governors and legislators on both sides of the aisle are all listening to the public and all passing common sense gun reforms,” Feinblatt said.

‘Laboratories of democracy’

States have always been the “laboratories of democracy,” according to Feinblatt and Blumenthal, mentioning marriage equality as an example.

“The truth is Congress is not where things begin,” Feinblatt said. “It’s actually where they end.”

RELATED: Kasich proposes major changes to Ohio gun laws

Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs for Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, an organization led by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was severely wounded in a shooting in her home district, said states have been leading on the gun issue since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In the five years since that shooting, states and local governments have passed more than 200 laws addressing gun violence, Lloyd said.

What’s new is that the movement is increasingly occurring at states not already known for having stringent gun laws, said Lloyd.

“We’re seeing major momentum at the state level,” she said.

Florida law ‘horrible’

Not all are pleased by the laws states are passing. Jim Irvine, president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, a gun rights group in Ohio, said despite the measure to arm teachers, Florida’s bill was “horrible.”

He said before the Parkland shootings, gun rights groups were working with Florida police enforcement to arm staff in the schools. “The whole thing is dead now because of the law,” he said, saying the measure “just killed school safety that works in that district.”

His focus has been on training those in the schools to respond to an active shooter. He said his organization has trained 1,300 people in 220 school districts, and in 12 states including Ohio.

“This is the way of the future for our schools,” he said. “We’re sick and tired of our children dying in our schools.”

He argues that arming teachers is a state or local issue — what works in Ohio might not work in California, for example — and should be voluntary. “You can’t order somebody to carry a gun,” he said. “It doesn’t work…it has to be somebody who wants to do this.”

But he believes fewer guns will only create more victims. Even “a stinking bag of money in the mall is protected by a guy with a gun,” he said.

“The idea that you should be afraid of that is nonsense,” Irvine said. “I’ve never seen anybody ever running away from the guy with the Brinks truck saying, ‘Oh my God, it’s dangerous.’ They’re not afraid of armed security. It’s what keeps things safe.”

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