In statehouses across America, lawmakers disturbed by recent school shootings are ushering in a new age of gun control - one that goes beyond what Congress has attempted.
While action in Washington has grabbed most of the attention, the shift in sentiment on gun rights is even more pronounced in America's hinterland. In the past month, about a dozen states have enacted laws to regulate gun sales or shelved legislation backed by the National Rifle Association.
The votes are significant because states are a traditional stronghold of the NRA, although the influence of the gun-rights lobby has begun to wane in recent years. As a result, "gun-control legislation is definitely easier to pass at the state level," says Jon Vernick of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. While the Senate has "mustered the will to close the loophole on one type of sale - at gun shows," a number of states already go further, he says. Even before this new round of gun controls, Maryland and California, for instance, required background checks on handgun transactions, including private sales. In the five weeks since two students killed 13 others and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., activity in state capitals suggests legislators are viewing the gun debate through the lens of that tragedy. *Illinois lawmakers passed a law requiring safe storage of guns - a measure that had stalled for years. *The New Jersey Senate is moving on a measure to require that every gun sold in the state be equipped with a child-proof trigger lock. It is being pushed by Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. *Arizona lawmakers abandoned a proposal to prevent cities from imposing local gun-control ordinances. *In Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, Republicans backed away from bills that would have prohibited cities from suing gun manufacturers. *In California, a bill that makes it illegal to purchase more than one handgun per month passed the Assembly by one vote. The deciding vote was cast by a lawmaker who confessed that he had trouble sleeping after Columbine. *Republican lawmakers in Colorado withdrew two pro-gun measures that, until the Littleton incident, were headed for passage. The bills were considered a barometer of the nation's gun-control climate and were intensely lobbied by the NRA. "In times like this, people don't want to hear about more guns on the street," says Kelly Anders, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the past, she reflects, school shootings were viewed as tragic, but not necessarily as a national epidemic. Now, "it stands to reason that people have stopped thinking that these things are all aberrations," she says. …