US gun control advocates see hopeful signs in 2018

Charlotte PLANTIVE
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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez (C) at the 2018 "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington

Gun deaths have been on the rise in the United States but supporters of tighter firearms laws say 2018 may mark a turning point.

Several state legislatures strengthened gun laws during the past year including Florida, which has seen a spate of mass shootings.

And while gun control advocates say much more remains to be done, they are heartened by the election in November of members of Congress and governors who back stricter gun laws.

Shannon Watts, founder of "Moms Demand Action," pointed to the progress made in 2018, in an opinion piece in The Huffington Post titled "2018 Was The Year We Turned The Tide On Ending Gun Violence."

Watts said the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 14 students and three staff members dead was the defining moment.

"Millions of Americans took to the streets, marching for gun safety, following the lead of teens who would no longer allow lawmakers to turn a blind eye to gun violence," she said.

The Giffords organization, named for Gabby Giffords, an Arizona congresswoman critically wounded in a January 2011 mass shooting, also said 2018 gave rise to optimism that America's gun laws could be changed.

"2018 made one thing clear: Americans are ready to address gun safety and reject the gun lobby's dangerous agenda," it said in a statement.

The Giffords Law Center said the gun lobby "passed far fewer significant pieces of legislation and suffered more losses in 2018 than in previous years."

According to the Giffords Law Center, legislators in 26 states and the nation's capital, Washington, passed 67 new gun safety laws this year.

In seven states, background checks for gun buyers were added or existing laws strengthened. Four states raised the minimum age to purchase firearms.

- Ban on bump stocks -

Eleven states passed laws intended to prevent domestic abusers from obtaining guns while eight states and Washington made it easier to restrict access to firearms to "at-risk individuals."

At the same time, however, the Giffords Law Center noted that several states enacted laws backed by the gun lobby.

These included allowing firearms in private schools in South Dakota and houses of worship in Wyoming.

There was also little progress at the federal level aside from a December ban on "bump stocks" -- devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns.

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock added bump stocks to some of the guns he used to kill 58 people and wound 500 at an open concert last year, the deadliest mass shooting in recent US history.

Owning a gun is seen by many Americans as a fundamental right enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution and there are more than 300 million firearms in the United States.

A Pew Research Center survey done this year found that 57 percent of Americans support stricter gun laws, up from 52 percent a year earlier.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 39,773 gun deaths in the United States in 2017, up from 38,658 in 2016 and 36,252 in 2015.

Sixty percent of the gun deaths in 2017 were suicides.

About a month after the Parkland shooting, more than a million Americans took to the streets nationwide for emotional "March For Our Lives" rallies demanding tighter gun control.

Florida -- known as "The Sunshine State" but nicknamed "Gunshine" because of its lax gun laws -- was moved to tighten controls.

- NRA spending down -

Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott signed a bill in March raising the minimum age for firearms sales from 18 to 21 and imposing a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases.

In signing the legislation, Scott, who won a US Senate seat in November, defied the National Rifle Association (NRA), which had previously given him an "A+" rating.

The powerful gun lobby has doled out millions of dollars over the years to candidates who support its agenda but this November -- for the first time -- gun control groups outspent the NRA.

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of "Everytown for Gun Safety," opened his purse strings and 83 percent of the 66 candidates he supported were victorious.

Among the winners was Lucy McBath, a Democrat who defeated a Republican incumbent to win election to the House of Representatives from Georgia.

McBath's 17-year-old son, Jordon Davis, was gunned down at a gas station in November 2012.

She will be among the newcomers taking up seats on January 3 in the Democrat-controlled House, where incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised to introduce gun control laws within the first 100 days.

"The new Democratic majority will act boldly and decisively to pass commonsense, life-saving background checks that are overwhelmingly supported by the American people," Pelosi said.