The first year of the Trump administration saw some forward movement at the federal level on gun rights issues while state legislatures were a mixed result.
Moving to fill the seat left open on the Supreme Court with the sudden loss of Justice Antonin Scalia, President Trump nominated Judge Neil M. Gorsuch to the high court just two weeks after taking office. Grilled on his stance on gun rights in committee hearings by Democrats who vowed to block his confirmation, in the end, 54 Senators gave the jurist a thumb’s up, including all the chamber’s present Republicans and three Democrats from states where Trump won in last November’s general election — Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Other appointments key to gun issues included Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican who signed orders on his first day of office halting a planned ban on lead ammunition and moving to expand access to public lands. Zinke later moved aggressively to swell the flagging ranks of hunters.
Catapulted into the national spotlight because of their use in the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in Las Vegas in October, bump stock devices quickly became the subject of legislative bans at the federal, state and local level. While at least four federal bills have been filed on Capitol Hill ranging from measures to add bump stocks to National Firearms Act control — in effect regulating them like machine guns — to outright bans. The only measure to make it out of committee, H.R.38, the national concealed carry reciprocity bill, contains language ordering the Department of Justice to examine the use of bump stocks in crime and report to Congress on their findings.
Though lawmakers in at least eight states floated often sweeping prohibitions — that gun rights advocates in some cases characterized as an attempt to ban most semi-auto firearms — only Massachusetts joined the ranks of California and New York in a ban on the devices. In that state, Republican Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito signed a narrow proposal adding definitions of “Bump stock” and “Trigger Crank,” regulating each in turn. The new law allows for penalties to run from 18 months to life in prison for those selling or possessing the devices and does not provide a pathway to legal ownership of the accessories already in circulation.
The move to allow concealed carry on public colleges and universities saw several expansions in 2017. Thought Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a previous version of the bill last year, this year he signed House Bill 280 into law to allow permit holders to carry at “any public technical school, vocational school, college or university or other public institution of post-secondary education,” in the state. Arkansas and Kansas likewise approved measures to invalidate gun free zones in some areas of state-run schools. Further, a measure expanding campus carry to community colleges in Texas went into effect in August.
Meanwhile in California, Gov. Jerry Brown slammed the door on the last narrow allowance for guns on public school campuses. Assembly Bill 424, signed in October, ended the ability for a school district superintendent to give permission to someone to have a firearm on campus. The move was a follow-up to a general ban on campus carry passed by lawmakers in 2015 in the wake of news that at least four school districts in the state were granting limited exemptions.
After electing a Republican governor in New Hampshire, lawmakers in the Granite State were able to get a long-running push for permitless carry signed into law in February. Former Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat and gun control advocate now in the U.S. Senate, repeatedly vetoed similar legislation in years past. North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum followed up by signing a constitutional carry measure in that state in March.
With the implementation of the new law, North Dakota became at least the 12th state to make obtaining a weapon permit optional when carrying a concealed handgun. Vermont has never required a license to carry a concealed handgun and, since 2003, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wyoming have moved to adopt similar laws.
Expanded background checks
A popular talking point with gun control groups, universal background check laws gained little ground in 2017. Though proposed in several states, at the end of the year none picked up a new mandate– though Washington did tweak their 2014 law which has seen few prosecutions and officials in Nevada continued to sideline a measure approved by voters by a razor-thin margin at the polls last November.
Extreme risk protection orders
Based on similar laws in California and Washington, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a measure to bring Extreme Risk Protection Orders to the state in August. The law allows individuals to ask a judge in a civil court to bar the subject of such an order from possessing or buying firearms or ammo for one year and passed the Oregon Legislature without a single Republican voting in favor. A ballot initiative by gun rights advocates and state GOP members failed to garner enough signatures to overturn the move. Similar bills were filed in Massachusetts and New York but failed to gain ground.
Guns and domestic violence
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) in November approved a measure to step up mandatory gun surrenders in cases of protective orders and domestic abuse convictions. The 17-pages of modifications to state law bars gun possession by abusers convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes – including cyberstalking and cyberharassment – and those subject to court-issued protective orders, requiring them to turn their firearms over to police or a licensed gun dealer within 24 hours of conviction or being served with a restraining order.
While lawmakers in states as diverse as Vermont and Louisiana tackled potential expansions to the definition of who must hand over guns in a domestic abuse case, governors in New York and Pennsylvania also weighed in on the issue, urging that mandatory firearm surrenders increase.
Hearing protection act
Eight states– California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island–currently do not allow civilians to own suppressors and that didn’t change in 2017, though a number of bills at the state level attempted to trim the list.
At the federal level, the Hearing Protection Act, a partial deregulation of suppressors, was consistently among the most-viewed bills in Congress. Under its tenets, suppressors would be treated as firearms – which would allow them to be transferred through any regular federal firearms license holders to anyone not prohibited from possessing them after the buyer passes an FBI instant background check. Though a standalone version, H.R.367, picked up 165 sponsors in the House, it ended the year still in committee. However, the language of the bill was folded into the Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement or SHARE Act, which was marked up by the House Committee on Natural Resources in September, though a schedule for a floor vote is murky.
Another most-viewed proposal on the sheaf of bills before Congress, H.R.38, which would sidestep a patchwork of concealed carry reciprocity laws and agreements between states, slid through the House on a Republican-heavy 231-198 roll call earlier this month. Drawing some controversy from the right as it included language to step up reporting of prohibited firearms possessors to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the bill has the broad support of gun industry trade groups and most Second Amendment member organizations while gun control advocates are pledging big bucks to stop it.
The Senate reciprocity bill, S.446, has 39 co-sponsors, all from the GOP, and has been languishing in the chamber’s Committee on the Judiciary since February. Meanwhile, the Senate’s version of FixNics Act, S.2135, has 35 bipartisan cosponsors including both majority leader Mitch McConnell and minority leader Chuck Schumer.
Social Security and guns
In a move hailed by both civil liberties groups and Second Amendment organizations, President Trump in March signed a repeal of a pending Obama-era rule change that would bar some Social Security recipients from possessing firearms. The rule, which never took effect, would have identified certain individuals receiving benefits to be reported to NICS, effectively making them prohibited firearms possessors.