Mike DeWine knows he’s in for a challenge.
The Ohio governor, a Republican trying to push gun control proposals through a legislature where the GOP holds supermajorities in both chambers, saw his predecessor, John Kasich, try the same thing without success.
“No one said this is going to be particularly easy,” DeWine said in a phone interview.
As the deaths mount from high-profile mass shootings, like those last month in Texas and Ohio, the public is pressuring elected officials across the country to act. Proposals to tighten easy access to guns in the U.S. are popular, and gun control advocates say it’s a factor that separates the U.S. from other developed countries that see far fewer gun deaths per year. National polls consistently show 60 percent or more of respondents favor stricter laws.
Some state governments are adopting a new tool: so-called red flag laws, which allow law enforcement or a family to petition to confiscate an individual’s guns. These efforts coincide with work in Congress, where the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday began to consider several gun measures including one to establish a federal red flag law.
At the time of the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, only five states had such laws. Since then, 12 states and the District of Columbia have enacted them.
But in many other places, the interests that have thwarted gun control efforts for years remain strong. And while the issue is not strictly partisan, opponents of new gun limits hold particular sway among Republicans.
“It’s certainly encouraging that Gov. DeWine has endorsed policies, that there [are Republicans] signed on to co-sponsor the background checks law,” said William Rosen, managing director of state policy and government affairs at Everytown for Gun Safety, the advocacy group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “These are still going to be big fights.”
Gun rights activists consider red flag proposals, a version of which is the centerpiece to DeWine’s 17-point plan, problematic for several reasons, including the potential for misuse. A disgruntled family member could report a non-threatening gun owner in an effort to harass, they say, and they argue the policies lack due process provisions to ensure rights are protected.
“Our organization 100 percent opposes red flag laws because of the due process problem,” said Dean Rieck, executive director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, a gun rights group that endorsed DeWine and gave him an ‘A’ rating in 2018.
Proposals to expand background checks also run afoul of gun rights groups, who often see them as impeding Second Amendment rights without meaningfully improving safety because some current checks sometimes allow a person to pass who shouldn’t. Gun rights groups have supported improving the current system rather than adding laws.
Red flag laws and expanded background checks are among the top policy priorities for gun control advocates. Rosen said the current background check system has been effective, stopping more than 3 million sales, but can be improved. Red flag laws create another tool for removing guns from the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, he said.
This is the balancing act DeWine sees. “How do you protect the Second Amendment, but at the same time protect the public?” he said.
No tidal wave
Most Americans support additional gun control policies. An APM Research Lab/Guns & America/Call To Mind poll conducted last month found 70 percent of respondents favored red flag laws that would give police the power to initiate a removal order. That number went up when the question asked about a family-initiated order. Gun owners and Republicans also favored the idea at 60 and 67 percent, respectively.
Research is unclear if mass shootings are becoming more common, but they are more often in the news. They’re also seemingly deadlier. A gunman killed 50 at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub in June 2016, making it the deadliest such event in national history at the time. That distinction lasted until the following October, when a shooter at a Las Vegas concert killed 59.
The violence has inspired political activism and some changes.
The 2018 Parkland shooting, where a gunman with a history of displaying warning signs killed 14 high schoolers and three staff members, was something of a turning point for red flag laws. Then-Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow Republican leaders enacted such a law afterward.
“Sometimes it takes a tragedy … to loosen the gun lobby’s grip,” Rosen said.
In addition to Scott, Republican governors signed four of the 11 other red flag laws that have passed since Parkland, a fact gun control advocates promote to show their cause is bipartisan.
But other than Florida, those cases all involved traditionally blue states — Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont — where Democrats controlled the legislatures and moderate GOP governors were running for reelection.
Recently, New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed bills to expand background checks and create a red flag law. GOP legislative leaders in North Carolina and Wisconsin ignored or rejected calls from their Democratic governors to take up similar measures.
Peggy Lehner, a Republican state senator from the Dayton, Ohio, area who supports red flag laws and expanded background checks, called DeWine’s push “encouraging,” but said shootings haven’t otherwise had a huge effect on members of her party.
“I certainly don’t see a tidal wave of change,” she said.
As anti-gun Republicans remain the exception at the state level, they continue to seek solutions that don’t restrict gun access. They’ve called to increase funding for school security and mental health care, for example.
Turmoil in Texas
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, dealing with the aftermath of the racially motivated shooting that claimed 22 lives in El Paso last month, is following a similar course to one he charted after a shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, last year.
Abbott, a Republican, comfortably won election in 2014 and reelection last year running as a friend to pro-gun interests.
At the National Rifle Association’s Institute of Legislative Affairs leadership forum in 2018, Abbott told the group that “the answer to gun violence … is to strengthen Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens.”
But he followed that with a line that guns should be taken “out of the hands of those mentally unfit to have” them. More recently, he listed improving enforcement of existing laws on background checks and emergency protective orders that take guns away from people convicted of domestic assault.
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Ed Scruggs, vice chairman of the board of Texas Gun Sense, a group that pushes for stronger gun regulations, said Abbott’s approach isn’t enough, but has been a positive step.
Abbott included Scruggs in a roundtable comprising elected Republicans and Democrats, police and advocates on both sides of the issue. The group’s first meeting was scheduled for two hours but went four. It was in a post-meeting news conference that Abbott raised the issue of better enforcing background checks and protective orders.
“There were several strategies that were put on the table that we will continue to talk about,” Abbott said.
The roundtable was modeled on those Abbott convened after the Santa Fe shooting, which Scruggs said was a breakthrough in a state where gun rights are a powerful issue for Republican primary voters and officials have traditionally been hesitant to even consider additional regulations. After the 2018 meetings focused on school safety, this round has been about gun violence and mass shootings more generally, he said.
“You wouldn’t call it action-oriented,” Scruggs said of Abbott’s approach. “I wouldn’t say it was a politically bold step. But it was a step to take, and I would say the talks were serious.”
Rough road ahead in Ohio
DeWine’s red flag proposal, he believes, allays concerns over due process because it would require a court hearing and a judge’s order before a gun can be seized.
At a follow-up hearing 12 days after an order, prosecutors would have to show “clear and convincing” evidence the gun owner is a threat for the order to be sustained.
The governor hopes such provisions are enough to win over gun rights advocates, though Luke Entelis, counsel for Everytown, said such provisions are standard in such laws.
DeWine’s 17-point proposal — of which the red flag and background check plans are only two — includes increasing penalties for gun violations, increased funding for behavioral health services and school safety programs, all measures that could win over conservatives.
DeWine has involved gun advocates, whom he calls “our Second Amendment friends,” in the process. There’s little indication many will back the package.
Rieck said his group opposes red flag laws and expanded background checks.
“The problem with the way all red flag laws to date have been structured is property is seized first and then the legal process happens afterward,” he said. “This is the sort of thing that can be abused.”
Only two Ohio Senate Republicans, Lehner and suburban Columbus’ Stephanie Kunze, have signed on to co-sponsor any gun control bills.
Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder said there were “quite a few” issues with the governor’s proposal and appeared to tamp down expectations by saying it would be “very, very difficult” to pass, according to local reports.
DeWine has won points from Rieck’s group for seeking to address their concerns. Senate President Larry Obhof, a Republican, hasn’t taken a position on the proposal but has said that DeWine’s approach helped alleviate due process concerns that were in “past proposals.”
But Lehner said her GOP colleagues remain beholden to the NRA and other gun groups’ advocacy campaigns. The state senator, who is term-limited from running for election, said DeWine’s proposals could face a similar end as Kasich’s, which she also supported.
“They didn’t get done for the very same reasons that this may not get done: The NRA is a very powerful lobbying group,” she said.
“I suspect that most of those folks who are not supporting this legislation would not say that it’s their NRA scorecard that they’re concerned about,” she said.
“But I believe it is. That’s an extremely powerful weapon.”