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States Enter the Post-Newtown Debate

One month after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, legislative efforts to combat gun violence are starting to advance swiftly in some states — even as lawmakers in others are reacting to shifting public opinion on guns by seeking to make enforcement of federal laws a felony and mandate more firearms in schools.

Hours before President Obama announced his support for a series of executive actions and legislative proposals that together amount to the most sweeping national gun violence prevention effort in decades, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the “NY SAFE Act.” The legislation in New York — which was introduced, debated, and passed by legislators in a matter of hours — includes further restrictions on the sale of assault weapons and ammunition, increased background checks, a requirement for mental health professionals to report credible violent threats by patients, and increased penalties for some offenses.

In Connecticut itself, lawmakers are taking a more deliberate approach. A bipartisan legislative gun task force held its first meeting this week, looking to come to agreement on a legislative package that would deal with gun violence prevention, school safety, and mental health by the end of February. Incoming Speaker of the House State Rep. Brendan Sharkey defended his state’s approach, telling a reporter that “taking quick action is important, but taking smart action is even more important.”

Other states looking to advance gun violence prevention laws early in new legislative sessions include California, Illinois, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, as well and two other states that recently saw mass shootings, Oregon and Colorado.

But as the New York Times noted in an editorial this week, other states have responded to the national debate over gun violence sparked by Newtown by proposing patently unconstitutional bills that would attempt to make the enforcement of federal gun laws a crime, or otherwise seek to nullify federal laws. In Missouri, State Rep. Stephen Webber had a succinct reaction to the nullification bill introduced in his state this week: “This is nuts.” In their editorial, the Times had a more measured but no less forceful take, noting that “too many states continue to put their citizens at risk as they pledge ever-greater fealty to the gun manufacturers. It’s time the states became laboratories for safety rather than violence."

In addition to nullification bills, states are also seeing a rash of legislation introduced that would alloow or in some cases mandate more guns in schools, echoing the NRA’s post-Newtown arguments. South Dakota lawmakers filed legislation that would allow firearms in schools this week, while in Virginia, a bill sponsored by State Del. Bob Marshall that would require arming school employees and teachers was debated in committee. Making sure schools remain safe places to learn with these types of proposals being seriously considered will clearly be a priority for  supporters of common-sense gun laws in many states. Instead of these proposals to put more guns in schools, lawmakers should advocate for strengthening emergency response plans and providing more support for teachers and volunteers.

Both USA Today and The Guardian published useful 50-state surveys of gun laws this week. As the national debate over gun violence prevention contniues to evolve, it is clear many states will also be reconsidering their own laws this year.