All politics is local, and if there’s one issue area that brings this home, it’s guns. Yes, we have seen President Obama and several congressional leaders pledge to move forward with tighter gun control while the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its statement today will pledge to advocate for the rights of gun owners. But most of the real action, when it comes to guns and firearm violence, takes place in our state capitals and in some instances our city councils.
Our elected leaders in Washington D.C. may be able to push or halt an assault weapons ban and/or limits to ammunition. Such federal level legislation would be consequential for all Americans. However, the real devil is in the details when it comes to gun control. And that devil deals with how federal level gun laws are enforced.
Let’s just suppose that the assault weapons ban is passed. The scope of American gun rights is still vast, at least in comparison to the rest of the world, and how those rights are regulated on a day-to-day basis are decided in Austin, Tallahassee, and our 48 other state capitals.
To start to get a sense for the vast variety in gun laws take a quick look at the Brady Campaign and the NRA state profiles. The Brady Campaign, the foremost gun control advocate, has a 43-point checklist for determining a state’s gun control score. From being able to carry a concealed weapon without a permit or background check (Arizona) to having to secure a paid license, background check, and go through a waiting period (California), there are over forty dimensions related to gun control that are completely local.
One of the principal differences among states is how they codify gun rights to begin with. Most states explicitly mention the right to bear arms in their constitution but about half a dozen states do not. With some exceptions, the states that do not grant the right to bear arms in their constitution tend to be more stringent in their control of arms.
Beyond the ideological view on guns that a state constitution puts forward the second difference across states is the scope of local preemption. Put simply, each state can determine how each of its localities can further regulate firearms. The states that tend to have more permissive gun laws, such as Texas and Florida, are also the states that preempt any attempt at localities to implement further regulation. For example, the Texas statutes states:
“A municipality may not adopt regulations relating to the transfer, private ownership, keeping, transportation, licensing, or registration of firearms, ammunition, or firearm supplies.”
At the other extreme are more stringent gun control states such as Illinois and New York that do not include a preemption statute. As a result, individual cities and counties can seek to further regulate firearms, such as the case of Chicago that has one of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation. The exception that confirms the rule, however, is California. The preemption scope in the Golden state is as explicit as in gun friendly states, but with the opposite intention. The California state legislature in an effort to prevent the possibility that a locality may put forward a more permissive firearms statute made sure to preempt any devolution of firearms regulation.
The third dimension that states vary upon is concealed carry weapons (CCW) reciprocity. I may have a CCW permit from my home state of Oklahoma but if I want to go visit my cousin in Oregon I’ve got to leave my at gun home since Oregon does not recognize any other state’s CCW. However on the flip side, a person from any state can carry their concealed weapon in Oklahoma, even if you’re from a state like Alaska that does not require any CCW certification or licensing.
Finally, states vary in a myriad of laws that indirectly regulate guns. The recent Trayvon Martin shooting highlighted the issue of the “stand your ground” laws that allow a person to use deadly force to protect themselves without first having to attempt to retreat. This law is in place in close to half of our states and though it does not deal directly with guns it relates to the effects that can result from the use of a firearm.
Then there are laws such as the Gun Gag Rule on Doctors that Florida signed into law in 2011. Under this law, it was illegal for doctors to ask about guns in the homes of their patients. The law has since been overturned by the courts, but this law just goes to show how far-reaching and diverse state legislation can be.
We are a nation that was founded on the on the right to bear arms. At the same time we were a nation founded on the principal of state’s rights. Together, both of these guiding principles make for a complex set of laws governing the use of firearms. For better or for worse, whatever comes out of Capital Hill in the next few months will be only one of many factors that will shape the gun rights/gun control issue.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.