Gun legislation is back in the spotlight after the shooting in Tucson that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six. Long before the rampage hit the headlines, several states had been moving to broaden gun rights, arguing the way to ensure safer streets is to allow citizens to protect themselves.
New Hampshire, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Montana are all weighing new laws that would ease restrictions on carrying weapons — be it in schools or at the state capitol. A closer look at where these moves are happening through the lens of Patchwork Nation shows that most of the areas taking these steps are all places experiencing rapid demographic and political swings.
The Right to Bear Hidden Arms
Last week, Wyoming took a step toward allowing residents to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. The state senate voted 21-8 to back the bill and it appears headed for approval. That would make Wyoming the fourth state to not require permits, joining Alaska, Arizona and Vermont.
In Montana, a state senator has proposed allowing legislators to carry concealed weapons inside the state capitol. Republican Verdell Jackson says his office has been inundated with calls of support of his proposal.
“I think what happened (in Arizona) is exactly what could happen right here,” Jackson said.
Jackson hails from Flathead County in Northwestern Montana that, according to a Patchwork Nation analysis, boasts nearly 18 gun shops and dealers per 1,000 people.
These two Mountain West states are just the latest to move to expand gun rights. Utah is working to adopt the same kind of law Wyoming is considering. In New Hampshire, where Republicans swept to power in the House of Representatives, legislators have already voted to allow concealed weapons in the statehouse.
Finally, in response to the shooting of an assistant principal last month, Nebraska is considering a bill to allow teachers and school employees to carry a weapon while on school grounds.
Shifting Politics of Guns
It is hard to easily see many similarities among the places expanding gun rights. Montana, Utah and Wyoming, with their long histories of individualism and hunting may not surprise. But how, if at all, are they similar to Nebraska and New Hampshire?
One part of the explanation is the Republican tidal wave of 2010. Although much has been made of the capture of the U.S. House, Republicans captured the largest number of state legislative seats since 1928.
“Overwhelming victories by Republicans in November’s state-level elections have increased the chances of such bills passing, and many lawmakers believe the right legislative response to fatal shootings like the one in Tucson is to expand, not limit, gun rights,” John Gramlich wrote on Stateline.org last week.
But in looking at the kinds of places that have moved to expand where and when people can carry weapons, there are some similarities in our Patchwork Nation analysis.
In examining the congressional district types that make up these states, we can see certain trends that may make sense. Wyoming, Montana and most of Utah are composed of either Young Exurb or Shifting Middle districts. In both of these types, the areas have seen growing populations where medium-sized towns and outer suburbs abut more rural areas.
New Hampshire and Nebraska also are made up of these buffer areas, where more traditionally liberal districts reach into more rural and conservative areas. In all of these states, voting patterns are in flux. Last year, Wyoming voted in a Republican governor after eight years of Democratic rule, and Republicans in Montana took solid control of both houses of the legislature.
But also in New Hampshire, the state Republicans have become more activist. This past weekend the party selected a relative newcomer to head the influential state party, a Tea Party activist and former gubernatorial candidate, Jack Kimball.
Calls for Gun Control
Some sections of Patchwork Nation have reacted to the shootings in Arizona by renewing calls for gun control, but many of these voices come from hardcore Democratic districts. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is calling for support for a bill introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., to ban large-capacity clips for handguns. McCarthy came to public fame following the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shootings where her husband was killed and her son was gravely injured.
The Brady Campaign has stressed the speed with which the gunman was able to fire on Giffords and others at her meeting two weeks ago.
“The Tucson shooter was able to fire 31 shots in rapid succession with one magazine, hitting 19 people in a matter of seconds,” Paul Helmke wrote in a recent letter urging people to contact their member of Congress.
But the chances of McCarthy’s bill passing are considered slim-to-none, so whether there is any actual legislative fallout from the Arizona shooting remains to be seen.
Patchwork Nation contributor Lee Banville is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Montana and the former editor of the Online NewsHour.