Gun rights activists at a demonstration last March in Austin, Texas (Photo by Erika Rich)

A father and his 2-year-old son at a gun rights demonstration last March in Austin, Texas (Photo by Erika Rich)

After being thwarted in Congress following the 2012 school shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., gun control activists have scored some important victories in states around the country.

One of the biggest wins came in Washington State. In November, voters by a wide margin approved a state ballot measure extending, to gun shows and other private firearms transactions, a requirement for buyer background checks.

But which side has the momentum in the struggle around the nation pitting advocates of tighter controls against supporters of expanded gun rights? That remains a tough call.

With the clash now a state-by-state fight, the dueling camps make competing claims about who has gained ground and who figures to fare better in the years immediately ahead.

Gun control proponents, galvanized by the outcome in Washington State, are hopeful that voter referendums will be an effective new tactic in states that allow ballot measures.

Yet, on balance, November’s elections around the country appear to have shifted power to gun rights-supporting Republicans backed by the National Rifle Association. The change in the political landscape could be a pivotal factor in Texas, the nation’s second biggest state, where lawmakers have filed an array of gun rights measures.

In the hopper are proposals for the open carrying of handguns –including one that would do away with any need for a license. Texas currently is one of only six states that bans the open carrying of handguns. As the Legislative session opened Tuesday, pro-gun rights activists gathered outside the Texas Capitol and, during the rally, one group used a 3D printer to demonstrate how to manufacture a functional gun.

Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins

“I just really question how prudent it is to allow 19-year-olds to carry concealed handguns around. We don’t even let 19-year-olds drink a beer legally.”
— Daniel Webster, gun policy expert at  Johns Hopkins University

“Generally speaking, I don’t have a particularly optimistic view for strong gun laws in the short run,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Webster said proposals to keep firearms away from the mentally ill or perpetrators of domestic violence probably have the best chance. Those issues, he said, sometimes overcome the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans – a division that prevented major action in Congress even after the Newtown massacre that took the lives of 20 children and six adults.

The complicated state of affairs is reflected in the recently released 2014 “scorecard” on state laws by the gun control group the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In a news release, the group cited “unprecedented momentum in the fight for smart gun laws” and said 37 states had passed 99 laws strengthening firearms controls since Newtown. Yet the organization gave 27 states “F” grades for their actions on gun regulation last year, versus 26 in 2013. The top grade awarded, “A-minus,” went to only six states in 2014. (State grades and rankings are available here.)

Still, Allison Anderman, a staff lawyer at the Law Center who worked on the scorecard, said gun control advocates scored wins that will affect more people and have more influence nationally.

“We’re looking at real laws, laws that have real impact,” Anderman said. (Her group, once known as the Legal Community Against Violence, was established after an assault weapon rampage in 1993 that killed eight people at a San Francisco law firm.)

Along with the Washington referendum, Anderman pointed to several reforms in Massachusetts. She also cited California’s adoption of a ground-breaking law that allows family members or police to petition a court to temporarily remove a gun owner’s firearm if there is a risk of danger.

The California law was spurred by the deaths of six university students in a shooting spree near Santa Barbara. The killings were carried out by a disturbed gunman who, despite concerns reported to authorities by his family, was allowed by police to keep his firearms.

Anderman contrasted that legislation with legally dubious provisions passed by states including Kansas and Idaho that challenge the federal government’s authority to regulate guns, calling such legislation mere “posturing.”

Catherine Mortensen

“To say that the states are moving in the direction of more severe guns laws, I don’t know what kind of figures they’re looking at, but that’s certainly not what we’re seeing.”
— Catherine Mortensen, NRA spokeswoman, referring to comments by gun control advocates

But the National Rifle Association fires back that Anderman’s group is off-target. “To say that the states are moving in the direction of more severe guns laws, I don’t know what kind of figures they’re looking at, but that’s certainly not what we’re seeing,” said Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokeswoman.

By the NRA’s count, last year 32 states passed “pro-Second Amendment” legislation that it advocated, versus only four states that curbed gun rights.

Mortensen pointed to a Georgia measure branded by opponents the “guns everywhere” bill as one of the NRA’s biggest victories in 2014. It eases restrictions on bringing guns into bars, government buildings, airports, schools and houses of worship that opt to permit firearms.

Mortensen also cited a new Mississippi law to protect the ability of public housing residents to keep guns, while also blocking counties and municipalities from passing laws gun laws that are more restrictive than state statutes.

Another one of the NRA-backed laws was a broad measure that was adopted by the Missouri legislature over Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto. It cleared the way for more people to openly carry firearms. It also provided for school districts to designate teachers or administrators to serve as “school protection officers” and carry a concealed firearm on campus.

In addition, the Missouri law included a provision lowering the minimum age to obtain a concealed carry permit from 21 to 19.

Mortensen argued – based largely on FBI figures that take into account murders but not gun suicides or accidental gun deaths – that measures pushed by gun control advocates such as the Law Center are ineffective. She said there is no evidence that states with “toughest gun laws are, in fact, keeping people safer.”

The Law Center, relying on more comprehensive fatality figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says there is a correlation between tougher gun laws and lower gun-related death rates.

Webster, the Johns Hopkins University gun policy expert, argues that keeping guns away from potentially dangerous people could save thousands of lives. He said he is especially concerned about NRA-backed measures that allow guns where alcohol is sold and on college campuses. He also criticized the Missouri provision lowering the minimum age for a concealed carry permit to 19.

“That age group gets into a lot of trouble,” he explained.

“I just really question how prudent it is to allow 19-year-olds to carry concealed handguns around. We don’t even let 19-year-olds drink a beer legally.”