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Thursday, April 4, 2013

States Move Beyond Congress on Gun Control

On April 4, 2013, the government of Connecticut passed “a sweeping new set of gun control reforms.” Colorado and New York had already passed their respective versions of “sweeping gun legislation,” all in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut the previous December. 
                                                     At issue: the right to buy this product. vs. public safety.  NBC News
According to the Huffington Post, the new Connecticut law “requires background checks for nearly all private gun sales, and bans the sale of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. It also expands the state’s assault weapons ban to include scores of new gun models.” The likelihood of all three of these planks being passed by Congress were nil at the time. Why was there such a difference?
In signing Connecticut’s legislation, Governor Dannel Malloy (D) remarked, “Our leaders in Washington are so divided.” At the time, it was indeed easy to see the extent of division even on whether to expand background checks to cover private sales at gun shows. Even that proposal was being subjected to a filibuster threat in the U.S. Senate. Less obvious was the differential impact of the American system of federalism on the Federal Government and the governments of the member-states. The way the American governments, both state and federal, were tackling gun-control legislation would not have surprised the American Founding Fathers, given the federal design they gave to the system of public governance in the United States. In other words, partisan division is actually not the primary explanation of why three state governments had passed laws while the Congress had not.
Unlike Connecticut, the United States as a group are diverse culturally and in terms of political ideology. The breadth of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is just one of the points impacted by the differences. Additionally, the empire scale of the U.S. also means that an event which impacts one republic a lot may have little emotional manifestations in another state. In the wake of the school massacre in Connecticut, the people there were obviously more willing to give up more kinds of guns and magazines than were the citizens of Arizona, for example. For one thing, few if any people in Connecticut are afraid of being attacked by Mexicans illegally crossing the border to run or sell drugs. The contexts within an empire differ markedly. So it should be no surprised that some state legislatures had passed expansive gun-control legislation while other states were actually reducing gun control.
The different contexts from state to state make reaching a consensus in Congress more difficult than in a state legislature. This was not a problem to the Founders, for they wanted most of the domestic laws passed at the state level. The Federal Government was not designed to be “activist” in terms of legislation. For one thing, the domains for Federal law were mostly traditional imperial functions like regulating commerce between the republics and providing a common defense. As Congressional domains of legislation have widened, the difficulty in reaching a consensus across a continent and beyond have taken more and more of a toll.
Additionally, the filibuster in the U.S. Senate—60 votes being needed to move on—can be interpreted as a manifestation of the enumerated and residual sovereignty held by the American member-states within the larger federal system. Whereas a state government need not concern itself with county governments getting in the way, the state governments have an autonomous basis on which to obstruct legislation from being enacted at the federal level. The states can use the filibuster for this purpose, even though the legislative device had devolved in practice to become a mere partisan destructive legislative tactic. Even so, relative to the state governments, it is no accident that the U.S. Government has a design that is less oriented to legislative activism. It is thus not only partisan division in Washington that explains why we should look for anything beyond a minimal standard at the state level. Given the diversity from state to state, this is not necessarily a bad thing.



Christina Wilkie, “Connecticut Gun Bill Signed Into Law By Gov. Dannel Malloy,” The Huffington Post, April 4, 2013.

Matthew DeLuca, “Connecticut Governor Signs Comprehensive Gun Control Legislation,” NBC News, April 4, 2013.