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HS Shootings Spur Few New Gun Laws

July 15, 1999

Three months after the bloodbath at Columbine High led state legislators around the country to demand tighter gun laws, little has actually changed.

Only a few states _ most notably, California _ put more controls on guns. Most states did nothing. Some even loosened gun restrictions.

Any shift toward gun control has been ``the smallest of waves, barely noticeable on the legislative shore,″ said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia. ``Compared to the coverage that would have suggested a tidal wave, it’s been a tiny ripple.″

Guns already filled legislative agendas before the massacre in Littleton, Colo., in which two students hurled explosives and blasted away with four guns, killing 13 people and themselves. After Columbine, statehouses paid even more attention to bills on school safety, concealed weapons, safe gun storage and lawsuits against the gun industry.

Some states did take action:

_ California. The Legislature restricted gun purchases to one a month. It also tightened a 10-year-old ban on assault weapons by closing a loophole that enabled manufacturers to get around the law by renaming their weapons. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis plans to sign both on Monday.

_ Illinois. Now gun owners must lock weapons away from anyone under 14, and school officials must alert police if students bring firearms to school. Penalties for crimes committed with guns are also stiffer.

In some cases, Columbine has simply silenced gun debate.

In Colorado, lawmakers withdrew proposals that would have made it easier to get permits for concealed weapons and would have outlawed ``straw purchases″ in which a person buys a gun for someone else.

Tennessee legislators set aside bills that would have let college faculty members arm themselves on campus, dropped background checks for those who already hold permits for concealed weapons, and allowed handguns on school grounds, in parks and where alcohol is sold.

Tennessee state Rep. Ben West Jr. pulled the gun measures that he sponsored _ out of respect, he said, for colleagues and the tragedy in Colorado.

Some states took actions favoring gun rights.

Nevada decided to allow concealed weapons in public buildings, though not in schools or airports. Louisiana restricted product-liability lawsuits against gunmakers. Maine rejected a bill requiring parents to lock guns from children under 16. In Texas, lawmakers killed a bill requiring background checks for guns purchased at gun shows. And Gov. George W. Bush signed a law barring Texas cities from suing gunmakers.

A week after Columbine, an Associated Press poll found 51 percent of those surveyed saw tougher gun laws as more effective than tightened enforcement. That was up 9 points from a poll taken pre-Columbine.

The Littleton shootings also increased voter scrutiny of lawmakers, said Joe Sudbay, director of state legislation at Handgun Control Inc. in Washington.

``You’ve got a lot of mothers and fathers afraid to send their kids to school these days, and they want action from their legislators,″ he said.

But stalemate has been the most common result.

In Utah, Gov. Mike Leavitt and the House speaker were unable to agree on a school gun ban. They may let voters decide by referendum.

In Michigan, lawmakers sidestepped a vote on overhauling a concealed-weapons law and recessed for the summer. ``The legislation is certainly sufficiently controversial and sufficiently misunderstood that it should be put off,″ Gov. John Engler said.

In New Jersey, the Senate passed a bill requiring sensors on new handguns that would allow only the owner to fire them. But that proposal could become law only if two manufacturers produce such ``smart″ guns _ and only if it gets approval from an Assembly up for re-election.

Overall, statehouses resemble Congress, where a gun package died last month despite lots of talk about control.

``States, like the Congress, have to respond very quickly to take advantage of an issue created by an event,″ said the University of Virginia’s Sabato. ``If they don’t act quickly, the odds are nothing will happen.″

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