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After Shooting Tragedies, States React With Legislation



It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Each recent mass shooting in this country has provoked an outpouring of sorrow - and cash: Sandy Hook Promise, the Aurora Victim Relief Fund, now the Navy Yard Relief Fund. What the shootings has not produced is a consensus about how to prevent future tragedies. Congress has been unable to pass gun safety laws for almost two decades.

But the states have become laboratories for gun measures. Here's NPR's Ted Robbins.

STEVE NAGLE: We all have little bits of these different disorders kind of on and off. So...

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Steve Nagle is telling 18 people how to spot a co-worker in mental distress.

NAGLE: So I work with Steve, and I notice over the course of four or five weeks, he's starting to shut his door a lot. He's coming to work late. OK. He's not eating lunch with anybody...

ROBBINS: This Mental Health First Aid Training, at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Tucson, is one of dozens being funded for the first time this year by the state of Arizona. Steve Nagle calls it the mental equivalent of CPR.

NAGLE: Our goal is that on the other side of this class, you will notice people in distress more readily, and you will have the confidence and the skills and the gumption - if you will - to maybe approach a few more people on the other side of this class than you might have yesterday.

ROBBINS: The classes began filling in 2011, after Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded 19 at Gabby Giffords' Congress on Your Corner event. Loughner had shown symptoms of schizophrenia before the attack.

Whether in Tucson, Aurora or Washington, D.C., people want government to help prevent future attacks. Congress hasn't acted, but more than a thousand gun-related bills were introduced this year in state legislatures. Hundreds more than last year were gun safety bills, says Laura Cutilletta. Cutilletta is an attorney with the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. She says the increase came after the Newtown tragedy late last year struck people so hard.

LAURA CUTILLETTA: Because it was children, and it was in a school and, you know, it was the most innocent of innocents.

ROBBINS: She says the most popular laws - the ones that passed - combined mental health and gun restrictions.

CUTILLETTA: There were 15 states that enacted laws that would either strengthen prohibitions against purchasing firearms by the seriously mentally ill, or laws that would require reporting of mental health records to the FBI for background checks or removing firearms from unstable individuals.

ROBBINS: Some states also enacted stricter gun control laws this year without involving mental health. Five passed laws requiring background checks for firearms bought privately at gun shows; four passed laws requiring owners to report lost or stolen weapons to police. Three states strengthened assault weapons bans, and four outlawed large capacity magazines.

Gun rights activists also have some success in state legislatures this year. Their biggest victory came this month when voters recalled two Democratic state legislators in Colorado who supported tighter background checks.

TODD RATHNER: Every single politician in the country watched that recall and saw those results and essentially, it reaffirmed that the NRA speaks for a majority of the people even in strongly Democrat districts.

ROBBINS: Todd Rathner is a member of the NRA's board of directors. He lives in Tucson. Rathner opposes restrictions on gun ownership and use, but he does support keeping guns away from the seriously mentally ill. His problem is with who decides someone has a serious mental illness.

RATHNER: We know there are anti-gun doctors. I mean, are we going to have doctors that are going to say that, you know, some huge bunch of their patients shouldn't have guns because they're taking an antidepressant?

ROBBINS: There's no easy answer, Rathner says. But what answers there are will likely keep coming from states. That may result in a patchwork of laws, and less consistent record-keeping. But that's what happens when Congress is unable to pass legislation on the national level.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.

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