The subject of gun control was inescapable at this weekend’s National Governors Association meeting in Washington, DC.
And unlike the lack of gun reform action in a slow-moving US Congress, America’s governors in both parties were talking about taking swift action in their individual states to try to keep guns out of the hands of violent or mentally ill people.
Of the Republican governors talking about the issue of gun control at the NGA conference, there was a noticeable willingness to go beyond vague promises, and talk solutions. A number of Republican governors talked about raising the age limit to buy semi-automatic weapons, ban bump stocks, and in some cases, even confiscating the weapons of people who were a clear danger to themselves or the community.
“This event in Las Vegas has changed everything for me,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV). Sandoval is governor of the state that saw America’s worst mass shooting to date, with 58 people dead and another 851 injured when a gunman fired rapidly on a crowd of concert-goers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in October.
“Having met with the families, having met with the victims, having seen myself what had happened there, it’s affected me deeply,” Sandoval said. “The vice president yesterday said we’re going to have a conversation on Monday with regard to firearms. I think it’s long past due, and it’s one that I’m going to engage in personally.”
Another Republican, Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, was moved to make change after finding out about a recently averted mass shooting in his home state. Even with its liberal reputation, Vermont has lax gun laws, which Scott and state Democrats are now proposing to tighten.
“I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who has mental issues to use a gun,” Scott, who previously had a strong NRA [National Rifle Association] rating, told reporters. “I want to make it virtually impossible for anyone who is a danger to themselves or others to use a gun.”
“I thought, ‘I have to do whatever I can to protect Vermont. I have a huge responsibility in terms of creating a safe environment,’” Scott told Vox. “And I have asked myself, ‘Am I doing that?’”
Meanwhile, Democratic governors at this weekend’s convention were incensed at the lack of action on the federal level. Four governors from northeast states including Govs. Gina Raimondo (D-RI), Dan Malloy (D-CT), Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), and Phil Murphy (D-NJ) recently announced a new regional collaboration to track the guns coming across each other’s state lines and direct universities to study the problem of gun violence.
“We decided we’re not going to wait for the federal government to act,” Raimondo told Vox. “We said, if we came together as a regional coalition, we could move the needle in our region.”
But Raimondo and other governors said that while their states can pass individual legislation, there also must be swift federal action, including a universal background check program that covers all 50 states.
I talked to five governors from both parties this weekend on the events that motivated them on gun reform, and what their states are doing on the issue.
The following conversations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV): “I’m a father of a daughter that’s studying to be a teacher. [Trump’s proposal to arm teachers] wouldn’t be something that I’d want for my daughter.”
What can be done to prevent future mass shootings?
We’re working on that, we’re studying that. That [the Las Vegas shooting] was a horrible, horrible tragedy. I was there the next day. I chair a homeland security commission to study what we could do better. We’re working with the properties to ensure that there’s adequate security. Obviously, this was an event that’s the first of its kind. So you have to diagnose that and see what we can do better in the future.
What do you think of some of these proposals, especially from President Trump to raise the gun age and have stronger background checks?
That’s obviously a topic of discussion. In my state, I signed legislation that requires the mandatory reporting of somebody that has been adjudicated mentally ill, anybody that’s been adjudicated for domestic violence. Individuals with those types of convictions or adjudications aren’t eligible to buy firearms. This is a discussion that has to happen.
This event in Las Vegas has changed everything for me. Having met with the families, having met with the victims, having seen myself what had happened there, it’s affected me deeply. The vice president yesterday said we’re going to have a conversation on Monday with regard to firearms. I think it’s long past due, and it’s one that I’m going to engage in personally.
Do you think we’ve reached that point? It seems like after every shooting there’s talk about doing something but we never really see anything done. Are we now at that point?
I hope so. I definitely hope so, after — again — somebody who’s witnessed the damage that this does personally to families and individuals and our communities. My daughter’s own school had a rumor of something, and half the student body was absent the next day. So we need to have a national conversation with regard to our gun laws, and I think it starts, hopefully, Monday.
Sir, you talked about how the shooting in your state affected you personally. Is that a story you’re going to tell the president?
Of course. And I’ve already told the president. The president was there two days later, in the state of Nevada. I thanked him for that and thank him now. He came out and talked with a lot of the victims, he spoke with law enforcement out there. He visited the hospital and visited some of the victims, that was incredibly meaningful. The first sentence of his statement mentioned Las Vegas specifically, with regard to the bump stocks.
Something that I 100 percent support him on is the elimination of bump stocks. That’s the beginning of the conversation, and I think we’ll continue talking about it.
Governor, what else on the federal level do you want Congress or the president to do on gun control?
Again, we’re having the start of this conversation. Single points of entry in the schools, perhaps enhancing security at the schools for the safety of the students. There’s a lot of different things that we need to talk about. What we’ve done in Nevada in regard to those that are adjudicated mentally ill, those that have been adjudicated guilty of domestic violence, that could be a national model.
What do you think of the president’s idea to arm teachers?
That’s something I think we have to have more discussion on. At first blush, I don’t know if that’s a very good idea. You want to ensure that somebody carrying a firearm is trained to do so. I’m a father of a daughter that’s studying to be a teacher. Wouldn’t be something that I’d want for my daughter.
But that’s the beginning of a discussion. I think what that really means is how do we secure our schools and make sure our students are safe.
Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT): “I quickly understood that we weren’t insulated, and this could happen to us”
You recently learned about an averted school shooting in your state of Vermont. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Sure. Almost simultaneous to the horrific incident in Florida was a situation in Vermont that was eerily similar. If it were not for one brave young woman coming forward and the grace of God, we would have had the same incident in Vermont, in my opinion.
If you haven’t had the chance to read the affidavit ... it’s worthwhile. It’s both fascinating and frightening at the same time. I have been a hunter my whole life, I own guns myself, and I have said publicly, repeatedly, we’re the safest state in the union. And I believe we still are, but I thought we were insulated from an incident like this. But after reading this affidavit, I quickly understood that we weren’t insulated, and this could happen to us.
It wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of what day. It was planned out over a long period of time. Again, similar circumstances. An 18-year-old, who had gone to the high school before, had been removed from the school for about a year, but came back and had planned this out.
He had a journal, I believe it was something titled, “Diary of an Active Shooter.” He went into detail, he had it all there. And even during the interview — again, chilling in some respects — he said, ‘It may not happen today, or next week, or next month, or next year, but it’s going to happen.’
Can you describe for me how that changed your thinking on the state’s gun laws?
Well, again, in reflection of what I was seeing in real-time in Florida, and considering what the victims, the families, the friends, students, teachers, administrators, everyone was going through — I thought, “I have to do whatever I can to protect Vermont. I have a huge responsibility in terms of creating a safe environment.” And I have asked myself, “Am I doing that?”
So, I worked with my staff in a short period of time, because I wanted to both look at different perspectives, immediate steps we could take, maybe some a little bit longer, but what could we do to protect our kids right now — today.
First of all, I directed the state police to do an assessment over the next few weeks of all the schools and see if there’s anything we can do immediately to help them. I’ve asked for $5 million working with the legislature to provide for security upgrades or resource officers, locks ... whatever they think they need, have a quick process to get the money to them immediately so they can perform the upgrades.
I asked the legislature to consider a shield law so that if someone does come forward, that they’d be protected in some way, so that they would not fear retribution, that they can come forward with this information. Banning bump stocks, codifying that, and raising the age of buying a firearm from 18 to 21, with a couple of caveats; one, unless you’re a member of the military or law enforcement, or if you’ve successfully completed a certified firearms safety course. If you’ve done any one of the three, then you could buy at 18. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t hunt. You can still hunt under the same conditions as today, you just can’t buy up to that point.
There are some bills that are in place right now that we’ve asked the legislature to expedite. One of them is protecting the general public. If someone is a threat to themselves or others, it gives law enforcement and the judicial system the ability to confiscate the weapons. That bill, I’ve asked for them to expedite it through and have it back to me in two weeks.
This is something you’re doing at the state level. I’m wondering what you think the states can do and also what the federal government can do to prevent future mass shootings.
We’ll see if what we do is successful. It was interesting, I had a press conference, I believe it was on Thursday and Gov. [Rick] Scott from Florida came out with his proposals on Friday, and very similar in some respect. So we’ll see whether they might want to take a look at what we’re proposing, and maybe replicate that.
But again, my concern is Vermont, doing whatever we can to keep kids safe. They shouldn’t be afraid to go to school and their parents shouldn’t be afraid to put them on the bus to go to school.
What do you make of President Trump’s proposal to arm teachers in schools?
From my standpoint, I think there’s other approaches that would be more beneficial. It takes a certain kind of person to protect others, and I’m not sure that’s the responsibility of teachers in that respect, with firearms. I’m not confident that’s the best approach.
What are you hearing from other governors on this issue? Is it something that’s coming up a lot this weekend?
It’s mixed, in some respects. But I think there’s a general concern amongst most governors about their schools, and they’re just taking different approaches. Hopefully we can learn from one another, we can take the politics out of it. I think this is really important. It’s hyper-politicized, it’s hyper-emotional. We should try and utilize common sense, try and do what we can and take the politics out of it.
How do we take the politics out of it?
It’s up to us to do that. I’ve made my political career by reaching across the aisle in tough times and do what we can together, to work together. I’m asking them to do the same this time. We have an obligation to try and do our very best to exhibit that.
Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI): “We decided we’re not going to wait for the federal government to act”
What do you think states can do to try to prevent future mass shootings? What is happening in Rhode Island right now?
Rhode Island has, thankfully, some of the strongest gun laws in America. And not surprisingly, we have low incidents of gun violence, relatively. Having said that, we could do more.
In particular, what I want us to do is ban military-style weapons. There’s no ban on assault weapons or military-style weapons. There is in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York and it needs to happen in Rhode Island. So I’m pushing the legislature to do that.
Last year, I worked with the legislature to pass and sign a bill to make it illegal for anyone convicted of a domestic violence crime to have a gun. If you have one, you have to turn it in, and you can’t get one if you don’t have one.
And I’d like to see the legislature pass something called “Red Flag” legislation, so if a family member, friend, or police officer just thinks that there might be reason for concern, they can go to the judge, raise the red flag, and have the guns taken away. Monday, when I get home, I’m going to sign an executive order setting the stage for the Red Flag legislation, really to raise awareness around the issue.
So, short story is, we’ve got to do more. Rhode Island is better than a lot of states, but we’ve got to better, got to do more.
I was reading a bit about the work you’re doing with Gov. Dan Malloy (D-CT), Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), and Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) to do more of a regional, interstate approach on gun control. Can you tell me more about that?
We decided we’re not going to wait for the federal government to act. We’re going to keep pressuring the federal government to act because we need this done on a federal level, especially loopholes to background checks has to be done federally. But we said, if we came together as a regional coalition, we could move the needle in our region.
So a lot of the guns that come into Rhode Island or Connecticut come from other states. We said, “Let’s track it. Let’s track the guns in our state that may have been obtained illegally in another state and share a database.” We also said that because the federal government doesn’t allow public health research into gun violence, we’re going to do it. We all have great universities in our states, we’re going to start studying it and really understand what works.
We’ve done this a few times as governors. Because we’re in a situation where Washington is broken, is not working, is not doing their job, we’re pushing the limits and saying, ‘What could we do.’
What do you make of congressional inaction?
I just think it’s politics at its worst. It’s just people prioritizing their own political advancement over the safety and well-being of their citizens. And it’s intolerable; it’s a problem. It hurts people.
What do you make of some of the new proposals by President Trump to have teachers armed in schools? He’s also backed the idea of raising the age limit to buy AR-15s ... but some of the proposals he’s put forward — what do you think?
You know, I think they’re all weak tea. This is a serious problem. Thousands of Americans are dying, have died, because of gun violence. We stand out in the world as having some of the weakest gun safety laws, and as a result, kids are dying in schools, people in churches and communities.
It’s not enough. That proposal is not enough. Ban military-style weapons at the federal level. Close the loopholes. A huge percentage of guns — Gov. Malloy said 40 percent — are purchased because of the loopholes and background checks, so it has to be done at the federal level.
As it relates to the teachers — it’s wrong-headed. The solution is fewer guns, not more guns. Fewer guns. Cut the supply of guns. Don’t give more guns. Also, teachers are overloaded as it is. It’s really hard to be a teacher, harder than it’s ever been. We’re asking them to be teachers, social workers, sometimes parents. They can’t do any more than they’re already doing.
Have you talked to any of your fellow governors this weekend — particularly the Republicans? What are they saying?
I haven’t had a chance to talk to any Republicans yet, although I hope to tomorrow. For whatever reason, we’ve all just been in sessions so we haven’t talked. I plan to ask them, tonight I’m having dinner with a couple guys in a bipartisan [group] and I’m going to ask them, ‘What are you doing, and can we finally get something done?’
Like, cut the political baloney. Why won’t you do the right thing? You’re in office to do the right thing. Stand up. These jobs are only worth having to get good things done.
Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA): “We think ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough”
I know gun control has recently come up in your state. I wanted to know a little bit more about some of the things you’re proposing.
We think ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough. We’re long past that, we need leadership, and again, Democratic leaders are where we can have leadership. We’re not going to be able to move things through the US House, it’s still wholly a subsidiary of the NRA.
Democratic governors are the place where we can make progress on gun safety legislation, so in my state, we want to do the obvious things which is ban bump stocks. We want to make the minimum age level for owning a rifle the same as a pistol, which is 21. It’s insane to allow people to go buy an assault weapon at age 18 where you can’t buy a pistol at age 18. There’s a loophole that we need to close in that regard.
We need a measure that will have gun owner safety responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of kids so one kid doesn’t get a gun and go shoot their playmate. I have been supportive of a ban on assault weapons in the past. Those are all commonsense measures. We don’t know what the legislature is going to pass yet.
What are you hearing from your constituents in terms of what people are willing to support versus anything that people think might be going too far, like an outright ban on assault weapons?
Our people have spoken twice in the past two years on initiatives, one that would have provided more protection and protective orders. One that would have closed the background check loophole. These were ones with large majorities, these were 60 to 65 percent majorities. So it is clear that people want additional protection for their children and their families.
Clearly they understand that keeping them out of the hands of those who should not have them is one of the pieces of the puzzle. Clearly they don’t want the NRA running the entire state or the country, they want commonsense measures. It’s a strong sentiment. They have been inspired by the youthful voices they heard in the last week around the country. We had kids in Bellingham March.
It’s an inspiring thing to say, ‘Your time is up, you’ve been ridiculously slavish to an ideology rather than to a solution, and it’s time to come up with a solution.’ They’ve been inspired by that.
As the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, do see gun control becoming a big issue in the 2018 governors midterms? It seems to be emerging in congressional races.
I think in different places it will be different. I don’t think it will be uniform. But I do believe that what we’ve seen is that the Republican Party is simply refusing to show any leadership on this issue. They’ve hunkered down, they’ve put their hands over their ears and their eyes, they want to do whatever the NRA tells them to do, and they’re unwilling to consider even commonsense measures. And they’ve shown that time and time after time.
After the shooting in Nevada, they said they were going to ban bump stocks and they didn’t lift a finger and didn’t do it. They were just hopeful people were going to forget about it. So their attitude is, ‘Try to forget about it, try to ignore it.’ So that’s why we need Democratic governors to actually show some leadership.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA): “I’m not sure why any human being would need to have an assault weapon”
“I think we need to be stronger on assault weapons. In fact, I’m not sure why any human being would need to have an assault weapon. We have strong background checks, but maybe we ought to be looking at that. I think there’s some attempt to do legislation that would ban people convicted of domestic abuse and domestic violence from owning a gun.
Those are good things, but this is really a federal issue. The federal government needs to step up and exercise some leadership here. As Gov. Malloy said, everybody believes there’s universal background checks — there’s not! The federal government simply has not done its job, it needs to step up and do its job, and make sure that our kids are safe in — of all places — schools.
Is there anything you are trying to get done in the next year? Your state legislature is controlled by Republicans — are there any bipartisan measures you can work on?
Yeah, I think we can do things like ban people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns. I think we ought to do something with bump stocks. Again, though, as Gov. Malloy pointed out — you can have all the great laws in your state you want, but people drive up I-95 and distribute guns in your state because they bought them somewhere else, because those states don’t have it. This is a federal issue, the federal government needs to step up, and actually do what the kids in Florida are asking them to. You adults, just do something. Stop saying, “It’s hard, we can’t do it.” Do it!
What do you think is different this time, with the Parkland shooting?
I don’t know at what point people finally say, “I’ve had enough.” This might just be that. People say, “Come on, We’ve had it so many times before.” This might be it.