In Recent Violence, Gun Laws Examined

With more than four out of five states allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons, that argument is finished. Now, the nation's long-running argument over guns turns on how much to loosen the rules — should guns be allowed in judge's chambers? Bars? In workplace parking lots?

The work in state legislatures following the latest spate of fatal shootings shows how much the debate has changed. The 1999 Columbine (search) school shootings sent moms marching into the streets for tougher gun laws, but this year, many state legislators are looking at ways to broaden access to weapons and ease training and other requirements.

"Where do you stand on self-defense?" said New Mexico state Rep. Thomas Anderson (search), a Republican who said local judges asked him to change the law to let judges carry weapons into their court chambers. "I believe in it."

His bill died in committee, but it will be back next year. New Mexico this year already broadened its concealed-weapons law, passed just two years ago, to drop the age requirement to 21 and allow the state to reach agreements with other states so gun-carriers can cross borders without worry.

The push for concealed weapons began in the late 1980s, when all but 10 states refused to allow residents to do so, or only allowed it in special circumstances. But starting in 1989, those barriers fell. Now it's up to 46, with 35 states allowing just about anyone who is not a felon to get a permit.

The late 1990s saw a rise in gun control legislation. In 1999, after 15 were killed, including the gunmen, at the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, gun control gained a sharp edge and legislators' attention.

Violence hasn't subsided this year, from courthouse shootings in Atlanta and Tyler, Texas, to the school killings at Red Lake (search), Minn., the most deadly since Columbine. But the reaction has spurred something far different, drawing on the idea that if the victims had weapons they might not be victims.

"At the scene of these crimes, despite all the good intentions of the police, the prosecutors, the courts, the judges — they're all coming in later," said Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association (search). "The country as a whole is taking another look, across the board, at the idea that maybe it makes good sense to allow people to protect themselves in as many situations as possible."

Current legislation in some cases is a direct response to the recent shootings, though often predates it. In recent weeks:

- Florida legislators passed a measure allowing people to "meet force with force" to defend themselves without fear of prosecution, extending the right from their homes to anywhere they're legally allowed to be. Gov. Jeb Bush said he intends to sign it.

- Arizona's Senate approved letting people carry guns into bars and restaurants, as long as they're not drinking. The House has yet to act.

- North Dakota legislators approved removing the shooting test needed for a concealed-weapon permit, though the bill awaits final approval from the governor.

Even schools and workplaces, the scene of some of the most horrific violence, saw restrictions fall. A new Virginia law lets people with concealed handguns onto school grounds, as long as they and the gun remain in their car. A 2004 Oklahoma law lets employees with permits keep guns in cars in job parking lots.

"Employers have a responsibility to make their workplace a safe place. For them to let workers with guns onto the premises is insane," said Brian Seibel, senior counsel at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. And bars? "Hello? Do you want to mix alcohol and guns?"

The shift in opinion and legislation comes directly from the election outcomes of 2000 and 2004, and the national focus on security after Sept. 11, both sides agree.

"There's an ebb and flow," Seibel said. "There's no question that the NRA is on the offensive trying to roll back the gun laws on the books. ... Their vision of society is everyone ought to have a gun. That's not our view of a safe society. I don't think it's Americans' view of a safe society."

Still, the struggle hasn't all been one-sided.

Missouri, where legislators approved a concealed-weapon law even though a statewide referendum rejected it in 1999, gave cities the right to restrict weapons on city-owned property. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor John Street, both Democrats, are studying sweeping changes.

Illinois, one of the significant battlegrounds, saw legislation that seeks to ban .50-caliber ammunition, close a loophole that allows sales at gun shows without background checks, and require guns to be sold with "trigger lock" safety devices. Gun-rights interests scored a victory last week by killing a bill that would allow lawsuits against gun dealers.

Anderson, in New Mexico, said restrictions are outlawing the way he grew up, when he learned about guns before he was a teenager. In his view, restrictions make crime more likely, and his view seems on the rise.

"There should be the possibility that any house on the street should have a weapon," he said. "Do I think every house should have one? No. But the bad guy should think so."