Congressional Gun Control Battle May Be Moot

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The institution of groundbreaking firearms measures in Maryland and Massachusetts shows that America's gun control lobby is quickly finding itself better served by seeking regulation through the states rather than Congress. In Maryland, the state's legislature approved Gov. Parris Glendenning's bill requiring all new guns sold in the state to have built-in trigger locks. And in a more controversial measure — with larger national ramifications — Massachusetts attorney general Thomas Reilly implemented a three-year-old set of regulations that puts guns under the purview of the state's consumer-products regulatory body. That move follows three years of appeals by the gun lobby against the regulations, which allow the attorney general to skirt the state legislature in policing gun sales. Similar measures have been passed by attorneys general in 34 other states, but this is the first to be enacted.

The measures reflect growing consensus in the gun control lobby that the movement's efforts should be geared toward states rather than the federal government, for both strategic and legal reasons. "The general feeling of people who want control of guns has been to attack it as a national problem," says TIME legal analyst Alain Sanders, who notes that states with larger urban and suburban populations are generally in favor of tighter gun regulation. "Seeing as how Congress is not going to do anything, gun control advocates believe they'll have a better chance at the state level. At the same time, more and more gun control advocates are starting to realize that the Second Amendment applies only to Congress and not to the states, so the states are not hindered in any way from passing laws that limit gun ownership rights." Most states, including Massachusetts, have clauses in their constitutions that mirror the federal "right to bear arms" Second Amendment, but interpretation of those clauses is in the hands of the states' supreme courts.

Gun control proponents hope that Reilly's edict will be quickly mirrored by the 34 states with similar regulations, a situation that could force Congress and the gun manufacturers to the bargaining table. If gun makers find that they are tailoring their products to fit 35 different sets of regulations, they may seek federal redress. In turn, the feds will probably ask for some concessions in making guns safer to own and operate.