WASHINGTON — California forbids the sale of assault weapons. Florida mandates a three-day wait before handgun purchases. And while Texas and Kansas don’t require dealers to apply for licenses, Missouri and Idaho don’t regulate much of anything at all when it comes to firearms.
In America, thousands of laws, rules and regulations at the federal, state and local levels dictate who can buy, sell, possess and transport firearms; everything from hunting rifles to the type of high-tech guns found on battlefields.
Policies vary by states, even within states, with some lawmakers choosing to ease requirements as a reflection of long-held traditions about the role guns have in society.
The patchwork of laws across the nation is prompting gun control activists to push lawmakers in Washington to create a uniform, nationwide system for firearms.
“States can’t do it alone,” said Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of 800 leaders founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
President Barack Obama is calling for a divided Congress to pass the nation’s most aggressive gun control plan in generations, following the December rampage in Newtown, Conn., that claimed 26 lives, including 20 children. Police believe shooter Adam Lanza stole the guns he used at an elementary school from his mother.
The Senate has launched hearings, but some lawmakers – Republicans and Democrats from gun-friendly states – are concerned that additional restrictions might stand in the way of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
“I’m not going to fight hysteria with hysteria,” said Kieran Donahue, sheriff in Canyon County, Idaho, who said he will not enforce new regulations if they pass. “Each and every day, law enforcement officers in our communities put their lives on the line to prevent gun violence and uphold the Constitution. Those men and women don’t have time for hollow political posturing.”
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said state laws do have an impact, but that criminals are like water and can find their way around state borders. For example, most guns used in crimes in California, which has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, flow from nearby Nevada and Arizona, which have few regulations.
That means states and cities with strict gun control laws may still have more crime and violence than other jurisdictions with little regulation.
“Anything that eases the ability to get a gun is important to do on a federal level,” Gross said.
Many states do not keep track of the number of guns residents legally own, so it’s impossible to know how many there are. Some states keep a record of background checks performed for purchases, but not all purchases require a check.
States differ on virtually every law they can write on guns: How many handguns can someone buy? Do you need a permit for purchase? Can a person own a large-capacity magazine? Who can carry a concealed weapon? Is a buyer required to know firearm safety? Can someone carry a gun in a school, prison, courthouse, bar, church, hospital, polling place, stadium, the state capitol?
And to complicate matters further, different states use different definitions for everything, from assault weapons to a large-capacity ammunition magazine.
In Florida, sometimes derided as “the Gunshine State,” lawmakers responded to the mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011 that left former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords severely wounded and six others dead, by restricting physicians from asking patients about the presence of firearms in the home and allowing employers to bring guns to work in their cars.
The state is home to the first “Stand Your Ground” law, which says a victim being attacked has a right to meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she believes it is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
The law drew international media attention last year after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in a small community outside Orlando, who claimed self-defense. Zimmerman was not initially charged, but after a public outcry, prosecutors filed second-degree murder charges.
Some states, including Missouri and Kansas, forbid local governments from enacting laws restricting the purchase or possession of firearms.
“Gun violence for the most part happens on our streets, and yet we don’t have the ability to regulate guns at all,” said Danny Rotert, spokesman for Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City Mo.
Obama has proposed banning assault weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 bullets, requiring background checks on all purchases and increasing penalties for gun trafficking.
But National Rifle Association president David Keene told reporters recently that the federal government needs to enforce existing laws, not create new ones.
“That’s how you deal with gun crime,” Keene said. “Today very few people are prosecuted under these federal laws. The laws are there and it isn’t a patchwork. U.S. attorneys all over the country, in cooperation with local officials, can say to them, ‘You bring me somebody who committed a crime in your jurisdiction with a firearm and I’ll send them to federal prison.’ That can be done today.”
About 40 percent of guns used by felons nationwide were stolen or bought on the street, according to a survey released in 2002 by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Another 40 percent were obtained from friends or family.
Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that often works with the White House, agrees that more can be done with existing laws, but that the federal government must act.
“One challenge is that there is an enormous amount of gun trafficking,” he said. “It doesn’t just impact one state. There is an appropriate role for action at many different levels.”
As the debate rages in the nation’s capital following the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, some states already have begun green-lighting more gun restrictions.
New York quickly passed a package of firearm and mental health laws last month that expanded the ban on assault weapons, limited the number of bullets allowed in magazines and strengthened rules for the mentally ill. Other Democratic-leaning states, including Maryland, Colorado and Massachusetts, are considering changes, too.
But in many states where Republicans run the legislature and statewide officials can’t win office pressing for restrictions, lawmakers are weighing whether to expand gun rights in the hopes of arming lawful citizens to help prevent more mass shootings.
In Texas, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wants the state to provide firearms training for teachers and administrators, though he says school districts may choose who they want to carry weapons on campus. “We must do everything we can to protect the safety and well-being of our most precious possession – our children,” he said.
And so much legislation has been filed in Idaho that both chambers of the legislature are working to consolidate dozens of ideas into a few bills.
“Everybody wants to do something,” said Republican Rep. Judy Boyle.
Jason Hancock of The Kansas City Star, Meghann Cuniff and Dan Popkey of The Idaho Statesman, Mary Ellen Klas of The Miami Herald, Anna M. Tinsley of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Phillip Reese and Cynthia Hubert of The Sacramento Bee contributed.