In early January, a 6-year-old student in Newport News, Va., shot his 25-year-old first grade teacher. The teacher had recognized her student was armed and alerted the administration. But, as she frustratedly texted a loved one an hour before she was shot, no one helped her or the student.
A month later, there are still more questions than answers: How did the child get his hands on the handgun? What safety protocols did the school system have in place? Who has the power to stop this? Who should have the power?
For decades, local government officials and activists have been on the front lines of addressing gun violence in their communities. However, in 42 states those efforts have been undercut by broad firearm preemption laws enforced by state governments. As a result, cities and counties have been left without the power to enact meaningful firearm regulation. In Florida, Mississippi and Texas, the state government can impose civil fines on individual local officials who try to regulate firearms. And in Arizona, the state can withhold every penny of funding it gives localities to pay for services like water utilities, education and community programs in response to firearm regulatory efforts.
To address gun violence, power must be restored to local governments. And to restore that power, we need to talk about who took it away in the first place — a story that starts with a battle between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Morton Grove, Ill., in 1981.
In June of that year, Morton Grove passed a complete ban on sale or possession of handguns by private individuals after residents protested the opening of a gun store. Reportedly, some 400 other jurisdictions around the U.S. requested a copy of the ordinance so they could replicate it. A year later, in July 1982, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance, proposed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein, banning pistols in the city. In response, Douglas Zimmer, an organizer of the Second Amendment Foundation, called such local ordinances “grass-roots politics at its worst.”
The NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation acted quickly, filing and financing lawsuits against the municipalities on the grounds that their ordinances violated the Second Amendment. In 1983, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out three lawsuits against Morton Grove, siding with the city. But just a few years earlier, in 1975, the NRA had established its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA). Led by Harlon Bronson Carter, an award-winning marksman and a former chief of U.S. Border Control, the NRA-ILA was prepared to devote its resources to stomping out city-led attempts at gun regulation.
But disputing anti-gun local action city by city was laborious, so the NRA pursued a state-level strategy. If a state legislature could be convinced to pass a broad firearm preemption law, then local governments could not legally regulate guns, and soon lobbying efforts were deployed to state legislatures. In a 1986 legislative brief, the NRA-ILA affirmed state preemption as its top legislative priority to combat local anti-gun action.
For conservative state legislators, restricting the powers of cities seemed to run counter to their professed preference for limited government. To assuage the concern, the NRA responded that despite the traditional belief that “the government most representative of the people is best,” the recent “popularity of restrictive local ordinances has created the need for the state to preempt such action.” The NRA’s efforts succeeded, and as of 2018 all but eight states had broad firearm preemption laws.
The role of federal and state governments is critical in combating gun violence, but so is that of cities. Yet Virginia is one of the states that enforces broad preemption for gun regulation. Perhaps if its local governments had more power to regulate gun ownership, the Newport News shooting would not have happened.
Ultimately, even within their constraints, cities continue to spearhead robust community-driven responses to gun violence. Just last year, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott published results of the city’s violence prevention pilot, citing a 34 percent decline in homicides and nonfatal shootings in one of the most violent districts.
In 2021, activists and city officials in Boulder, Colo., successfully pressured state legislators to overturn its broad firearm preemption law. Across the country, in cities as varied as Cincinnati, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Tucson, local officials and activists are trying to do the same, proposing legislation to overturn broad firearm preemption or resisting through legal battles. To significantly reduce gun violence once and for all, we need to support local movements to restore city power.
Sarena Martinez is a Rhodes Scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford studying the history of urban power in the United States. Her research is informed by her work as an economic development practitioner for the city of Birmingham, Ala.
Governing‘s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing‘s editors or management.
This post is thought-provoking!