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In Campaign For Tougher Gun Laws, Advocates Focus On States

<!--?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="no"?-->The handgun sales counter at Northwest Armory in Portland, Ore.
The handgun sales counter at Northwest Armory in Portland, Ore.

When President Obama announced new gun control measures on Tuesday, the White House said they were needed because Congress failed to address the problem of gun violence.

Gun control advocates also are frustrated with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. That's why they've been focused on changing state laws in recent years. And they're succeeding.

Oregon is one state where gun control advocates won last year with the passage of Senate Bill 941, which requires background checks for private party gun sales.

At a bill-signing ceremony last May, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, thanked the national gun control groups that campaigned for the law: Everytown For Gun Safety, Americans For Responsible Solutions and the Brady Campaign.

Gun groups are starting to take notice of wins like this.

"Oregon has been a blue state for a long time but a blue state that has passed virtually no gun control," says Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation.

He says what changed is money — lots of it.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to spend at least $50 million of his own money to get tougher gun laws across the country. Some of that cash went to the Everytown For Gun Safety Action Fund. The group spent almost $800,000 on lobbying during Oregon's 2015 legislative session, making it the biggest spender in the state last year.

There were lots of television ads, too. "When a New York billionaire comes to a state like Oregon with that much money, obviously it's a game changer," Starrett says.

Gun control supporters celebrated victories in other states last year as well. In October, Delaware became the ninth state to pass a law designed to prevent domestic abusers from getting guns.

There were plenty of setbacks, too. Texas passed an open-carry law that allows handgun license holders to carry their guns in visible holsters.

Gun control advocates say what's important is that now they're a force at state capitals that can begin to counter powerful groups like the National Rifle Association.

"We are going toe-to-toe with them. We are showing up at our state houses. We are pushing back against bad bills and supporting good bills," says Shannon Watts, who founded the group Moms Demand Action, which is a part of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Watts says her group has more than 3.5 million members and chapters in every state. The NRA has said it has 5 million members.

In her campaign for tougher gun laws, Watts sees a model in the battle for same-sex marriage.

"This situation is very much like marriage equality in America. People felt like that happened overnight but really there were activists on the ground for decades," Watts says.

Then she says states started approving gay marriage and eventually it was made legal across the country. That prospect has groups like the NRA preparing for battle.

The next big fight could be in Nevada. Gun control advocates gathered enough signatures to put an initiative on next November's ballot that would require background checks for all gun sales in the state.

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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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