Local and state Democrats look to ban gun sales near schools

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
UFlowers, balloons, toys and other items are seen May 31 at a memorial for the students and teachers killed in the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

Democrats across the country have started pushing for bans on gun sales near schools and child-care centers in an incremental effort to move gun restrictions forward as national Republicans block more comprehensive mesasures.

North Carolina state Sen. Natalie S. Murdock, D, has drafted legislation to ban the sale of firearms within 1,400 feet, or about a quarter-mile, of the property lines of any school or child-care center. The proposal, which will be attached to an upcoming bill, does not cover existing stores or include college campuses, but it does include locations of organized clubs like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

This month, in Asheville, N.C., school board member Peyton O’Conner introduced a resolution to ask the city council and the Buncombe County commission to enact zoning regulations that would prohibit establishing or operating a gun shop within five miles of any school or child-care facility.

Supporters say they have lawmakers ready to introduce similar policies, both at the state and local levels, in California, Colorado, South Carolina, New Hampshire and New York. Brian Tabatabai, a city council member in West Covina, Calif., who plans to introduce a zoning ordinance banning gun shops near schools, said he hoped local and state government could break the impasse in Washington on the issue of gun laws.

“Local government matters, and I know a lot of people are frustrated and a lot of people feel hopeless that they have no power because Washington seems so stagnant and stuck,” Tabatabai said. “But I want people to know that city hall is open, that public comment is available and that those little ordinances, those little bitty laws, those are the things that affect your life, and that’s where we can put our energy.”

This push to ban gun shops near schools comes in the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, and injured 17 others. The Uvalde shooter purchased the AR-15-style rifle he used at Robb Elementary School within days of his 18th birthday. The suspect in the mass shooting that killed 10 people at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo just 10 days earlier also is 18.

While neither of the shootings would have been affected by the school-adjacent measures now being pushed, some Democrats see the effort as another way of lessening access by young people. The approach also is akin to Republican strategies against abortion rights, in which small moves succeeded in pushing the effort closer to the ultimate goal of ending abortion.

Gun rights organizations have, however, cast even incremental changes in current law as the first step toward more stringent restrictions. In Republican-run states, that could make even small changes at the local level difficult to implement. If Republicans manage to block the smaller measures, Democrats say they at least hope to make it politically painful.

“We need to act and do something other than continue to offer thoughts and prayers,” said Deon Tedder, a Democrat serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives who is planning to introduce similar legislation this year, timed to the next meeting of the legislature. “We make sure liquor stores are not too close to churches and playgrounds and schools here in South Carolina, so why then can we not prohibit the sale and trading of firearms near our schools? This is something that should be bipartisan.”

The Asheville school board is expected to vote on O’Conner’s resolution at a meeting this month. One of its key proponents is Andrew Aydin, who once served as an adviser to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., before moving to western North Carolina.

“There are gun shops close enough to the major high schools in both Asheville and Hendersonville that you can walk off campus on your lunch, go to a gun shop, buy a gun and be back before your lunch period is over,” said Aydin, who now works as a comic book writer. “It doesn’t matter if we’re worried about a student, a teacher or a parent. . . . If we’re not going to have background checks, if we’re not going to have waiting periods, we should at least make it impossible for people to easily walk to buy a gun and walk back.”

Martin Young, the spokesperson for the East San Gabriel Valley Republican Center in Southern California, said he could get behind Tabatabai’s proposal.

“When people say they want to take away all the guns, I don’t support that,” said Young, who served in the Air Force and identifies as a center-right Republican. “But I don’t want some numb-nut just walking around with a gun. I don’t think this would be a foolproof solution, but I think we have to start doing something to prevent children from being gunned down like in Uvalde, Texas.”

Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist based in Washington, said smaller-scale gun restrictions could open up a new front in the debate.

“We want to start new conversations at the local level and win debates there, which then turn into laws,” said Ceraso, whose focus has been on local and state races. “That’s a long-term strategy. We haven’t been discussing long-term strategies on this issue because we’re always reacting. We’re always reacting to the next tragedy. We’re always reacting to the next election.”

Ceraso said an inspiration is the Republican effort to chip away at abortion rights.

“Republicans have been uber-successful just throwing all kinds of stuff at the wall, locally, statewide, nationally and in the courts,” Ceraso said. “They just throw things against the wall, and a majority of it doesn’t stick and then something does stick and that’s how we got, for instance, all of these restrictions to reproductive health care.”

Murdock, who represents Durham, N.C., said her measure to ban gun sales near schools was prompted by the two recent mass shootings as well as an unrelated shooting involving a 4-year-old.

Murdock and other advocates for banning gun sales near schools point to a 2020 study on the effects of gun shops located near schools in Orange County, Calif. The researchers found that proximity significantly increased the likelihood of students bringing firearms to campus.

Murdock has been contacting city council members and state legislators across the country. She hopes at least 100 lawmakers will commit to introducing similar bans by the end of the summer.

Murdock and others made clear that part of the Democrats’ goal is to force Republicans into a difficult political position by shifting the focus to school safety.

“If Republicans object to this, they’re literally arguing that they want there to be more guns closer to schools,” Aydin said. “We think that’s an impossible position for them.”

Both the North Carolina Republican Party and Republican leaders in the state legislature declined to comment on the proposal, saying they were waiting for Murdock to formally introduce her legislation before commenting. The Washington Post provided both the party and legislative leadership with a copy of the legislation, but they still declined to discuss it. Neither the National Rifle Association nor the South Carolina Republican Party responded to multiple requests for comment.

For Mark-Anthony Middleton, the nonpartisan mayor pro tempore of Durham who is lobbying the city council to pass a resolution supporting Murdock’s legislation, this effort isn’t about curtailing gun rights, but about doing something to address the rise in childhood gun deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun-related incidents are now the leading cause of death among children and teens.

“I’m a gun owner. I support the Second Amendment. This isn’t about stripping people of their guns,” Middleton said. “I hope that this will spark a national discussion, or at least add another element to the national discussion, about how we can protect our kids because I don’t think protecting the Second Amendment and protecting the lives of our children are mutually exclusive.”