Every day since 17 students and faculty were gunned down in a Florida high school, Arizona’s Democratic legislators have pleaded with their Republican colleagues to do something, anything, to make sure such a mass shooting never happens again.
Those pleas, in the form of daily speeches on the Senate floor, have mostly been met with silence.
A response here or there has deflected the issue away from gun control, Democrats’ preferred course of action, as Republican lawmakers speak up about mental health issues, make claims of violent video games influencing American culture or lament a lack of God in schools.
As Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, put it, it’s not guns that are to blame, it’s “the darkness of a human soul.”
That leaves Arizona with the status quo. The GOP-controlled Legislature hasn’t seriously considered passing gun control legislation in years, even after a gunman wounded former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and killed six others in Tucson in 2011. Instead, they passed a measure recognizing the Colt single-action Army revolver as the official state gun.
This time could be different.
Student survivors at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are passionate, eloquent and organized in their calls for adults – elected representatives – to do something about gun violence.
And they’ve inspired Arizona Democrats, who aren’t letting up so easily after the February 14 shooting.
House Democrats used procedural maneuvers to try to force a vote on a bump stock ban, and have vowed to try again after Republicans rebuffed that effort. In the Senate, at least one Democrat has spoken each day about the Parkland shooting, at times eulogizing the dead or excoriating the Republican majority for failing to take immediate action in the aftermath of multiple shootings.
Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, tried a more personal plea as a father and husband.
“I have three little kids that are going to school. I have a kindergartner, a second grader and a third grader. My wife’s a schoolteacher at a high school. I’m sorry, this is true for me, this is real life for me,” Contreras said in a speech on February 26. “This world is getting crazier. Please help me and every other parent that has young individuals out there do something about this now… Let’s try and keep this conversation going and try to do something.”
It’s not like politically and ideologically divided Arizona lawmakers are incapable of working together.
A vast majority of bills approved every year passed with unanimous support. And while most are uncontroversial policy changes, Democrats can point to recent legislative action on opioids as a blueprint for how opposing parties can work together and tackle important issues.
Democratic leaders were effusive in their praise of Gov. Doug Ducey and his leadership in crafting the Opioid Epidemic Act, which targeted opioid-related addictions and deaths by limiting opioid prescriptions, cracking down on fraudulent drug sales and providing treatment options. Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, called the process, which involved Democratic input before a bill was ever introduced, one of the most effective legislative efforts she’s ever seen.
That’s because the governor treated the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis and took the lead, according to Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former director of the state Department of Health Services.
Ducey has hinted he’ll take a role in an effort to specifically address school shootings.
Whether that involvement leads to legislation in 2018 remains to be seen. But Ducey’s recent comments suggest that gun policy changes, in some form, could be coming in the next few weeks. The governor has talked about gun violence with reporters several times since the Parkland shooting, and discussed mass shootings with other governors while in Washington, D.C. last week.
“Just know that we’ll be addressing this issue. This is a concern for the Governor’s Office,” Ducey said February 22
Background checks, mental health issues, and resources for schools are all on the table when it comes to ways Arizona can address school shootings, he said.
Ducey said his staff is already examining tragedies from the past several years to find consistencies in various shootings and what could have been done by state government to avoid them.
In many of the shootings, there were avoidable issues like a missed background check or calls to social services that should have prevented the shootings, Ducey said.
Reports from Florida indicate that the shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, had been reported to authorities multiple times, but no action was taken.
“We have situations in domestic violence where there can be a temporary restraining order on an individual,” Ducey said, a measure that ensures a reported individual can’t have a firearm. “Why should one of these individuals not have that type of order on them so that they don’t have access to a gun?”
Ducey added that he’s having discussions with law enforcement and school superintendents and plans to keep those discussions alive. Future sessions may include Democrats and Republicans working together, something the governor said isn’t out of the question.
“This is something that’s all our responsibility,” Ducey said. “These are our kids and our public schools. And it’s not only the kids. It’s the teachers that are teaching the kids, the people that work inside these schools, and we want to have them as safe as possible.”
That’s good news for the lawmakers who penned a letter on February 25 asking for Ducey’s leadership on gun violence.
Those legislators, mostly Democrats, but some Republicans like the governor, called on the governor “to act quickly, decisively and compassionately” to protect Arizona school children by convening a task force to prevent potential school violence.
Count Cave Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, among Republicans who would “welcome the opportunity” to work on legislation addressing school shootings in a bipartisan fashion.
“This is a critical issue and everybody is talking about it, everywhere, from the kitchen tables with their own kids who are in school to every state Capitol across the country and even at our nation’s capital,” she said.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard hasn’t shut the door on a “grand bargain” on gun violence, either. The Chandler Republican said he’s willing to have a conversation about gun control that’s directed at what he calls practical solutions that still honor people’s constitutional rights.
And he doesn’t begrudge Democrats for trying to circumvent the usual legislative process to consider gun control measures.
Democrats like Tucson Rep. Randy Friese, who made the motion to bypass House rules and vote on a bump stock ban, are genuinely interested in addressing gun violence, and Mesnard doesn’t regard the maneuver as a political stunt.
“I think Dr. Friese wants real solutions and I’m with him,” Mesnard said, though he noted that their ideas of how to address the problem might be different.
Those differences of opinion on gun violence make the comparison to the opioid act a fair, but flawed, analogy, said Humble. Unlike the issue of guns, a consensus “was possible on opioids because there’s not a huge constituency group that’s pro-opioids,” Humble said.
Other Republicans are reluctant to even broach the topic of gun violence. House Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, refused to even concede the term “gun control reform” in conversation, and instead referred to it as a mental health issue.
He doesn’t have an answer for how to address that.
“We’ve had a lot of suggestions and you can’t really draw a straight line between how any of those suggestions would have stopped any of these things from happening,” Allen said.
If immediate legislative action isn’t an option, Humble suggested following Ducey’s directives on opioids. That would mean studying the issue of gun violence first.
In the summer of 2017, Ducey ordered the Department of Health Services to begin collecting data from hospitals, emergency rooms and patients on opioids. The study was the crucial first step toward a bipartisan conversation about addressing opioid prescriptions and addictions.
Ducey’s support vital
Federal agencies like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention may be barred from gathering data on gun violence, but there’s plenty of raw data in Arizona that could aid Ducey and DHS, Humble said, such as hospital discharge databases, the state’s annual child fatality review report and mortality databases. Using data could cut through partisan talking points on gun violence.
“Because that (opioid) evidence review was well done and really well researched, that really set the stage for bipartisan action,” Humble said.
Such a study is going to need Ducey’s full-fledged support, Humble said, because DHS had to divert resources to focus exclusively on opioids, and the study took months.
“That doesn’t happen unless you get a directive from the Governor’s Office,” Humble said.
A study alone might not be enough for those calling for action from lawmakers. March for Our Lives Arizona, a nonpartisan group led by local students, has echoed the calls from Florida high schoolers for immediate gun policy changes.
They’ve launched a policy platform calling on the Legislature to hear four gun safety-related bills. All are sponsored by Democrats. None have been given a hearing by Republican leaders and committee chairs.
“These are common sense, existing pieces of legislation that do no harm to gun owners or their Second Amendment Rights,” the group said in a news release. “They only serve to make kids like us safe in school, at home, and in our community.”
It’s not just students calling for action. House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, noted that President Trump has promised action on gun violence. Trump even issued an executive order to ban bump stocks just as House Republicans blocked the Democratic effort to do just that in Arizona.
The president’s own words at a recent roundtable on gun policy echoed that of Parkland students: “We have to do something about it. We now have to do something. We have to act.”
If Trump can tackle gun violence, Arizona Republicans “absolutely” can, too, Rios said.
“If all we can get them to do is get them to agree with their president on background checks, raising the age of sale on AR-15s and the bump stock ban, if they only want to follow their president and agree on those three issues, I can guarantee you’d get 25 Democratic votes,” she said.
Paulina Pineda contributed to this report.
This report includes information from Capitol Media Services.