Gov. Rick Snyder, right, speaks at a news conference in Lansing, Mich.,… (Paul Sancya/AP )
LANSING, Mich. — Days after setting off a national uproar by barring unions from collecting mandatory dues, Republican legislators here moved on to another controversy: A series of bills loosening gun regulations, including one to allow concealed weapons in schools, day-care centers and other “gun-free zones.”
The last measure was well on its way to becoming law until a singular event intervened: The slaughter of 20 children and six adults Friday at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who had suggested he would support the bill, changed his mind after the killings and decided to veto it, though, he still signed two other measures making it easier to purchase firearms.
The Michigan proposals — as well as another gun-related bill signed into law Thursday by Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) — serve as the latest reminder that tea party conservatives remain a vigorous force in statehouses across the country, even as they lost seats and influence in Washington following the November elections.
But Snyder’s decision to reject the concealed-weapon measure also underscores the limits of tea party legislation, which often fires up the conservative base while alienating mainstream voters. This is especially true when an issue such as gun control is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, as it has in the wake of the Newtown shootings.
Republican-led state legislatures have approved more than four dozen measures over the past two years loosening restrictions on firearms, according to a Washington Post tally of data compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which favors stricter gun regulations. They include a Maine provision allowing guns in state parks and a repeal of Virginia’s law limiting handgun purchases to one per month.
In Ohio, the new law allows guns in cars in the state House of Representatives parking garage. Since the Newtown slayings, lawmakers in several states have proposed allowing teachers and school administrators to be armed.
Many of the measures have been drafted by lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Both campaigned for passage of so-called “stand your ground” laws, which came under scrutiny earlier this year after the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in Florida.
“There’s been some losses, and then there’s been some defensive victories and then a smattering of actual victories,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Law Center.
The recent flurry of bills in Michigan has captured headlines in part because the conservative measures emerged from such a deep-blue union stronghold, where President Obama won by nine points and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) was reelected by more than 20.
Republicans took over the Michigan legislature and governor’s office in 2010, part of the conservative tea party wave that washed over Congress and state governments around the country. Republicans gained further ground in the states this past November and are poised to control both the legislature and the governorship in 24 states in January, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Democrats, by contrast, will dominate just 14 states. Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the state legislatures group, said the last time a similar number of states were fully in GOP hands was 1952.
“Republicans are still at their strongest position in the states that they’ve been in in decades,” Storey said “And that’s clearly manifesting itself in legislation in some places that have been controlled by Democrats for some time.”
GOP-run states have enacted a broad array of conservative legislation over the past two years, including Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining changes, Indiana’s right-to-work law and laws loosening firearms regulations.
In Michigan alone, the conservative-dominated legislature pushed through 282 bills in three weeks after the November election. In addition to the union and gun measures, Michigan lawmakers last week approved bills that would increase regulation of abortion providers, eliminate $600 million in taxes on business equipment and require voters to sign a statement of citizenship.
In some cases, such as Pennsylvania, the effects of GOP lawmakers’ newly-enacted legislation remain up in the air; a judge blocked the Keystone State’s new voter ID law for the 2012 election, although a trial on the measure is likely to be held next summer.
For those measures that do survive legal challenges, the matter of overturning them may not be as simple as Democrats picking up a few seats. “It’s just like Congress — it’s hard to pass anything, anytime,” Storey said. “So, if they want to go back and overhaul and make changes to legislation that’s passing now, it’s not easy.”