Democratic lawmakers in Arizona may soon have a tough decision to make on gun legislation: continue fighting for cherished but almost certainly unattainable goals, or buy into the notion that politics truly is the art of the possible and support a compromise.
In the wake of mass shootings that saw gunmen kill 22 people in El Paso, Texas, 9 in Dayton, Ohio, and 3 in Gilroy, California, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez has called for Gov. Doug Ducey to convene a special legislative session to pass universal background checks and other gun-related legislation. Such proposals have traditionally been non-starters with the Republicans who control both chambers.
Meanwhile, the Ducey administration is talking about a renewed push for a stalled proposal that would allow people to petition a court to have someone’s guns temporarily taken away if they are considered a threat to themselves or others.
Such laws are often referred to as “red flag” laws, and have recently been touted by President Donald Trump.
When Ducey first pitched his proposal as a response to the 2018 shooting at high school in Parkland, Fla., Democrats decried it as too ineffectual and largely refused to support it unless the governor’s plan included other provisions, such as universal background checks.
Republicans, meanwhile, largely opposed it over concerns that it infringed on Arizonans’ Second Amendment rights by making it too easy to get a Severe Threat Order of Protection, or STOP order, that would take away their firearms. Senate Republicans watered down the bill, and it died without a hearing in the House of Representatives.
Both sides took similar stances in January of this year, when Ducey again pledged to push for his STOP order plan in his State of the State address.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, acknowledged that Democratic priorities like universal background checks and closing the so-called gun show loophole are unlikely to happen. But if Ducey prioritizes his STOP order plan in the 2020 legislative session, or in a special session this fall, and it doesn’t get watered down like before, Bradley said he thinks it would pass.
“Ideally, we’d like to see it as part of a comprehensive package. But I think as a standalone and with some teeth in it, I think Democrats are likely to come on board,” Bradley said. “We have to be realistic about what’s possible. That’s the dilemma that we always have. Being in the minority, we have to figure out do we draw a line in the sand here if we don’t get this, or do we say this is the best we’re going to get and go from there?”
Under the original version of Ducey’s school safety plan in 2018, a family member, legal guardian, household member, significant other, school administrator, probation officer or mental health professional could petition a court for a STOP order that would bar someone’s access to firearms. Senate Republicans amended the bill to allow only peace officers to seek STOP orders.
Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, said a red flag law is the most important gun-related legislation the state can pass right now, except for universal background checks, though he questioned whether Ducey’s proposal would be effective and said Arizona should look at other states’ laws. Like Bradley, Hernandez said previous legislative fights show that if Ducey puts his energy behind passing a red flag law, it will happen.
Hernandez said there are other proposals that could realistically pass, as well. He pointed to legislation he worked on with Republican Sen. Heather Carter that would strengthen laws barring people convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms, and a school safety plan he worked on with Republica Sen. Kate Brophy McGee – neither bill passed into law – as proposals that he believes could get enough support to pass.
“We’re not going to find something that I think is going to appeal to the far right and probably even something that will appeal to the far left. But I think if we work together in a bipartisan manner, there are things that we can do that are not just the lowest-hanging fruit,” Hernandez said.
Fernandez, Bradley’s counterpart in the House, wasn’t nearly as committal when it came to STOP orders. She said she would have to re-examine the 2018 legislation, and questioned the value in passing something inconsequential just to make people feel better.
“I think my problem with this is when we start saying, ‘This is good enough,’ then we’re not going to get any further,” said Fernandez, D-Yuma. “Right now is the time to be courageous.”
Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, argued that even the original version of the STOP order plan was too cumbersome and had too many loopholes, and that similar laws are already on the books. Friese said Ducey’s plan was nothing more than political lip service and called it a “watered-down red flag law.”
Friese noted that legislation he sponsored to institute background checks at gun shows, require safe storage of firearms, create mental health firearms injunctions, ban bump stocks and even to simply create a study committee never received consideration by the full House.
But he believes the movement is gaining momentum, and said he’s planning to speak with the Ducey administration soon about expanding background checks.
“We are making progress on this issue. There are cracks in this wall. We’re going to be like water dripping into these cracks until they open up. And I think settling for something that is not meaningful is detrimental to the cause” Friese said.
Even if Democrats support Ducey’s proposal for STOP orders, they’ll still need at least some Republican support in each chamber of the legislature, which could prove difficult, given there is no shortage of Republicans who opposed the governor’s proposal as too far-reaching and an infringement upon the constitutionally protected right to bear arms.
And, as Bradley and Hernandez noted, much will depend on the governor.
Ducey did little to advance the issue throughout the 2019 legislative session, and Republican legislative leaders said the administration never reached out to them regarding the plan. Bradley told the Mirror that Democratic leadership had an early discussion with the administration, but, “as I recall, we never got to discussion number two.”
No bill to enact Ducey’s school safety plan was even introduced in the legislature in 2019.
The governor has recently spoken about reviving the plan in 2020, but it’s unclear how committed he is. Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak noted that the budget for the current fiscal year includes $20 million for some elements of the governor’s school safety plan, such putting more counselors and police officers on campuses.
However, Ptak told the Arizona Mirror, “the legislature has not acted to pass the law to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who are a danger to themselves or others.”
Ptak said the Ducey administration is still willing to work with lawmakers from both parties on the issue and hopes “both sides can come together to advance commonsense policies that will make a meaningful impact,” but wouldn’t commit to pushing legislation to make STOP orders a reality in the 2020 legislative session.