New Year, New Laws: States Diverge On Gun Rights, Voting Restrictions

Jan 2, 2016
Originally published on January 4, 2016 9:51 am

With the New Year comes a long list of new laws taking effect across the country.

In some cases, those laws show states moving in starkly different directions on polarizing issues — especially voting and gun rights. Here are four examples of controversial laws taking effect now that 2016 has arrived:

Tightening Voting Rules In N.C. ...

Starting this week, North Carolinians are required to show photo ID at the polls. It's the most controversial part of a set of changes to the state's voter registration laws that were passed more than two years ago.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory tried to downplay the changes when he signed them back in 2013, calling them "common-sense reforms."

"You need photo ID to board an airplane, to cash a check or even apply for most government benefits," McCrory said.

But critics of the law say fears of voter fraud are overstated. Rev. William Barber, the head of North Carolina's NAACP, says the law's real goal is to suppress turnout among core Democratic voters.

He calls it "the worst voter suppression law in the country — targeted in a way that it hurts African-Americans, and women, and the poor."

NPR's Ailsa Chang explored the objections to the law back in 2013.

North Carolina passed language softening the photo ID requirement last summer. But that hasn't satisfied the NAACP, which is still fighting the law in court.

... And Expanding Voter Rolls In Oregon

Across the country in Oregon, residents will now be automatically registered to vote when they get a driver's license or state ID card. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed that bill last March.

"Oregon is a true leader in accessibility to voting. And I challenge every other state in this nation to ensure that there are as few barriers as possible in the way of a citizen's right to vote," Brown said at the time.

NPR's Domenico Montanaro explored how the law works, and the debate over whether increasing voter registration will actually increase turnout:

" Go to renew your driver's license in Oregon, and you will now be signed up to vote automatically.

"It's the first state in the country with that sort of law, which is designed to make voting easier, and stands in contrast to the trend seen in the past several years in more conservative states. ...

"In Oregon, the law could swell voter rolls by hundreds of thousands. If other states follow suit, it could have a dramatic effect on the U.S. voting process."

An Option To Seize Guns In California ...

Restrictions on guns are getting tighter in California, where people can now ask a judge to temporarily seize weapons away from relatives who may pose a threat. Former state Assembly member Nancy Skinner, a Democrat, introduced the bill in 2014 after a disturbed man killed six people in Isla Vista.

"There are many emotionally charged circumstances that can cause people to be temporarily deranged," Skinner said. "Mix those emotionally charged circumstances with a gun and we have potential for lethal consequences."

Gun rights advocates say the law is a major overreach.

Member station KPCC covered the debate in 2014:

"The bill does not single out the mentally ill, but rather focuses on the danger any person may pose for any reason. And that has helped earn it support from an unlikely ally: the Los Angeles-based Mental Health Advocacy Services, a non-profit group that promotes the legal rights of those with mental disabilities. ...

"Still, some are worried about the potential for abuse.

" 'If we're going to take away someone's constitutional rights we can only do so if someone has some good reasons and good evidence to back it up," [law professor Adam] Winkler says. "

... And More Open-Carry In Texas

In Texas, which already has some of the most permissive gun laws of any state, Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed a law making it legal for citizens with permits to openly carry handguns.

"I am proud to expand the rights of gun owners in the state of Texas," he said, as he signed the law in 2015.

Critics say the law will make Texans less safe, not more. But despite opposition from many of the state's police chiefs, the open carry law passed easily.

It's long been legal in Texas to open-carry long guns, like rifles and shotguns. (People exercising that right at armed gatherings in 2014 raised anxiety in some people, as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reported).

Member station KUT spoke with the Austin police department about what, exactly, the impact of the new law will be, including the fact that some specific locations will continue to have a prohibition on both conceal-carry and open-carry, and private businesses can choose to bar firearms from their premises.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With the new year comes a long list of new laws taking effect across the country. Those laws show states moving in starkly different directions on some polarizing issues, especially voting and gun rights, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Of all the laws going into effect, the most contentious might be in North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT MCCRORY: The integrity of our election process is vital to our democracy, which is why I've signed today several common-sense reforms.

ROSE: Republican Gov. Pat McCrory tried to downplay changes to the state's voter registration laws when he signed them back in 2013, including the most controversial part that takes effect this week - requiring North Carolinians to show photo ID at the polls.

MCCRORY: You need a photo ID to board an airplane, to cash a check, or even apply for most government benefits.

ROSE: But critics of the law say fears of vote fraud are overstated. Rev. William Barber is the head of North Carolina's NAACP. He says the law's real goal is to suppress turnout among core Democratic voters.

WILLIAM BARBER: The worst voter suppression law in the country - targeted in a way that it hurts African-Americans and women and the poor.

ROSE: North Carolina passed language softening the photo ID requirement last summer. But that has not satisfied the NAACP, which is still fighting the law in court. Across the country in Oregon, residents will now be able automatically registered to vote when they get a driver's license or a state ID card. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed that bill last March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATE BROWN: Oregon is a true leader in accessibility to voting, and I challenge every other state in this nation to ensure that there are as few barriers as possible in the way of a citizen's right to vote.

(APPLAUSE)

ROSE: The other hot-button issue is guns. Restrictions are getting tighter in California, where people can now ask a judge to temporarily seize weapons away from relatives who may pose a threat. Former State Assembly member Nancy Skinner, a Democrat, introduced the bill in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY SKINNER: There are many emotionally-charged circumstances that can cause people to be temporarily deranged. Mix those emotionally-charged circumstances with a gun and we have potential for lethal consequences.

ROSE: Gun rights advocates say the California law is a major overreach. Contrast that with what's happening in Texas, which already has some of the most permissive gun laws of any state. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law making it legal for citizens with permits to openly carry handguns.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: I am proud to expand the rights of gun owners in the state of Texas by signing into law open carry in Texas.

ROSE: Critics say the law will make Texans less safe, not more. But despite opposition from many of the state's police chiefs, the open carry law passed easily. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.