KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
After every mass shooting, there is a lot of talk about whether the country needs tougher gun control laws. Democrats are talking about it right now on the Senate floor in a push to get Congress to act, but a lot of states, including big states like California and New York, have acted, as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: You hear a lot about the fact that after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, Congress did nothing - no new gun laws, no effort to curb ownership of weapons like the AR-15 or the similar rifle known as the Sig Sauer MCX that was reportedly used in Orlando.
But just a few weeks after Sandy Hook, New York's legislature passed the Safe Act. The law banned the sale of rifles with military-style features, including high-capacity magazines. That winter, I found myself in a packed conference room in upstate New York surrounded by gun owners like Steve Bizell who were trying to figure out how they could beat the new law.
STEVE BIZELL: So the sale of assault weapons banned in New York. So what if I got to Vermont and buy one and bring it into New York?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You couldn't possess it in New York.
BIZELL: So I'm dead in the water. I could never have an assault weapon.
MANN: These weapons haven't vanished overnight in New York. People who owned military-style rifles before the sales ban went into effect were allowed to keep them. They were grandfathered in if they registered with state police. More than 45,000 New Yorkers are now in the state's assault weapon database.
ADAM WINKLER: The state level is where the action is for gun control today.
MANN: That's Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA who wrote a book about the gun control debate called "Gunfight." He says New York isn't alone in going after these weapons.
WINKLER: People constantly say, oh, nothing's ever changed; we're at a complete stalemate on guns. And if you only look at Congress, that's right, but since Newtown, we've seen a wave of legislation at the state level, including restrictive new laws in California and Washington, Oregon, Colorado, New Jersey, Maryland, New York. We can go on and on.
MANN: Winkler says about half of Americans now live in states where gun laws have tightened significantly the last few years. The architects of those laws, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, still want Congress to act. Cuomo spoke at a rally this week outside The Stonewall Inn, an LGBT landmark in New York City.
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ANDREW CUOMO: It does us no good as a state to outlaw an assault weapon when someone can get in a car and drive three hours to another state and buy it and drive it over our border. Until we have a national policy, none of us are safe.
MANN: The national ban on the sale of rifles like the AR-15 and the Sig Sauer MCX expired 12 ago. Adam Winkler says in most states, including Florida, which has permissive gun laws, weapons of this type quickly became big sellers.
WINKLER: They become extremely popular. People who are gun hobbyists who go to the shooting range every weekend - they love these firearms.
MANN: No one keeps accurate records of the total number of these firearms now in civilian hands. One industry group estimates that a million and half guns with military-style features are sold in the U.S. every year. Despite mass shootings like Sandy Hook and Orlando, Bob Schulz thinks that's a good thing. He says these weapons keep people safe.
BOB SCHULZ: You know, what match does a homeowner have with a handgun against two, three, four people who decide to invade?
MANN: Schulz is a Second Amendment activist who sued unsuccessfully to overturn New York's Safe Act. He worries that mass shootings could cause other states to follow New York's lead.
SCHULZ: We could go too far. This could be a very slippery slope.
MANN: There are no good studies, no clear data so far on whether these state-level gun laws make people safer. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Westport, N.Y.