BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana has the highest rate of gun violence in the nation and the weakest gun safety laws, according to a recent national study, and state lawmakers are moving to expand the already permissive statutes.
According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit group that tracks gun regulations around the nation, Louisiana's push is contrary to a national trend toward strengthening firearm laws after the recent Connecticut mass school shooting.
"It puts Louisiana in the same category as a minority of states that spend time on largely symbolic measures," said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center. "These laws clearly are not going to be upheld. It's something the courts will have to decide, not the states."
The most far-reaching gun proposals in the Louisiana Legislature seek to preempt federal law, as a states' rights issue. They have been easily approved in the House and await action in the Senate.
One measure, by Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, would prohibit enforcement of any federal restrictions on semi-automatic weapons. After opponents of the bill repeatedly questioned the legality of the proposal, the Senate delayed a vote, but supporters vowed to return for another attempt to get it passed.
Another proposal, by Rep. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie, would create the Louisiana Manufactured Firearms and Ammunition Act, to allow gun buyers to circumvent any federal gun law if the weapon was manufactured in the state and remained there. It awaits a hearing in the Senate's budget committee.
Similar efforts have been tried in other states.
A Montana federal appeals court is considering the merits of a state law after a lower court rejected that state's Firearms Freedom Act as unconstitutional. Montana was the first state to create such a law in 2009 that would prohibit federal oversight of state-made firearms.
In April, Kansas lawmakers passed a bill later signed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback that prohibits federal enforcement of any national firearm laws if the guns are state-made. That prompted a warning letter to Brownback from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stating that the law violated the U.S. Constitution.
Around the nation, 1,152 bills were filed related to gun regulations this year. Of those, 603 sought to strengthen laws and 549 would weaken them, Cutilletta said.
The trend toward boosting restrictions on guns can be attributed to the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. that left 20 elementary school students and six educators dead. They were shot with a semi-automatic weapon.
"I think that resonated with people and gave legislators a lot more courage because they knew they had the voices of the people behind them," Cutilletta said.
But in Louisiana, bills aimed at toughening regulations on weapons never made it past the first debate, including one that would have required owners to secure their weapons in a locked box or with some type of safety trigger when stored in a home.
Supporters of proposals to loosen gun restrictions have brushed aside colleagues' arguments that gun access should not be expanded in a state where a study reports the number of per capital gun deaths is nearly three times higher than the national average.
"It's important that we don't govern by crisis," said Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas.
Guillory and many other Democrats have voted with Republicans this session to advance pro-gun legislation, like a proposal by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, that would make it a misdemeanor to release or publish the names and addresses of people who own or have applied for concealed handgun permits.
The bill has been backed by both the House and Senate and awaits approval of a final version before heading to Gov. Bobby Jindal's desk. It would carry a $10,000 fine for anyone who publishes the information, like reporters or bloggers.
According to a study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, Louisiana had more deaths per capita from guns than any other state from 2001 to 2010. The study indicated that Louisiana has the highest gun-homicide rate among residents 19 years old and younger.
Cutilletta's organization gave the state an "F," ranking it 45th out of 50 states in terms of gun safety. She said there appears to be a correlation between "weak" state gun laws and the slew of bills filed in those states that seek to override or nullify federal laws.
Lawmakers in 30 states, including Louisiana, introduced some type of legislation this year to restrict federal oversight of gun regulations, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Although the sense of urgency for restricting possible federal gun control laws has waned since a bill to expand background checks didn't make it out of the U.S. Senate earlier this year, gun advocates say laws that limit federal enforcement are needed on the books.
"It doesn't mean they won't come back in the future," Lopinto said.