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Tulsa mass shooting reignites gun policy debate in Oklahoma

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Beth Wallis
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Police cars are parked outside of the St. Francis medical campus, where a man shot and killed four people before turning the gun on himself.

On the afternoon of June 1, a man walked into a local gun store and bought an AR-style rifle. A few hours later, he used that rifle and a handgun he’d purchased two days before to kill four people at a Tulsa medical center before turning the gun on himself.

This came just a week after an 18-year-old bought an AR-style rifle and days later massacred 19 children and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas.

And that came a little over a week after an 18-year-old, who had previously threatened a murder-suicide at his high school, purchased a semiautomatic rifle and killed 10 people in Buffalo.

In Oklahoma, someone is killed with a gun every 12 hours, and the state ranks in the country’s top 10 for weakest gun regulations.

As mass shootings continue to make headlines around the country, advocates for gun reform in Oklahoma have a long and uncertain road ahead.

How did Oklahoma’s gun policies get to where they are today?

The state’s majority-Republican legislature has passed a series of bills over the last decade to deregulate gun restrictions and strengthen ownership and use rights:

  • 2012: SB 1733 allows for open carry with a permit.
  • 2014: SB 1845 allows a person who’s been involuntarily committed or adjudicated to petition the court to remove the disability that prevents the person from getting a gun.
  • 2015: HB 2014 allows designated staff members to carry firearms at schools.
  • 2017: SB 397 allows people to carry guns on public buses.
  • 2018: HB 2632 allows people to use the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law at places of worship.
  • 2019: HB 2010 allows for concealed carry at parks and zoos.
  • 2020: SB 1081 creates the nation’s first and so far only anti-red flag law, which prevents local governments from enacting red flag laws. Red flag laws allow for household members, family and/or police to petition the courts to confiscate guns from someone who is deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.
  • 2021: SB 631 joins other states in making Oklahoma a “Second Amendment Sanctuary State.” This means if any government — federal, state or local — orders a buyback, confiscation or surrender of their guns, accessories or ammunition, the state would consider it to be an “infringement on the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms.”

One lawmaker who’s been involved in Oklahoma’s gun reform conversations throughout her 12-year tenure in office is House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. Virgin said in the last few years, she’s seen a dramatic shift in the legislature to “a much more extreme position” on access to firearms.
“What I saw was that after President Obama got elected, this messaging from really national Republicans and the NRA became that Democrats were going to take your guns away,” Virgin said. “And so of course you saw that in the sale of guns and ammo, and you saw that, of course, with laws at the Capitol.”

Virgin said the consensus on gun policy from the Norman Republicans she represents is mixed.

“There are some of my constituents who would not like for me to support anything that deals with gun safety,” Virgin said. “But I hear, though, from Republicans in my district and in other districts that are really fed up with the way that Republicans in Oklahoma are getting more and more extreme on gun policy. … That’s the most common thing that I hear from Republicans, is that they support the Second Amendment. They’re gun owners — but it’s gone too far.”

One organization that’s served as the driving force behind much of the state’s recent gun deregulation is the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association (OK2A). It describes itself as the state’s “leading advocate for Second Amendment rights.” Virgin said the lobbying group has had a persistent influence in the legislature.

According to its website, from 2015-2021, of the 37 pro-gun bills OK2A helped pass, the group requested and wrote language for 25 of them.

“There is this rhetoric that any restriction on gun ownership or the carrying of a gun is unconstitutional,” Virgin said. “And I think that’s what OK2A believes, and that’s what they advocate for at the Capitol, that any restriction, any regulation, any permitting — that that goes against the Second Amendment.”

And OK2A’s president, Don Spencer, echoed a similar sentiment from Virgin: when a Democrat is in the White House, people buy more guns.

“With the threat of [assault weapons] being taken away, when Obama went in there in 2008, [sales] just completely skyrocketed,” Spencer said. “So now, the amount of people that own them — and it’s even going up even more because Biden is making his claims to take them away — and so [sales are] going to continue to go up even higher.”

President Joe Biden has recently called for a ban on assault weapons, raising the minimum age to purchase these weapons, strengthening background checks and passing red flag laws.

On the issue of banning assault weapons like AR-15s, Spencer said that type of gun is necessary for situations like home invasions, but also for much more substantial adversaries — like the U.S. government.

“That’s why you need an AR-15. (…) The worst case scenario of a tyrannical government coming to take away that gun,” Spencer said. “You need that gun to stop them.”

Spencer said in the case of the Tulsa shooting — where 45-year-old Michael Louis used a handgun and an AR-style rifle — he thinks more facility security, rather than gun regulations, could’ve stopped the attack. He also said one point is being left out of the conversation about the Tulsa shooting:

“People are so quick to jump to blame the gun and not the person, because they’re not giving the gun credit for stopping this person, because they ended up committing suicide,” Spencer said.

What do we know about gun ownership and gun violence?

Gun ownership has increased substantially in the last few years. In 2011, Americans owned guns at a rate of 88 guns per 100 people. That number is now 120.5 guns per 100 people.

When it comes to firearm deaths, in 2020 alone, more than 45,000 people in the U.S. died from being shot — both from homicide and suicide — more than any other recorded year. It represents a 43% increase in gun deaths from 2010.

Data collected by Columbia University research professor Louis Klarevas, for his 2016 book Rampage Nation, show when compared to the 10-year period before the 1994 federal assault weapons ban took effect, mass shootings (defined as an incident with six or more deaths) dropped by 37%. After the ban expired in 2004, mass shootings increased by more than 180%. Fatalities jumped by nearly 240%.

As for the relationship between gun ownership and gun deaths, a 2009 study published in the National Library of Medicine found people in possession of a gun were about 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than people without guns. In assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, the odds of the victim being shot increased to about 5.5 times.

But overall, the results of gun violence studies are mixed and complex. For example, in a meta-analysis of the 35 most recent academic studies since 2005 on concealed carry carry, five studies showed a decrease in crime when concealed carry laws were weakened, while 23 showed an increase in crime.

What’s it like for gun reform advocates in a state like Oklahoma?

The national opinion on gun policy is divided on party lines. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll taken after the Tulsa shooting found 90% of Democrats wanted to prioritize gun control laws. That number drops to around 40% of Republicans.

In Oklahoma, Democrats have butted heads repeatedly with a pro-gun majority legislature. A day after the Tulsa shooting, Oklahoma’s House Democratic Caucus called a press conference in which they unveiled the Stand Against Violence and Extremism (SAVE) Act.

The measure aims to repeal several gun laws, including permitless carry, the anti-red flag law and the law allowing concealed carry in parks and zoos. It would also put in place new laws, like implementing a waiting period when purchasing guns, raising the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon and creating a statewide red flag law.

“What happened in Tulsa is absolutely preventable,” Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said at the conference. “It is unfortunate that this legislature is now focused on preventing mass shootings in the state of Oklahoma. Three years ago, I led [the effort] to repeal permitless carry, and we gathered over 30,000 signatures in 11 days. I truly believe that the state of Oklahoma believes in this.”

Kay Malan, a volunteer with the Oklahoma chapter of the gun reform advocacy group Moms Demand Action, said getting gun control measures passed in the historically pro-gun state of Oklahoma is a tall order.

“Unfortunately, we really have an uphill battle in Oklahoma because our lawmakers tend to listen to gun extremists rather than responsible gun owners,” Malan said.

Moms Demand Action is pushing for measures like red flag laws, universal background checks and raising the minimum age to buy a gun. While gun reform is a tough sell in states like Oklahoma, she said she’s seen nearly 2,000 residents sign up to volunteer in the wake of the Tulsa shooting.

“There’s no one single law that will stop gun violence,” Malan said. “And so we need a multifaceted approach. We need more responsible people to put aside politics and opinions and work together to save lives as a moral imperative.”

The word Malan uses to describe the group’s work is ‘relentless.’ And as more mass shootings continue to thrust the gun policy conversation back into the zeitgeist, Malan said she feels an urgency to keep pushing forward — regardless of the pushback.

“Sometimes the work can get discouraging,” Malan said. “However… If we remain silent, if we get discouraged and we no longer speak and act and move our feet, who is going to do the work? Who is going to speak up? (…) We have to keep on being loud in order to draw attention, because right now, the loudest voices from a minority group are coming from extremists. We need to be louder.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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