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Partisan gerrymanders stopped gun controls in five states, think tank says

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One of the most prominent talking points in the entire democracy reform movement is that curbing money's sway over elections is a prerequisite to fixing every one of the nation's biggest problems. Now critics of partisan gerrymandering are trying to piggyback on that concept.

A new study concludes that aggressive legislative mapmaking by Republican majorities is responsible for the lack of any new gun control laws in five states during a decade marked by the accelerating pace of mass shootings.

In issuing the report Tuesday, the Center for American Progress, one of Washington's most influential liberal think tanks, joined the lengthening roster of groups advocating for states to take the drawing of political boundaries away from the politicians themselves in and turn the responsibility over to independent and nonpartisan panels.

Fourteen states have already given such panels authority to draw state legislative lines starting in 2021, after the census exposes population shifts mandating new lines that confirm with the Constitution's one-person-one-vote requirement. Eight of them have also assigned the next congressional maps to commissions.

Several states with the full array of partisan power structures — reliably Democratic, solidly Republican and battleground — may soon join that list through legislation or a citizen-driven referendum, but maybe not in time for the next redistricting.

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All five of the states studied by the Center for American Progress, or CAP, have been on center stage in the gerrymandering debate: North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.

"In each of these states, it is likely, in the absence of partisan gerrymandering, that the legislature would have enacted measures to strengthen gun laws — measures that could have saved lives," the report concluded.

That's because all their legislative maps were successfully drawn at the start of the 2010s to assure that Republicans — who have remained almost unanimously opposed to additional regulation of firearms or new curbs on gun ownership — retained legislative control no matter how strong the Democratic vote in subsequent elections. And in last year's midterm, CAP notes, the GOP held control in four of the legislatures even though Democratic candidates won more total votes in state House contests in all of those states and in state Senate elections in three.

While 32 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted a combined 110 gun control measures in the nearly two years since 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., the report details, no such bills have come close to becoming law in any of those five states despite extensive campaigns in each place.

"Partisan gerrymandering is one of the reasons why a public that supports stronger gun laws can be represented by state legislators who do nothing, even in the wake of severe episodes of gun violence," CAP said. "Even when there is bipartisan support for a particular gun policy, conservative leadership in many state legislatures persistently refuse to allow such bills to have a hearing or a vote, even if the bills have bipartisan support."

The situation is particularly problematic, the authors say, because a disproportionate share of gun violence victims are young people and members of racial minorities who live in deep blue Democratic urban areas — but policies that could help them are under the control of Republican red officials with disproportionate political power.

The good news, they say, is that overt partisanship in mapmaking is in jeopardy in all five states.

North Carolina's legislative lines were redrawn this fall after a panel of judges declared the old map a violation of the state Constitution's "fair elections" clause. A very similar ruling two years ago voided a Pennsylvania congressional map and could threaten the legislative maps as well. Michigan voters a year ago voted to create a nonpolitical redistricting commission by next year. A similar proposal could be on the Virginia ballot as soon as next fall. And legislation to do the same has growing grassroots support in Wisconsin.

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