- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2011

Newly minted Republican lawmakers who stormed state legislatures with vows of fixing the economy and controlling spending also are tackling social issues, such as gun laws and immigration, with minimal Democratic resistance.

“This is the Republican high-water mark in terms of state legislatures since before the New Deal, in both the number of Republicans and the number of chambers they’ve taken over,” said John Fortier, a political specialist with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.

“These are issues that are important to these new state majorities. They haven’t had an opportunity to weigh in on them.”

Norm Ornstein, also of AEI, added that social issues are tempting subjects for conservative legislators because they’re easier to tackle than economic and budget problems.

“If they don’t focus on social issues, they’ve got to focus on economic ones, and … who wants to do that?” he said.

Days after a gunman in Tucson, Ariz., this month killed six and wounded 13, including seriously injuring Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, state lawmakers in Arizona introduced a bill that would allow college and university faculty to carry concealed weapons on campus. The issue also gained traction after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.

Other bills introduced this year in Arizona in the Republican-controlled Legislature include barring landlords and homeowner groups from restricting the right to bear arms in self-defense, and expanding the law that allows gun owners to display weapons in self-defense.

Arizona state Sen. Jack Harper, a Republican who has sponsored the campus-carry measures, said he is not trying to take advantage of the Tucson tragedy to garner support for his legislation but that “university professors are tired of feeling like sitting ducks.”

In Florida, a bill that would permit licensed gun owners to carry firearms on state college and university campuses is scheduled for debate this year.

Florida Republicans — who hold significant advantages in the state House and Senate and occupy the governor’s office — also are expected to push a bill that would allow people with concealed-weapons permits to wear handguns on their hips in public view.

Florida Sen. Greg Evers, a Republican who sponsored the “open carry” legislation, says he has no reservations in the wake of the Arizona shooting.

“We are one of four states that doesn’t have open carry. It’s the right thing to do,” Florida Capital News reported Mr. Evers as saying. “The only way to stop a perpetrator is with equal force.”

Wisconsin is one of two states to prohibit the concealed carry of firearms, but that could change with Republicans in control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion.

Gov. Scott Walker said that unlike his Democratic predecessor, James E. Doyle, he likely won’t veto legislation aimed at loosening concealed-gun laws.

“You’re going to see a concealed-carry bill pass the Legislature, I have no doubt,” said Wisconsin state Assemblyman Chris Danou, a Democrat. “The question is, what kind of bill it’s going to be.”

Carrying a gun on New Hampshire’s state House floor now is OK, thanks to rules passed this month by the Republican-dominated chamber.

The rules also allow visitors to the House gallery to carry firearms, but prohibits their display.

“This is an open-carry state and while, for matters of decorum, I do support only concealed weapons in the chamber, anteroom and gallery, it is important that students understand this is part of our proud tradition,” said Shawn Jasper, a Republican House member.

Public opinion on the issue of gun control and gun rights has changed little in the wake of the Tucson shooting, polls show.

A Pew Research survey taken days after the shooting showed that 49 percent of Americans said it was more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns, while 46 percent said it was more important to control gun ownership.

In September, a similar Pew survey showed that 50 percent of survey respondents prioritized gun control, while 46 percent said gun rights were more important.

Gun rights aren’t the only social issue that Republicans are eager to tackle at the state level. Republicans who swept control of state governments across the country in November proclaimed jobs were their top priority, but pressure has been building to achieve the party’s social goals.

Republican state lawmakers in early January kicked off a campaign to end the automatic granting of U.S. citizenship to children born in the United States of illegal immigrants, as allowed under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

The lawmakers — from Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina — said they wanted to force a Supreme Court review of the 14th Amendment or force Congress to take action with legislation they’ve drafted targeting automatic citizenship.

“We want to have our day in court,” said Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh. “All we’re asking for is for these bills to prompt the Supreme Court to re-evaluate what we believe is an erroneous interpretation of the 14th Amendment.”

The state lawmakers said they didn’t know how many states would be willing to adopt their proposals, although Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe predicted at least 18 to 20.

In Florida, legislators are considering a comprehensive Arizona-style immigration measure. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who just took office, made it one of the biggest social issues of his 2010 campaign.

One proposal would allow police, during a lawful detention or arrest, to ask for immigration documents if the officer suspects the detainee may be in the country illegally.

Wisconsin lawmakers kicked off their first day of Republican control of state government this month by circulating bills on voter registration, all-terrain vehicles, stem-cell research and self-defense.

Attempts by Kansas lawmakers in past years to restrict late-term abortions were thwarted by Democratic governors. But with Gov. Sam Brownback — a former U.S. senator in the Republican Party and a longtime opponent of abortion rights — the GOP-controlled state Legislature may succeed this year in placing limits on abortion rights.

“I call on the Legislature to bring to my desk legislation that protects the unborn, establishing a culture of life in Kansas,” Mr. Brownback said in his first State of the State address.

Republican state legislators in Kansas who aim to curtail illegal immigration also want to repeal a law that provides in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who graduate from Kansas high schools.

But an overemphasis on social issues could backfire on Republican lawmakers, as voters are more interested in retaining and creating jobs than anything else, said AEI’s Mr. Ornstein.

“Certainly in the states, if you can’t do something in economic terms, I don’t think voters are going to be very happy,” he said.

“If [voters] believe that what is happening is, you’ve turned your focus to guns and abortion instead of to cushioning the blows of a difficult economy, [Republicans] are not likely to be in the majority very long.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.