Arizona House Dems Want Special Session on Gun Safety; Republicans Balk

A gun show.
A gun show. Flikr user Glasglows, CC BY-2.0
Arizona legislators are talking about gun safety again.

Following the back-to-back mass shootings in Texas and Ohio last weekend that claimed the lives of 31 people, House Democratic leaders have called for a special session to pass gun restrictions in Arizona.

Democratic House minority leader Charlene Fernandez broke the news on Tuesday to Capitol Media Services' Howie Fischer. She followed up with a tweet calling for "universal background checks, bans on military-style assault rifles, limits on high-capacity magazines, and other gun safety legislation to protect Arizonans."

But don't count on Arizona's legislators to gather in Phoenix this summer.

Republican leaders in both legislative chambers oppose a special session. And Governor Doug Ducey has given no indication that he plans to use his power to summon all 90 lawmakers to the Arizona Capitol. Ducey spokesperson Patrick Ptak emphasized that Ducey remains in support of a proposal that would make it easier for the judicial system to restrict people with mental illness from access to guns, but did not comment specifically on a special session.

"We remain willing to work with legislators from both parties on this issue and are hopeful both sides can come together to advance commonsense policies that will make a meaningful impact," he said.

In a statement to the media, Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers said he does not believe lawmakers "can accomplish anything meaningful" in a special session without a plan for what they hope to pass.

"I think a more productive approach is to use the time before next year’s session to develop pragmatic policy proposals that will protect our friends and families from violence, including gun violence, that can actually receive the support needed to pass out of the Legislature,” Bowers said.

House Democratic co-whip Dr. Randy Friese disputed the notion that lawmakers need to have a bill in mind to convene a special session, arguing that the period would give legislators time to craft policy that would appease both Democrats and Republicans.

"I'm saying let's use the tool, a special session, to come together. It's going to take more than two days," said Friese, a trauma surgeon who treated former Congressman Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head during the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson.

History suggests Friese's optimism over the possibility of bipartisan gun legislation anytime soon is misplaced.

Fernandez's announcement on Tuesday brought to mind Democrats' rejected call for a special session in May 2018, following the mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, that killed 10 people.

In response to the shooting, Ducey proposed a "school safety" bill that would have hired more school resource officers and given judges more power to restrict gun access for people with mental illness, among other actions.

Ducey's initial bill received criticism from both Republicans, who felt it could encroach on Second Amendment rights, and Democrats, who said it didn't go far enough to address gun violence.

While the National Rifle Association supported the legislation — another red flag for Democrats — the more militant Arizona Citizens Defense League opposed the bill over its inclusion of language that would allow for Severe Threat Orders of Protection (STOP), which give the legal system more power to remove guns from the hands of unstable people.

Ducey's 2018 "school safety" bill died in the Senate. The 2019 legislative session was even more uneventful for gun control, with neither chamber taking up any significant legislation.

As the Legislature failed to pass any gun control bills in recent years, Ducey has signed laws designed to make it more difficult for local jurisdictions to pass firearm restrictions. In 2016, Ducey signed a bill that prevents cities from passing gun control ordinances, as well as legislation that bans school boards from prohibiting people from possessing guns in the right-of-way adjacent to a campus.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the shooting that led Democrats to call for a special session in 2018.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh