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Guns and abortion: How you exercise your constitutional rights depends on where you live

By Bill Barrow

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 8 2013 12:30 p.m. MDT

In this Jan. 19, 2013 file photo James Wilson of Elmore, Ala., left, rallies against gun control during a demonstration at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Ala

Dave Martin, File, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The U.S. Supreme Court says women in America can terminate a pregnancy and that every citizen has an individual right to own a firearm, but those rulings have done little to settle political arguments over abortion and guns.

The result is an uneven medley of state laws, which means that just how you can exercise those constitutional rights depends on where you live, and the differences often turn on whether a state is run by Democrats or Republicans.

Governors and state lawmakers continue sharpening the disparities with new abortion statutes and a range of gun laws, several of which followed the mass killing last year at a Connecticut elementary school.

Republican-controlled states typically make it harder to procure an abortion but easier to buy weapons and carry them where you please. Live in a state where Democrats run things? You're less likely to have a waiting period before ending a pregnancy but more likely to have one before buying a gun, and you may not to be able to buy certain semi-automatic weapons at all.

Many Democratic lawmakers reacted to the December massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school with calls for tighter gun restrictions. Many Republican legislators worked to relax gun-carrying laws and put more weapons into schools, from hiring guards to arming teachers and principals.

Constitutional law expert Randy Barnett, at Georgetown University Law Center, said the landscape demonstrates that politics is at play before and after the Supreme Court weighs in. "It's not a matter of sophisticated constitutional law," Barnett said, but of "hot-button wedge issues for one side of the spectrum or the other.'"

The lesson also extends to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and wrangling over same-sex marriage laws.

The Supreme Court ratified the main parts of the health care law, but Republicans at the state level have frustrated its implementation. On marriage, the court as early as Monday could release decisions in two cases. Most legal analysts expect declarations that allow state-by-state debates to continue, rather than an absolute ruling that mandates same-sex marriage equality everywhere.

Different practical outcomes around the country result from justices recognizing citizens' constitutional rights to abortion and gun ownership, while also seeing room for "reasonable regulation," Barnett said. "That gives a huge opening to political movements attempting to push the boundaries of what can be called 'reasonable.'"

Out of 27 legislatures that Republicans control outright, at least 23 have passed measures in the past two years that NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion-rights group, calls "anti-choice." Assigning each state an overall letter grade for their access laws, NARAL rated 22 of the GOP-run states as failing. Only Montana rated an A. Among the 18 states controlled by Democrats, 11 scored an A, and the only one to rate lower than a C was Rhode Island, which received a D plus.

On firearms, Democratic statehouses haven't gone as far with restrictive legislation as Republicans have on abortion. But the tightest limits — and the newest — still come almost entirely in more liberal states.

Fewer than a dozen states limit the sale of semi-automatic weapons; 17 states and Washington, D.C., require background checks or records for gun sales beyond federal requirements; and 11 states have waiting periods for certain purchases. In those groups, the GOP runs just Florida and Pennsylvania, though Democrats controlled both when most of the relevant laws passed.

In Alabama this year, Republican supermajorities addressed both guns and abortion.

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