By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Florida earned a passing grade for the first time on an annual gun-safety report card compiled by a prominent advocacy group, after the state led all others in bolstering its firearms laws in the year since the deadly Parkland school shooting.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence was to release its annual analysis on Friday, days before the first anniversary of the shooting, which killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The incident intensified a national debate over gun violence, prompting a wave of student-led walkouts and pushing lawmakers to pass 67 gun safety bills in 26 states and Washington, D.C., according to the center's data.
Overall, 10 states did enough to improve their grades, starting with Florida, which went from an "F" to a "C-minus" after passing a package of laws weeks after the shooting.
Among the reforms, Florida allowed judges to remove firearms from people who pose a danger to others, raised the minimum age to buy long guns, and strengthened waiting period requirements before purchases.
"This was really a remarkable year, and it really shows how much change can happen in one year," said Laura Cutilletta, the center's managing director.
Vermont passed the first gun safety laws in its history, the center said, going from an "F" to a D-minus." The state, where a large proportion of residents live in rural areas, now requires criminal background checks for all purchases and allows for the removal of firearms from dangerous individuals and domestic abusers. It also banned high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The center considers every state's gun laws and assigns grades based on how effectively those laws curb gun violence, based on years of academic research, Cutilletta said.
The only two states to receive "A" grades are California, which has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, and New Jersey, which passed several new laws in 2018.
Twenty-one states earned a failing grade, with Mississippi ranked last at No. 50.
The data shows a clear link between stricter firearms laws and reduced rates of gun deaths, Cutilletta said. The 10 states with the highest levels of gun deaths all earned "F" grades for their gun laws, while states with stricter laws had lower levels of violence, according to the center.
The National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations have questioned that correlation, arguing that restrictions curb the rights of law-abiding citizens while doing little to deter criminals.
Universal background checks remain the "foundational" law that all states should pass, Cutilletta said.
Federal law requires criminal background checks for guns bought from licensed dealers, but no checks are required for private sales or gun shows purchases. Republicans in Congress have blocked bills seeking to expand the checks to all sales.
The center is named for Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who founded the group after she was wounded in a mass shooting in 2011.
To see the full report, visit http://gunlawscorecard.org.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)