Gun debate rekindled as children laid to rest

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 17, 2012 - 11:59 PM

Minnesotans jump into the discussion, mindful of gun owners' rights.

WASHINGTON - The echo of a distant gun debate is shaking the political world as the horrific details emerge from Newtown, Conn., the site of what could be the most chilling mass murder yet in a nation that has been buffeted by maniacal shooting rampages.

For Minnesotans in Congress, where the issue has been dormant for years, some of the first public utterances were expressions of condolence that generally steered clear of gun politics, a source of deep and passionate national divisions.

But signs are emerging that the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary could rekindle a national debate in ways that dozens of other school shootings have not.

On Monday, President Obama began the first serious push of his administration to attempt to reduce gun violence, directing Cabinet members to formulate a set of proposals that could include reinstating a ban on assault rifles, the Washington Post reported.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was among several senators on Monday calling for a new ban on assault-style weapons such as the Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle reportedly used by Connecticut school shooter Adam Lanza.

"Since my days as a prosecutor, I have long supported reauthorizing the 1994 assault weapons ban, as well as other efforts to promote gun safety, including improving how we conduct background checks for people with mental illness," Klobuchar said.

Fellow senator Al Franken, D-Minn., said he supports "commonsense reforms," including legislation he co-sponsored in the Senate to outlaw the types of high-capacity ammunition magazines used in many mass shootings. "I'll be carefully considering what more we can to do help prevent acts of violence like this in the future," Franken said.

Opponents of gun control say they welcome a debate, but warn against focusing only on gun laws and acting hastily in the wake of a searing tragedy.

"All of us are reeling from the enormity of the slaughter," said Rep. John Kline, an avid sportsman and the senior Minnesota Republican in Congress.

"Unfortunately, there is often a rush. The next day, somebody is drafting legislation. We need to talk about these things."

Political risks

Even amid universal revulsion at the mass killing of children, gun control remains a subject fraught with political danger for elected officials -- not least of which is the risk of appearing to politicize tragedy.

Hours after Lanza gunned down 20 first-graders and seven women on Friday, Franken told a group at the University of Minnesota that it was too soon to talk about gun control. "This is a day for us to have the victims and their families in our hearts, in our prayers and in our thoughts," he said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., tweeted her sympathy for the victims' families, but declined an interview request. In the past, she has praised the Bushmaster AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle similar to the one Lanza used, as her "favorite."

Klobuchar was careful to emphasize that she supports "Minnesotans' right to own guns."

Gov. Mark Dayton openly defended the right to own firearms, a Second Amendment guarantee strengthened in a landmark 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

"My reading of the Constitution is that it provides a complete permission for any law-abiding citizen to possess firearms, whichever ones he or she chooses, and the ammunition to go with that," Dayton said. "Now if the Supreme Court rules otherwise, then we will all know how we can proceed."

By contrast, Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum were among the earliest and clearest voices for new gun restrictions. Both are DFLers in Twin Cities districts where support for gun control is strong.

"It only takes us to make up our minds that change is going to have to happen now," Ellison said Friday on MSNBC. His suggestions, which he said fall well short of taking away people's guns, include: A ban on high-capacity clips, closer scrutiny of gun show sales and more thorough background checks.

State Rep. Tony Cornish, a longtime gun rights advocate, said he plans to sponsor a bill allowing teachers to carry loaded weapons in the classroom, with special training for dealing with attackers. The Vernon Center Republican does not expect the idea to go far in a DFL-led Legislature, but he said of the Connecticut rampage, "The only thing that will stop it is a bullet."

Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a gun control group, called Cornish's idea "nuts," noting that Lanza's mother collected an arsenal, yet became her son's first victim. Martens said Protect Minnesota will propose limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and will seek to subject private gun sales to the background checks that apply to store purchases.

Following this latest tragedy, gun control advocates have found new support, including from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), who said Monday that it's time to "move beyond rhetoric" about gun violence.

"I just came with my family from deer hunting," Manchin said in one television interview. "I've never had more than three shells in a clip. Sometimes you don't get more than one shot anyway at a deer. ... We need to sit down and have a common-sense discussion and move in a reasonable way."

'Tipping point'

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who authored the original assault weapons ban, said the Newtown massacre "could be the tipping point" for gun control legislation in Congress. Recent mass shootings in Oregon, Wisconsin and Colorado could add impetus, he told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Already, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has said she will introduce a bill in the Senate that would forbid the sale, transfer, importation and possession of such weapons.

But the road from bill to law could be a long one. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., warned of the politics and technical details in trying to define and ban so-called assault weapons, which can be easily modified.

Peterson said that after the 2005 Red Lake school massacre in his district, there was no clamor for tighter gun laws.

"All the time I spent with Red Lake at funerals," he said, "I never had one person come up to me and talk about gun control."

Peterson and fellow Minnesotan Rep. Tim Walz were among 65 Democrats who signed a 2009 letter opposing efforts by the Obama administration to outlaw assault weapons. Peterson said Democrats learned the political price of the 1994 assault weapons ban by losing control of the U.S. House later that year.

Republicans too remain convinced that even a tragedy like Newtown may not sour Americans on gun rights. Asked whether he expects to see any proposals to change gun laws in Minnesota, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, replied, "Only if the Democrats are stupid."

Staff writers Baird Helgeson, Jim Ragsdale and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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