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Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, Democratic U.S. Reps., Lead The Way Toward Tighter Gun Control After Aurora Shooting

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Frank Lautenberg, Robert Menendez, Carolyn McCarthy, Diana DeGette.
Frank Lautenberg, Robert Menendez, Carolyn McCarthy, Diana DeGette.

From The Colorado Independent's Scot Kersgaard.

While many politicians are playing it safe, saying it is too soon to talk about gun laws or saying they don’t want to “politicize” the Colorado and now Wisconsin shootings, Democratic U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter have been outspoken about their desire for more stringent regulation.

On the other side, adjunct law professor and Independence Institute research director David Kopel has been just as outspoken, penning a July 26 column for National Review that argues no new gun restrictions are needed.

On Tuesday, July 24, just four days after the Aurora murders, DeGette called on Congress to ban the kinds of high-capacity ammunition magazines that helped enable the killer to shoot 70 people in about two minutes.

DeGette targets online ammunition sales

A week later, on July 31, DeGette and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY-4) introduced the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act, which they say would make it more difficult for people to anonymously stockpile ammunition, as the Aurora killer had reportedly done. Kopel scoffs at both measures as being too restrictive on the rights of “law abiding citizens” and says both would ultimately be ineffective anyway.

DeGette said she has been working to ban high-capacity magazines for her entire tenure in Congress.

“Yet here we are, 16 years later, and in the wake of another violent tragedy it’s impossible to understand why an ordinary citizen can get a hold of a high-capacity magazine that can fire 100 rounds in 90 seconds,” DeGette said in a press release shortly after the killings.

DeGette was cosponsor last year of HR 308, which would make it illegal to possess high-capacity magazines. Eighteen months later, the bill is still waiting for a hearing in the Judiciary Committee.

Asked about her motivations for speaking out almost immediately, she said in an interview with the Colorado Independent that after grieving, her first thought was to ask herself what she could do to try and prevent things like this from happening again.

“When you see that kind of carnage, as a parent it makes you deeply sad, and we are all still grieving, but then you start to think, ‘Is there anything you can do?’ I’ve been working on this issue for 20 years… I introduced a bill to ban these magazines back in 1998,” she told the Independent.

According to the press release issued by DeGette and McCarthy:

  • “The Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act works through four components:
  • “It requires anyone selling ammunition to be a licensed dealer.
  • “It requires ammunition buyers who are not licensed dealers to present photo identification at the time of purchase, effectively banning the online or mail order purchase of ammo by regular civilians.
  • “It requires licensed ammunition dealers to maintain records of the sale of ammunition.
  • “It requires licensed ammunition dealers to report the sale of more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition to an unlicensed person within any five consecutive business days.”

“The senseless violence of the theater shooting in Aurora served once again as a reminder that our nation must do more to protect innocent Americans from the carnage of gun violence,” DeGette said in the release. “It is quite frankly inexplicable that one individual was able to purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the internet, while we had no system in place to raise a red flag. It is basic common-sense to ask ammunition dealers to be licensed and to require record-keeping that provides critical information to law enforcement, while protecting privacy. This bill is a reasonable step to help us do what we can to prevent terrible shootings from becoming mass casualties.”

Kopel says that tracking large ammunition purchases would unfairly harm law-abiding gun owners. He said American Olympian skeet shooter Kim Rhodes, who just medaled in her fifth straight Olympics, shoots up to 1,000 rounds a day in practice. He said that even an average recreational target shooter can easily go through 4,000 or 5,000 rounds a month.

“Ammunition is a lot more expensive now than it was a few years ago, so people look for ways to save money, and buying in bulk is a good way to do that. There is nothing suspicious about buying a thousand rounds at a time. If you want to create a government list of people exercising their rights, you can do that, but if the police are supposed to investigate everyone who buys ammunition in bulk, they will have time to do nothing else,” Kopel said.

Columbine parent speaks out

Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at the Columbine school shootings in 1999, sees no reason for putting off discussions about gun laws. He began speaking publicly less than two weeks after his son was killed and went on to start Colorado Ceasefire, an organization dedicated to reducing gun violence.

He said politicians have reason to fear a backlash from groups such as the National Rifle Association and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

“The NRA does have that much power,” he said, explaining why politicians are so reluctant to speak out about gun violence.

The president of RMGO did not return a call seeking comment.

DeGette said it was “obvious” to her that we will never be able to stop someone from walking into a theater or other public place and pulling out a gun. “If someone wants to do that, they are always going to be able to do it.”

She told the Independent she is a firm supporter of the Second Amendment, but that it doesn’t give people unlimited rights.

“We don’t let people own shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. We don’t let people own nuclear devices. You have to ask if automatic assault rifles and hundred-round magazines have a role in society, and I don’t think they do.”

“I understand the Second Amendment,” DeGette said at a Washington, D.C. press conference on July 24. “I believe in the Second Amendment. But we have a duty – every single Member of Congress has a duty – to protect every American man, woman and child from the horrific massacres we experienced in Aurora.”

Noting that the Aurora shooter hit 70 people with bullets in about two minutes, she said the casualty count might have been a lot higher if the 100-round magazine on his rifle hadn’t jammed. According to The New York Times, the shooter began his rampage with a shotgun, then switched to an AR-15-type semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round magazine and finally switched to a semi-automatic pistol when the magazine on the rifle jammed.

“People say you shouldn’t talk about this so soon or that the NRA has so much power that we will never be able to do anything, but I don’t think that is true,” she said.

Too often, she said, all the public or the media hear are the most strident voices from both sides. She said, though, that there is a vast middle ground where people on both sides of the gun debate agree that people should be able to own and use guns for hunting or target practice, but not semi-automatic rifles with 100-round magazines.

“It’s not about banning all guns; it’s not about taking people’s guns away; it’s about taking reasonable steps that will stop people from having guns only designed to kill many, many, people in a short period of time,” DeGette wrote in the release.

“Some of those on the other side of the aisle have been proclaiming that you are never going to be able to completely stop someone from taking a weapon into a theater or a school or a mall, or any other public place, and start shooting innocent citizens. That may very well be true, but I’ll tell you something, we might not be able to stop that person from bringing in a weapon, but we sure as heck can stop that person from being able to shoot 71 people out of 200 in just a couple of minutes,” she said at the July 24 press conference, according to a transcript of her remarks emailed to reporters by her staff.

Middle ground

Mauser said he thinks most Americans fall into a middle ground on guns. He said his group and most people agree that hunters should be able to own guns and that people who feel the need to own a gun for personal defense should also be able to own guns.

“There are not that many extremists on my side of the argument. We know we will never ban guns in the United States. A lot of the people on the other side are extremists,” he said.

Mauser said that even in the face of polling that shows most gun owners and a lot of NRA members support more rigorous background checks, the NRA leadership won’t budge.

“The NRA is so macho, so testosterone driven that rank and file members don’t feel they can speak out. The membership is ‘Field and Stream’ but the leadership is ‘Soldier of Fortune,’” he said.

The poll Mauser refers to was commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The poll, as released to the public, did not contain any questions about assault weapons. According to a press release issued by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, 87 percent of NRA members agreed that “support for Second Amendment rights goes hand-in-hand with keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.”

Other questions showed support for more strict background checks designed to keep guns out of the hands of people with criminal records. The poll also showed support for individual states to be able to set their own gun laws.

DeGette said she got a call from a hunter after the Aurora murders. The man told her he loves his guns and travels with his guns but then told her that he sees no role in society for the kind of semi-automatic rifle used by the Aurora shooter.

“I think that’s where most people are. We will always have guns, but we can impose limits,” she said.

In a poll conducted for Time by ABT SRBI in June 2011, 62 percent of those polled said the federal government should be able to ban “semi-automatic assault weapons.”

See data from these polls and others here.

Kopel, though, said it is not even clear that AR-15-type rifles–which reports say was used in the Aurora murders– is an assault weapon. The gun has been manufactured by Colt since the 1950s after having first been developed by Armalite; today many other manufacturers make clones of it. Kopel said it is the most popular rifle in the United States, used for everything from deer hunting to target shooting. “If you are only going to own one gun, the AR-15 is a good choice.” He said the gun is too powerful for squirrel hunting and not powerful enough for moose hunting, but perfect for deer hunting.

Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center, disagrees strongly with Kopel, saying the AR-15 and its many variants are unquestionably assault weapons. In general, she said an assault weapon is one that has been designed for the battlefield and optimized to be as deadly as possible. She said modern assault weapons were first used in World War II and have since been adapted by manufacturers for the consumer market.

“These guns are designed in a way to make them much more lethal than an actual hunting rifle,” she said by phone.

She said the sales of traditional hunting rifles have been in decline for years as fewer people hunt, and most hunters already have guns. She said the gun industry refers to semi-automatic weapons as “sporting rifles.”

Her organization joined with Mauser’s group and more than 25 other groups across the country to issue a statement just hours after the shooting. It reads in part:

“Today’s mass shooting is the price paid in death, pain, and suffering by families and communities for an out-of-control, militarized gun industry that prides itself on selling increasingly lethal products to virtually anyone with little concern for the inevitable tragedies that result. In America today—where virtually anyone with a credit card and a grudge can outfit their own personal army—mass shootings are as predictable as they are tragic. Just as predictably, those who celebrate this lethal shift—the NRA and its gun industry partners—remain mute when families and communities suffer the consequences. And when attention fades, they’ll once again resume their lethal trade, unless we stand together as Americans to stop them.

“Gun violence is preventable. It is long past time for policymakers at all levels to act. Americans have a right to feel safe in their communities—in schools, restaurants, movie theaters, and all public places. Using the cynical desires of the gun lobby and firearms industry as an excuse for inaction is shameful.”

Assault weapon ban

The assault weapons ban of 1994 to 2004 outlawed some versions of the AR-15, but Kopel and Rand both said other guns that were functionally similar were not banned.

“The ban was based more on cosmetics than on function,” Kopel said, noting that a lot of AR-15s are made of black plastics, giving the gun a menacing look, whereas some functionally similar guns with wood stocks look more like what people think of as hunting rifles.

Rand said her group supports updating the assault weapon ban so that it is more comprehensive.

“The old ban had loopholes that the industry exploited,” she said.

She acknowledged that any new ban would probably allow people to keep and use guns that they purchased legally under existing laws.

“The question is ‘Do we turn off the spigot now or not?’”

As for the 100-round magazine the killer reportedly used, Kopel said the AR-15 was designed to accommodate a magazine no larger than about 40 rounds. A 100-round magazine, he said, would make the gun unbalanced and harder to fire accurately. He said most 100-round magazines are owned as nothing more than novelties by collectors.

Even though DeGette has cosponsored a bill to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, she said she didn’t see the bill passing in the current Congress.

DeGette holds a safe Democratic seat and can speak out on issues like this without much fear of political reprisal. Ed Perlmutter, though, represents a suburban swing district, where he faces a wealthy self-funded challenger in Republican Joe Coors, who has been endorsed by the NRA.

Perlmutter acknowledged that for him there is some danger in speaking out, but he wasted no time in doing so, going on Face the Nation the Sunday after the attack, where he said it is time for Congress to reinstate the assault weapon ban.

“I think we should, and I think that’s where it starts,” Perlmutter answered when asked about reinstating the ban.

Asked why he spoke out so soon, he said he was asked a direct question on Face the Nation and answered it.

“This happened in my district, and these questions have to be addressed.”

He said he has been for banning assault weapons since he first ran for the state legislature in 1994. Since the shooting, he said numerous constituents–including members of the NRA–have told him that something needs to be done to make assault weapons less common.

“What we are doing now doesn’t work,” he said.

Perlmutter’s position has drawn praise from Joanne Schwartz, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado.

“We support Rep. Perlmutter’s stance and his timely response…. Coloradans want our congressional delegation to come together to help prevent this type of tragedy from happening again – and that includes responsible gun-owning Coloradans,” she said. “We are now at the point where action is required from our elected officials. I hope to see many more Colorado politicians speaking out and offering solutions in the next couple of weeks. Ignoring the massive loopholes in our gun laws is not an option,” Schwartz said.

On guns, at least, the contrast between Perlmutter and Coors could not be more clear. In response to getting the NRA’s endorsement, Coors wrote this on his campaign website:

“It’s an honor to earn the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. My opponent seems to think that taking guns away from the good guys will keep the bad guys from getting them. I know the difference and I will act accordingly as your Congressman from the 7th District. Unlike my opponent, I trust Colorado’s gun owners and will work in Congress to ensure that they enjoy the freedom the Second Amendment guarantees, not less.”

Mauser said the moves proposed by DeGette and Perlmutter–banning semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines–would be a good start at both the state and federal levels. Mauser also said his organization wants to see better regulation of internet sales and the introduction of universal background checks.

“Critics say that if someone wants to get a gun, they will, but do we need to make it this easy?” Mauser asks. He acknowledges that gun rights are a contentious issue, but says most people agree that the Second Amendment does not give people unlimited rights. “First, we have to agree to have a conversation. We have to get away from cliches and partisanship. A lot of people see it as black and white, but there is a lot of gray.”

Mauser doesn’t buy the argument that what we need is more people carrying more guns. “We’re the most heavily armed developed country in the world and our death rate from guns is also the highest. Putting more guns into the hands of more people just isn’t working. People are pretty much the same everywhere. You have disgruntled employees everywhere. You have embittered spouses everywhere. You have unhappy students everywhere. You have mentally ill people everywhere. People around the world are not all that different from us, but they don’t kill each other with guns at the rate that Americans do. To say guns are not a factor is ridiculous. We make it easy for people to deal with their problems in a very tragic way.”

Mental health spending

Kopel said the country needs to spend more money on mental health programs. Kopel, who represents the Independence Institute–which generally supports lower taxes and smaller government–said the federal government has dropped the ball on mental health programs and needs to dramatically increase spending in this area.

He said federal spending on mental health programs has been “severely cut” over the past 50 years and needs to be ramped back up dramatically.

“There are a lot more crazy people walking around today than in the past,” he said.

As federal mental health budgets were cut over the years, it was expected that states and communities would pick up more of the burden, sometimes with federal grants, but Kopel says that just hasn’t worked.

“Caseworkers have caseloads that are just way beyond what they can handle. I understand why the mistake was made but the result is we have gravely underfunded public mental health programs. I don’t want to go back to the 1940s when parents could have their daughters institutionalized for being defiant or promiscuous, but we have to be able to institutionalize people who need it,” he says.

“There were very few guns laws in the 1960s and yet we did not have these mass murders,” Kopel said. In the 1960s, he said, people who needed it were institutionalized. “These mass killers tend to be males in their late teens or early twenties who are highly intelligent. That is an age when you often see the first signs of schizophrenia, but for a lot of people it goes untreated, so yes there is something we can do.”

Kopel said that mass killers get a lot of attention, but that mentally ill people kill a lot more people one or two at a time than are killed in mass events.

Acknowledging that the Independence Institute is known for its small government views, Kopel said the government should not spend money telling people not to smoke and could shift that money to mental health.

“Everyone knows by now that smoking is bad for them, but it is a personal choice that is none of the government’s business. Mental health, though, is something the government absolutely should be involved in and it is an area that needs a lot more money.”

State lawmakers weigh in

Colorado state legislators are also talking about guns–and mental health.

“If we don’t start investing more in mental health and real treatment, we are going to continue seeing events like this,” said State Senator Joyce Foster, D-Denver. “It is outrageous how few psych beds we have anymore. If we want to make a difference in society, we need to get back to investing in mental health. We had mental institutions before Reagan, but we threw the baby out with the bathwater and today we have a lot of vulnerable people.”

Democrat Rep. Beth McCann told The Colorado Independent she is researching the current state of Colorado’s gun laws and will probably bring legislation to ban assault weapons and to make it more difficult for people to buy large quantities of ammunition anonymously.

“It seems to me that we don’t need assault weapons available to the general public. I would like someone to explain to me why anyone should be able to buy an assault weapon,” she said. “Hunting and personal protection, sure, but assault weapons? Really? Assault weapons have no purpose but to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible,” McCann said. McCann has served as Denver’s manager of safety and was also chief deputy district attorney for Denver.

She said she knows that some people think the easy availability of weapons is not a factor in the frequency of gun violence in the United States. “That is one point of view, but I think making it more difficult for people to get assault weapons will make a difference,” she said.

“In the wake of this shooting and the memory of Columbine many people I’ve talked to are asking what we legislators can do to confront this recurring violence involving easy-to-acquire guns, particularly military-style assault weapons and extended magazines,” said Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge in an email.

“Right now the legislature is looking at current law and determining what measures might help prevent or limit such massive devastation by a single person while still respecting Second Amendment rights. Conversations about guns and gun rights provoke strong feelings but they are ones we must have if we are to ever address the continued occurrence of these senseless acts of violence.”

State Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, said he would be glad to see bills that address the easy availability of assault weapons, large magazines and ammunition.

“I think there is a lot of common ground on the gun issue. I have no desire to limit anyone’s ability to own hunting rifles or a weapon for personal defense,” Tyler said, adding that automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons, and 100-round clips do not fall into those categories.

Foster, who is not running for reelection this year, questioned why anyone thinks assault weapons should be allowed.

“Why does anyone need an assault weapon?” she asked. “I’m outraged at the ease with which people can get assault weapons. I hope one of my former colleagues will carry a bill to address that. I’d like to hear why anyone thinks assault weapons are covered by the Second Amendment.”

Foster said state and federal legislators need courage to stand up for their beliefs. “As a legislator you do what is right and if that means you don’t get reelected, so be it.”

She said it may be hard for legislators to find common ground. “How do you even start a conversation?” she asked. She said there used to be thoughtful legislators on both sides of the aisle who could sit down together and work things out, but that such discussions are harder to come by today. She blames the Republicans.

“Democrats do what they want. They won’t be controlled, but Republicans these days all sign pledges for this and that. They all march to the same drummer,” Foster said. “Colorado mirrors Washington in that regard. A very vocal minority is leading the Republican Party. The majority needs to be more vocal. People need to do what is best without worrying about being reelected. Stop looking over your shoulders and reading the editorials. Have the courage of your convictions, really,” she said.

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