Gun control debate takes center stage

As the nation continues to reel from last Friday’s horrific school shooting in Connecticut, there are emerging signs that political winds may be shifting nationally in favor of a robust conversation on gun control.

Some pro-gun members of Congress — Republican and Democrat — in a change of heart this week signaled they are willing to discuss the politically divisive issue.

“Put guns on the table. Also put video games on the table, put mental health on the table,” Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a 10-term congressman, said Tuesday following a closed-door meeting in which Republicans discussed the gun issue.

Joe Scarborough, a former Florida Republican congressman and current television host, surprised many when he said on his MSNBC program that the shooting “changed everything” and caused him to rethink his positions on gun control.

But not all calls have been for increased regulations. Some in Ohio, including Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, have called either for increasing security by posting armed police officers in every public school or by providing firearms and training to limited number of school staff.

Jones, a Republican, said he’s in the process of contacting public schools in Butler County, and has sent a letter to Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich outlining his ideas.

“The talk of gun-banning and bullets and these things are going to be talked about by both the right and the left, that doesn’t start today,” Jones said. “I’m talking about what we do today.”

Among Tuesday’s notable developments:

  • National retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would suspend the sale of “modern rifles” in its 500 stores nationwide.
  • The private equity firm Cerebus Capital Management announced it would sell off its controlling share of the company that manufactures the Bushmaster line of rifles, one of the weapons police said 20-year-old Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Cerebus called the shooting “a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level.”
  • The U.S. Conference of Mayors, a coalition including the mayors of Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, Sacramento and Akron, issued a statement calling for stronger gun laws in America.
  • Sen. Rob Portman, R, Ohio, called for the creation of a national commission to look at how to prevent future mass shootings. That could include examining the mental health system, he said.

Too soon to tell if changes in gun policy will occur

Grant Neeley, a political scientist at the University of Dayton, said it’s too soon to know whether all the talk will result in meaningful changes in gun policy. Emotions are still raw, he said.

“I think there are some people who are having real changes of heart about this issue and may be changing previous stances that they’ve had,” Neeley said.

But it will remain to be seen how much political capital lawmakers will want to expend taking on the issue, he said.

“I think that’s the reality of people realizing the complexity of something that is a constitutional right on the one hand (while balancing) how it can be regulated to some extent,” Neeley said.

NRA Reaction

The influential National Rifle Association, which has offered condolences and defended gun owners’ constitutional rights following past mass shootings, issued its first response to the Connecticut tragedy on Tuesday, saying it was “shocked, saddened and heartbroken” by the shooting, It will hold a news conference Friday.

“It speaks volumes,” Donna Schlagheck, a political science professor for Wright State University, said of the NRA’s conspicuous delay in weighing in publicly. Schlagheck is a gun owner, and her husband is an NRA member. Both have been waiting for expected fundraising solicitations from the group that haven’t come.

“They have so much money they can spend at the state level (on political contributions for elected officials), and they do carry tremendous clout,” she said. “Right now, their absence to me and my husband speaks volumes. They clearly don’t know how to be part of this process other than saying no.”

The renewed interest in gun control comes at a time when guns sales are increasing

This year, the FBI reported that 526,684 background checks were performed in Ohio through November involving potential firearms purchases. In 2002, fewer than 300,000 checks were made.

Evan English, president of Olde English Outfitters, a firearms and outdoor supplies store in Tipp City, said he expects it’s “more likely than not” that there will be additional legislation to increase gun control.

“Our president has made it clear that something will be done,” English said. “But the question of what will be done is the greatest question of all.”

English said he is not opposed to all gun-related regulations. He cited as a positive reform the 1994 law that requires gun stores to run federal background checks on gun buyers.

Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association, also said he is not opposed to all gun control initiatives merely out of principle.

Gun control advocates, including Toby Hoover, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, have this week renewed calls for re-instituting a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that expired in 2004, 10 years after it was implemented.

But Irvine said those reforms didn’t actually result in demonstrably fewer gun-related deaths.

“We can take a look at them. But if it’s just to make somebody feel better, then we shouldn’t do it. If they can show that it’s effective, that’s fine,” Irvine said. “The problem is, they’ve never been able to show it in the past.”

Rather, Irvine emphasized the need to increase security in schools.

That could include posting armed police officers and allowing trained school staff to carry guns. Irvine also said schools need to better reinforce their buildings and increase training for teachers and, when age-appropriate, students to deal with active shooters.

“We’ve got to change the mindset of teachers,” Irvine said. “They’ve got to fight back.”

The Associated Press and Jessica Wehrman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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