Tuesday October 13th, 2015 5:00AM

Gun control debate heating up in statehouses

By The Associated Press
As President Barack Obama urges tighter federal gun laws, state legislators around the country have responded to the Connecticut school shooting with a flurry of their own ideas that are likely to produce fights over gun control in their upcoming sessions.

There is momentum in two strongly Democratic states to tighten already-strict gun laws, while some Republicans in four other states want to make it easier for teachers to have weapons in schools. One Republican governor, however, used his power this week to block the loosening of restrictions.

The question is whether public outrage after the slayings of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., will produce a meaningful difference in the rules for how Americans buy and use guns. Or will emotions and grassroots energy subside without action?

"I've been doing this for 17 years, and I've never seen something like this in terms of response," said Brian Malte, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, based in Washington, D.C. "The whole dynamic depends on whether the American public and people in certain states have had enough. No matter if it's Congress or in the states, their voices will be heard. That's what will make the difference."

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report Thursday showing that the school shooting in Connecticut has led to more discussion about gun policy on social media than previous rampages. The report says users advocating for gun control were more numerous than those defending current gun laws.

The National Rifle Association, a powerful organization that has successfully lobbied for expanded gun rights, has remained largely silent since the shootings, aside from a brief statement mourning the victims and promising that the group "is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment this week. NRA leaders planned to hold a news conference Friday.

Some of the legislative proposals reflect renewed conviction in the long-held beliefs of lawmakers. Legislators, mostly Democrats, in California and New York plan a push to tighten what are already some of the most stringent state gun-control laws. Many Democrats in presidential swing states are pushing for tighter restrictions, while others take a wait-and-see approach. Meanwhile, rank-and-file Republicans in Oklahoma, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida have called for making it easier for teachers and other adults to have weapons in schools.

Other proposals predate the Newtown massacre. Lawmakers in the GOP-led states of Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Pennsylvania had been considering before the shootings loosening restrictions on employees having guns in their vehicles on work property.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, offered Thursday what appears to be a growing theme among GOP leaders: that the shooting should prompt discussions about mental health treatment, not anti-gun laws.

"Anybody can get a gun, and when bad people get guns, they're going to do what they want to do. No amount of gun control can stop someone from getting a gun when they want to get it," she said. "What we can do is control mental health in a way we treat people who don't know how to treat themselves."

Yet Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan this week vetoed a law that would have allowed certain gun owners to carry concealed weapons in public places, including schools, though he attributed his action to the details of the law, not Newtown. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin this week declined to rule out proposed gun restrictions Democratic lawmakers are pushing in Madison, though he echoed Haley's emphasis on mental health.

The Democrats assuming control of the Minnesota Legislature plan to evaluate the state's gun laws, though no concrete proposals have emerged yet.

"I don't have an answer today," said the state's Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. "There's a limit to what society can do to protect people from their own folly."

In San Francisco, Ben Van Houten of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said, "Keeping public pressure on legislators is critical here. Legislators have been able to duck their responsibility to keep us safe."

A Pew Research Center survey taken Dec. 17-19, after the shooting, registered an increase in the percentage of Americans who prioritize gun control (49 percent) over gun owner rights (42 percent).

Those figures were statistically even in July. But 58 percent opted for control over individual rights in 2008, before Obama took office. The December telephone survey included 1,219 adults in all 50 states. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Van Houten, whose organization provides model legislation to lawmakers, noted Snyder's veto in Michigan. Less important than the details of the proposed conceal-and-carry law, he said, is that a Republican nixed a relaxation of existing law.

Also noteworthy is a California Republican who previously opposed more gun restrictions. State Sen. Ted Gaines, who represents Sacramento suburbs, said this week that he'll introduce a bill to permanently disallow gun ownership for anyone deemed by the courts to be a danger to others because of a mental diagnosis. Current California law allows those individuals to recover gun rights after treatment.

Of course, those examples don't involve new restrictions for the general population, which the NRA has successfully blocked in most states in the past.

In recent years, NRA's statehouse efforts have centered on expanding the right to carry guns in public places and adopting "stand your ground" laws that expand self-defense rights beyond a person's home. Just four states - Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming - allow concealed weapons without a permit. But the NRA has over many years chipped away at the burdens to get a license in the remaining states and, more recently, shifted to eliminating exceptions that allow churches, schools, universities and businesses to ban weapons on their property.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have jointly rejected the ideas of increasing gun presence on campus. The proposals generally take two forms: eliminating the exceptions so gun owners can choose to carry on campus or specifically requiring that school personnel be trained and armed.

"We don't believe the solution is to put more guns in the building, but keep them from getting in," said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. But he argued that prevention goes beyond gun control. He said NEA wants more money to finance school counselors and psychologists, better public mental health access generally, and state laws that crack down on bullying.

"It's time to emphasize how all of those services and that comprehensive approach play a role in keeping kids safe," he said.

As advocates talk to lawmakers, Van Roekel added, they should demand more than just a yes or no. "Don't just tell me what you won't do. Tell me what you are willing to do to try to fix this problem. If you vote no, come with an alternative."
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