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Tuesday October 23rd, 2018 7:29PM

A year after shooting, GOP lawmakers hold firm on gun rights

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — In the year since House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others were shot at a congressional baseball practice, mass shootings have occurred at a Texas church, a Las Vegas music festival and high schools in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas.

Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a doctor who helped save Scalise's life last June, has watched those attacks unfold with the acute sensitivity of a mass shooting survivor. Each shooting is jarring, says Wenstrup — calling the Parkland shooting in particular sickening — but his views on gun control have not changed.

"If not for a gun — two guns really — being used on our side" by two Capitol Police officers at the GOP practice, "you might have seen 20 dead people," Wenstrup says. "That tells you where I'm coming from."

That sentiment is widespread among Republicans, who say the attack has only strengthened their commitment to protecting gun rights.

Scalise, of Louisiana, suffered life-threatening injuries in the June 2017 shooting but returned to work last fall. He said the shooting "deepened my appreciation for the Second Amendment because it was people with guns who saved my life and every other member out there."

If Capitol Police officers David Bailey and Crystal Griner had not been there with guns to counter the shooter, "then there would have been nobody to take him down and he would have just been able to come and pick us apart," Scalise said in a brief interview this week.

As he and other lawmakers prepare for the annual congressional baseball game at Nationals Park on Thursday night — the anniversary of the shooting — Scalise said he's comfortable with the actions Congress has taken on gun safety, including measures to strengthen the federal background check system for gun purchases and improve school safety.

Scalise said he sees no need to go further.

"Taking away the rights of law-abiding citizens is not the answer. Again, it was law-abiding citizens with guns that saved my life and many others," he said.

Wenstrup, a former Army combat surgeon in Iraq, says he wants to approach gun violence as a health care issue, particularly mental health.

"We need to address homicide in America and what's driving it, and certainly gun violence is a part of that," he said in an interview. "I think every school, every place where people gather, has to take a look at their security."

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who was on the field during the shooting, said it reinforced his view that officials need to combat violence in all forms, whether it is someone with a gun, knife or bomb.

"Many times it's mental illness," Fleischmann said, adding that the FBI told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing that the gunman was intent on "suicide by cop."

"Unfortunately, he targeted us," Fleischmann said of the gunman, who was killed in a shootout with police.

Texas Rep. Roger Williams, who is coaching the Republican team playing Thursday, said the shooting "changed everybody's life," including his. Williams sprained his ankle trying to get away from the shooter, and his aide Zack Barth was among those wounded.

"It just reminded me that God's in control and how fleeting life is," Williams said. "And what's important and what's not important. And how divided our country is politically, when somebody would do that."

Williams said he relates to what the mass shooting victims in Las Vegas and elsewhere are feeling.

"I won't lose that sound in my mind" of bullets flying from pine trees near the field, he said. "You don't forget it. ... I'm a Second Amendment guy. I'm a lifetime member of the NRA. I'm a Texan, and I grew up with guns."

The shooting "doesn't change my mind. It just reminds me how important it is to reach out to those that would wake up thinking, 'I'm going to kill somebody,'" Williams said.

But there was at least one lawmaker on the field that day who said the Alexandria shooting has affected the way he thinks about gun policy.

"It's moved me," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, who is retiring after this year. He said he now supports restrictions on high-capacity magazines, for instance, "but that hasn't come up" in debate. Still, "there's been a shift" for him personally, he said.

Meanwhile, Scalise, who has been walking with crutches or a cane, said he's eager to reclaim his position as starting second baseman.

"Being able to walk out onto that field again on Thursday night with my uniform is going to be a special, special moment," he told Fox News Channel this week.

The GOP team held an initial practice this year at the field in Alexandria, Virginia, where the shooting occurred, but has since moved to a separate field in Washington with increased security.

The additional security "makes us feel great and more secure," Fleischmann said, "but I hope and pray we can get to a time and place where we can go to a ball field and feel safe again. That's the America I grew up in, and I hope we can get back to that."

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Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story.

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Follow Matthew Daly at https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC and Laurie Kellman at https://twitter.com/APLaurieKellman.

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