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St. Louis region's lawmakers differ markedly on White House gun proposals

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 16, 2013 -  WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s ambitious proposals to curb gun violence were met Wednesday by praise from liberal Democrats, sharp GOP criticism – and indications of a pitched battle on Capitol Hill.

Those divisions were reflected in the St. Louis region’s U.S. House delegation, with U.S. Reps. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, staking out differing positions on solutions to gun violence.

Clay praised Obama for his strong response – with legislative proposals and executive orders – to “the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”

While Clay said he supported Second Amendment gun ownership rights, he said he also backed the White House proposals for “a renewal of the assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazine clips, universal background checks for all gun purchases and ending on-line sales of firearms and ammunition.”

Wagner, on the other hand, criticized the White House for “circumventing Congress with executive orders, conducting closed-door meetings and recommending legislation that infringes upon our Second Amendment rights.”

Calling for “a robust, bipartisan debate on violence and how we act as a society,” Wagner said in a statement such a debate “has yet to happen.” Instead of White House directives, Wagner said, “we need to sit down not as political parties, but as a society and find comprehensive solutions to this crisis. I am committed to being a part of the solution and looking forward to working with my colleagues to address these issues.”

A third approach was offered by Enyart, a retired general and former Illinois adjutant general whose congressional district includes East St. Louis but also rural areas of southwest Illinois. He announced Wednesday that he would form a Southern Illinois gun task force that would include “stakeholders across Illinois’ 12th district to address protecting gun owners and Second Amendment rights while addressing mental-health concerns, and reducing gun violence."

Saying that it was “disappointing” that Obama handled some of the gun-related moves by means of executive orders, Enyart – who is a gun owner and hunter – said in a statement that “it’s time to hear from Southern Illinois because it is essential that our Southern Illinois values are protected” in any major gun legislation.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she generally backed Obama’s initiative. “Some of these proposals, like background checks before all gun purchases, are ideas I've supported since I was a Jackson County prosecutor. Others, like limiting the size of magazines, are just common sense,” McCaskill said in a statement.

“The tragedy in Newtown, along with other tragedies that haven't seen the national spotlight, show a clear need for us to focus on practical solutions,” McCaskill said. “We can protect our communities and our kids, while also protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.”

But U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters in Kansas City that Obama’s gun proposals would not have stopped the December massacre in Newtown, Ct. Instead, Blunt has proposed a greater focus on bolstering mental-heath treatment.

“Unfortunately, the president's proposals today fundamentally fail to address ways that we can prevent tragic events like Sandy Hook,” Blunt said in a statement, accusing Obama of “attempting to restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.”

Blunt added: “We need to have a serious national discussion about preventing senseless acts of violence and protecting our children in their schools, and that should include finding ways to spend federal dollars more wisely when it comes to treating and identifying people who are mentally ill, and ensuring that we intervene before they do something that tragically impacts their lives and the lives of others.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Obama’s “comprehensive proposal to reduce gun violence nationwide is the right step following the mass shootings in Newtown, Oak Creek, Aurora and Tucson and the daily violence on the streets of cities and towns across the country.”

He added: “Limiting magazine capacity and assault weapons, requiring background checks on all gun sales, cracking down on unlawful firearms trafficking, and focusing on mental health are the right first steps. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing in two weeks on the issue of gun violence and I will chair a follow-up hearing on the constitutionality of reasonable gun laws under the Second Amendment.”

But despite the White House push, Durbin said, “real and meaningful changes to our nation’s gun laws will only be successful if a majority of Americans and the majority of thoughtful gun owners and hunters to agree that there must be reasonable limits on gun ownership and weapons in our country.”

Last week, Durbin met with Illinois law enforcement officials to discuss the current efforts to reduce violent crime and prevent mass shootings. He said he plans to hold similar meetings across Illinois with mental health professionals and sportsmen’s groups.

Obama pledges fight for his gun violence agenda

At a White House ceremony Wednesday, Obama proposed a range of legislative proposals and initiated 23 executive actions that he said might help control what he described as “the epidemic of gun violence in this country.”

As some parents of Newtown massacre victims watched, Obama said he planned to introduce legislation to ban assault weapons, limit high-capacity magazines, expand background checks for gun purchases and impose new gun trafficking laws to crack down on the spread of weapons.

“In the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality,” he said. “If there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.” Even so, Obama said – acknowledging the congressional opposition to several of his proposals – that “the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.”

The executive actions initiated by Obama included starting “a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign”; reviewing “safety standards for gun locks and gun safes”; and asking the attorney general to report on “the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies.”

Obama also promised to launch a “national dialogue” on mental health, to be spearheaded by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. And he overturned a congressionally imposed ban on the Centers for Disease Control from conducting research on gun violence.

National reaction to Obama’s plans was mostly predictable, with the National Rifle Association and many Republicans condemning aspects of the plan as infringing on Second Amendment rights.

“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” the NRA said in a statement. “Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected and our children will remain vulnerable to the inevitability of more tragedy.”

Instead, the NRA said, it would “focus on keeping our children safe and securing our schools, fixing our broken mental-health system, and prosecuting violent criminals to the fullest extent of the law. We look forward to working with Congress on a bipartisan basis to find real solutions”

But mayors and many other officials praised the White House efforts. National League of Cities (NLC) President Marie Lopez Rogers, mayor of Avondale, Ariz., said Obama’s actions and proposals “speak to the comprehensive effort necessary to reduce gun violence across our country. Further, we believe the president is correct in not waiting for Congress to act by using his powers of executive order to begin safeguarding the lives of our citizens immediately.”

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said: “There's an extraordinary disconnect between what the American public wants — including gun owners and NRA members — and what our elected officials are doing about it."

Contrast between outlook of urban, rural areas

In an interview, Clay -- whose district includes St. Louis and some near suburbs -- said he would back nearly all of Obama’s legislative proposals, as well as tougher regulations on gun-show sales and “stopping the sale of weapons and ammunition over the internet.”

But Clay acknowledged that some White House proposals would face tough going in the GOP-controlled House. “I’m encouraged, however, by what the president said to the American people: ‘Ask your member of Congress if they will support addressing some of these laws in this situation.’

“I’ve talked to constituents on both sides of the issue, and I try to make the case that there is no rational reason to have 30-round clips or military-style weapons” owned and used by civilians. “We’re not fighting a war.”

But Republicans in Missouri’s delegation disagreed. U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said he was “disappointed by the president’s remarks and actions” – especially the White House’s “decision to circumvent the elected representatives of the American people” by signing executive orders.

Luetkemeyer asserted that “it would be more productive to have a thoughtful, national discussion on how to better determine when young people are becoming troubled, how to get them back on the right path, and what causes an individual to commit an evil, violent act ... rather than focusing on the instruments that disturbed individuals have misused and abused to carry out heinous crimes.”

Enyart was among the congressional Democrats who are skeptical about some of the gun proposals. He named Perry County (Ill.) Clerk Kevin Kern to head the new Southern Illinois gun task force, which Enyart said would “discuss barriers to mental-health care,” punishment for people who lie on background checks, and “work responsibly to reduce gun violence.”>

In a statement, Kern said, “There is an important debate being waged across the nation, and by bringing together folks across the district -- from gun owners to law enforcement officials to trusted community and faith leaders -- we can start a conversation where all of Southern Illinois voices are heard.”

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