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Grassley, Reid, Manchin: Let's debate gun violence

WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as most Republicans played it safe and initially said little about the politically treacherous issue of gun control, a senior GOP senator has called for a study of both gun violence and mental health issues in the aftermath of the mass murders at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. And formerly pro-gun Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it's now time to place gun control on the table.

NRA goes silent after Connecticut school shooting

PHILIP ELLIOTT,Associated Press

School-Shooting-Gun

A protestor holds a banner during a march to the National Rifle Association headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Curbing gun violence will be a top priority of President Barack Obama's second term, aides say. but exactly what he'll pursue and how quickly are still evolving. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Where is the NRA?

The nation's largest gun-rights organization — typically outspoken about its positions even after shooting deaths — has gone all but silent since last week's rampage at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 26 people dead, including 20 children.

Its Facebook page has disappeared. It has posted no tweets. It makes no mention of the shooting on its website. None of its leaders hit the media circuit Sunday to promote its support of the Second Amendment right to bear arms as the nation mourns the latest shooting victims and opens a new debate over gun restrictions. On Monday, the NRA offered no rebuttal as 300 anti-gun protesters marched to its Capitol Hill office.

After previous mass shootings — such as in Oregon and Wisconsin — the group was quick to both send its condolences and defend gun owners' constitutional rights, popular among millions of Americans. There's no indication that the National Rifle Association's silence this time is a signal that a change in its ardent opposition to gun restrictions is imminent. Nor has there been any explanation for its absence from the debate thus far.

The NRA, which claims 4.3 million members and is based in Northern Virginia, did not return telephone messages Monday seeking comment.

Its deep-pocketed efforts to oppose gun control laws have proven resilient. Firearms are in a third or more of U.S. households and suspicion runs deep of an overbearing government whenever it proposes expanding federal authority. The argument of gun-rights advocates that firearm ownership is a bedrock freedom as well as a necessary option for self-defense has proved persuasive enough to dampen political enthusiasm for substantial change.

Seldom has the NRA gone so long after a fatal shooting without a public presence. It resumed tweeting just one day after a gunman killed two people and then himself at an Oregon shopping mall last Tuesday, and one day after six people were fatally shot at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August.

The Connecticut shootings occurred three days after the incident in Oregon.

"The NRA's probably doing a good thing by laying low," said Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist and gun owner who was a top aide to Rick Santorum's presidential bid. "Often after these tragedies, so many look to lay blame on someone, and the NRA is an easy whipping boy for this."

Indeed, since the Connecticut shootings, the NRA has been taunted and criticized at length, vitriol that may have prompted the shuttering of its Facebook page just a day after the association boasted about reaching 1.7 million supporters on the social media network.

Twitter users have been relentless, protesting the organization with hashtags like NoWayNRA.

The NRA has not responded to them. Its last tweets, sent Friday, offered a chance to win an auto flashlight.

Offline, some 300 protesters gathered outside the NRA's lobbying headquarters on Capitol Hill on Monday chanting, "Shame on the NRA" and waving signs declaring "Kill the 2nd Amendment, Not Children" and "Protect Children, Not Guns."

"I had to be here," said Gayle Fleming, 65, a real estate agent from Arlington, Va., saying she was attending her first anti-gun rally. "These were 20 babies. I will be at every rally, will sign every letter, call every congressman going forward."

Retired attorney Kathleen Buffon of Chevy Chase, Md., reflected on earlier mass shootings, saying: "All of the other ones, they've been terrible. This is the last straw. These were children."

"The NRA has had a stranglehold on Congress," she added as she marched toward the NRA's unmarked office. "It's time to call them out."

The group's reach on Capitol Hill is wide as it wields its deep pockets to defeat lawmakers, many of them Democrats, who push for restrictions on gun ownership.

The NRA outspent its chief opponent by a 73-1 margin to lobby the outgoing Congress, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which tracks such spending. It spent more than 4,000 times its biggest opponents during the 2012 election.

In all, the group spent at least $24 million this election cycle — $16.8 million through its political action committee and nearly $7.5 million through its affiliated Institute for Legislative Action. Its chief foil, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spent just $5,816.

On direct lobbying, the NRA also was mismatched. Through July 1, the NRA spent $4.4 million to lobby Congress to the Brady Campaign's $60,000.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, made his suggestion for a blue ribbon commission of "all stakeholders" Monday. Reid, D-Nev., said "a thoughtful debate about how to change laws" is coming soon. And National Rifle Association member Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., agreed it's time to begin an honest discussion about gun control, and said he wasn't afraid of the political consequences.

It's too early to say what could emerge next year in Congress, but the comments of Grassley, Reid and Manchin are significant. Grassley is senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which probably would have the first crack at any gun control legislation. Reid sets the Senate schedule. And Manchin defied the NRA while the politically potent pro-gun group remained silent in the aftermath of the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Grassley said Monday: "It certainly can't be a debate just about guns. There must also be a serious and thoughtful discussion on mental health issues" as well as a culture that "tends to be less civil now than it has been for a long period of time."

The NRA has deep pockets and a scorecard to back lawmakers who support gun rights, but Manchin said Monday, "I'm not afraid to say, 'Let's talk about that.'" Manchin told reporters, "I'm not afraid of the political ramifications."

In an earlier statement Manchin said, "This awful massacre of our youngest children has changed us, and everything should be on the table." He added that the discussion should include mental health treatment, assault-style weapons, high-capacity magazines, video games, movies and a culture that seems to glorify violence.

Reid told the Senate, "In the coming days and weeks, we will engage in a meaningful conversation and thoughtful debate about how to change laws and culture that allow violence to grow." He added, "And every idea should be on the table as we discuss how best to do just that."

In July, after 12 people were murdered in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., Reid said the Senate's schedule was too packed to have a debate on gun control.

After 32 people were massacred in 2007 at Virginia Tech, Reid cautioned against a "rush to judgment" about new gun laws.

In 1993, Reid voted against a 10-year ban on assault-style weapons, but ultimately in favor of an omnibus crime bill that included the ban. But in 2004 he voted against an extension of the assault weapons ban, and the law died.

In 2010, top NRA official Wayne LaPierre called Reid "a true champion" of gun rights.

Rory Cooper, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Monday: "Right now is the moment for prayer and supporting the families of Newtown. There will be time to debate policy in the weeks ahead."

Other Republicans said mental health, not guns, was the problem, and generally stayed away from a debate on gun control.

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said: "We recognize those very demented, awkward people commit those crimes. We need to do a better job treating and looking at and finding people who have these problems. That's the issue. We have millions and millions of guns. Guns aren't the problem; sick people are."

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said: "There are just evil people in the world. There's nothing you're going to do to prevent evil from occurring."

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