- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The National Rifle Association said Tuesday that it will play a role in a national conversation to limit gun violence after Friday’s deadly shooting rampage at a Connecticut elementary school, as momentum built on Capitol Hill for a broad look at guns and other factors that play into such sprees.

Several top Republicans floated the idea of a commission that would look at mental health issues, violent influences on youths and on guns — and they cautioned against jumping to pass any bills in the near term.

“I think we ought to pursue the ideas that call for a blue ribbon task force or commission with all stakeholders that can look at the much bigger issues associated with tragic events such as this,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It certainly can’t be a debate just about guns.”

After more than a decade of retreat by gun controllers, the shooting spree Friday has prompted a seismic rhetorical shift on Capitol Hill, with pro-gun lawmakers in both parties saying they are open to changes in gun laws.

But the comments from the NRA, the nation’s most powerful gun rights group, which had been silent after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, were seen as a watershed.

“We were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown,” the organization said in a statement. “Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

The group said it would hold a news conference Friday.

Democrats have been out front in demanding speedy action on bills to limit high-capacity magazines or ban so-called assault weapons.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, said Congress doesn’t have to wait until next year and could act immediately to pass his bill banning magazines that hold larger amounts of ammunition, which he said have been used in several recent shooting sprees.

“The Senate shouldn’t wait another day to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines,” Mr. Lautenberg said in a letter to colleagues. “High-capacity magazines are used by soldiers fighting wars; they do not belong on our streets and in our communities.”

On Tuesday, Republicans called for a debate that includes not just guns but also other factors in mass shootings.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona said he plans to co-sponsor a measure with Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, that would set up a commission with a broad mandate.

“We have to have a national conversation — I know that all my colleagues are open to that conversation,” Mr. McCain said. “Where it all leads, I cannot predict. But we do need this commission.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said he would be open to the idea of a commission but that the Connecticut spree should not be used as a political cudgel.

“Don’t bring a solution to the problem unrelated to the problem,” he said. “The question for me is, ‘How do you prevent mass murder?’ Isn’t that what we’re talking about?”

President Obama met with Cabinet members Monday to talk about the issue and spoke by phone Tuesday with Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat. Mr. Manchin, a longtime NRA member, said Monday that the events in Connecticut have changed his views on assault weapons.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that Mr. Obama supports the stated intent of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, to reinstate a ban on assault weapons. Congress enacted such a ban in 1994, but it lapsed in 2004.

That legislation applied to military-style semi-automatic rifles, though groups on both sides of the issue said the criteria used to define the weapons was based more on appearance than functionality.

Mr. Carney said the president also wants a conversation about more than guns.

“While he supports, and strongly, renewal of the assault weapons ban, and strongly other measures, he wants to expand the conversation beyond those specific areas of legislation to look at other ways we can address this problem,” Mr. Carney said.

Meanwhile, two high-profile Republican governors broached the idea of allowing schoolteachers to carry guns.
“One thing I hope I don’t see is knee-jerk reaction from Washington, where they come in and think they know the answers,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who suggested that the decision should be left to individual school districts, according to a local NBC affiliate. “In the state of Texas, if you go through the process, have been trained, and you are a handgun-licensed individual, you should be able to carry a gun anywhere in the state.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell also said the idea should be considered.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder went a different route Tuesday by vetoing a bill that would allow trained gun owners to carry concealed firearms into schools. Mr. Snyder, a Republican, on Monday asked staff to review security policies and mental health issues related to school safety.

In Virginia, Mr. McDonnell also issued an executive order Monday creating a school safety task force and directing Cabinet secretaries and all the school divisions in the state to examine previous safety audits.