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Utahns in Congress oppose ban on assault weapons

Published December 19, 2012 7:34 am

They say the more productive focus would be on mental health, violence in the media.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's members of Congress are reacting with skepticism to calls for new gun control laws in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

While President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats are already preparing a new assault-weapons ban and talking about restricting the size of gun clips, Utah officials are far more apt to deflect the discussion to the violent nature of video games or the need to boost mental health services.

"None of us accept that this is something that should become routine in America. This type of violence," said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, referring to the 20 children and six educators shot to death Friday at an elementary school. "I think we ought to have a conversation where we have actual data that show what can be effective in trying to prevent violence in schools."

But Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, isn't as eager as Obama to focus on access to high-powered weapons. He dismisses an attempt to renew the assault weapon ban, which expired in 2004, saying it was ineffective in reducing gun violence.

And so do Utah's other federal lawmakers. Sen. Orrin Hatch's spokesman noted the senator has never supported an assault-weapons ban, while Sen. Mike Lee is not open to new gun restrictions unless someone can convince him it would stop mass shootings.

The president supported a new assault weapons ban early in his first term, but facing little chance of congressional backing, didn't push it. In 2009, Matheson and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a one-time gun rights lobbyist, were part of a 10-person gun rights task force in the House, which promised to oppose new gun-control measures.

"Bringing this useless ban back is a terrible idea, and we will vigorously oppose it with bipartisan backing," Bishop said at the time.

The only Utahn to vote for the original assault weapons ban was former Rep. Karen Shepherd, a Democrat.

She says the 10-year ban had loopholes that limited its impact, but argues that common-sense measures should be taken to stop national tragedies like the Newtown shootings.

Shepherd supports a revised assault-weapons ban and she wants background checks for weapons purchased at gun shows. She said governments need to quickly update databases gun dealers use to identify people who can not legally buy a firearm.

And while she understands the political difficulty of passing gun-control measures, Shepherd believes the recent tragedy has changed the debate.

"I think there is a willingness to not be maniacal about this," she said. "Tearing apart the bodies of six and seven-year-old makes people think twice."

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama "strongly supports" a new assault-weapons ban and other gun-control measures, but also wants to talk about the pervasiveness of violence in entertainment and treatment for the mentally ill.

"No single piece of legislation, no single restriction on access to a certain type of weapon will solve this problem," Carney said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz appeared on ABC's "This Week" and hinted that he would be open to some new gun measures saying: "I think we should absolutely talk about the intersection of a lethal weapon and how it relates to mental health."

But he has since said that doesn't necessarily means he would support a new law restricting gun access, though he is more open to laws boosting mental health programs.

Matheson wants to regulate the pervasive violence in realistic video games that are popular with children and tend to be popular with young men who commit mass shootings.

But none of Utah's members of Congress has supported a new gun restriction, which is not surprising, given that they have historically been closely aligned with the National Rifle Association, the nation's preeminent gun rights group.

The NRA gave each of them top marks in its closely watched congressional scorecard. The NRA came to Hatch's aid during his 2012 campaign when Republican opponents challenged his Second Amendment credentials. The NRA backed Matheson over Republican Mia Love in his re-election bid.

And the NRA released its first statement on the Newtown massacre Tuesday.

"The National Rifle Association of America is made up of 4 million moms and dads, sons and daughters — and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown," the statement said.

"The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."

The politically powerful organization plans a news conference on Friday.

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham