Washington • In reaction to the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama suggested the most sweeping changes to the nation’s gun laws in the past two decades. At the same time, he acknowledged how politically difficult it will be to get his ideas through Congress.
Case in point: Utah.
The state’s six members of Congress oppose a new assault-weapon ban like the one the president called for Wednesday. They also have reacted with deep skepticism to calls for universal background checks and limiting the size of gun magazines — though they made it clear they are willing to talk about gun violence and hinted that some minor measures may actually gain their approval.
“Everyone in America is interested in trying to make sure that folks who are criminals or mentally unstable should not have guns in their hands,” said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. “But, on the other hand, we also don’t want to deny the rights of the vast majority of Americans who are responsible gun owners.”
Matheson is the state’s only Democrat in Congress and a critic of new gun-control measures. He could not name any part of Obama’s detailed proposal that he supported.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the Newtown shooting demands action but worried the president may be moving too soon.
“Acting too hastily is never a cure — in fact it can make things worse,” he said. “I will give these proposals the attention that they rightly deserve. However, I will not support any proposal that violates the Second Amendment.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, stuck to the same position he has held since the mid-December school shooting that resulted in the deaths of 28 people. He’s willing to look at legislative attempts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but is not open to wider gun-control measures.
“Unfortunately, some [people] face mental health challenges that can make them a danger to themselves and others,” he said. “Limiting their access to lethal weapons will do more to address the problem than restricting responsible gun ownership.”
The strongest opposition came from Utah’s newest member of Congress.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, criticized Obama’s use of executive orders to demand more research into gun violence and broader use of the national background-check system, calling it “unacceptable,” and he said he wouldn’t support legislative attempts to restrict gun access.
“I am convinced,” Stewart said, “that gun control is not the way to prevent tragedies, like the one in Newtown, and will likely only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves against evil in the world.”
Stewart’s tough comments come a few weeks after he told The Salt Lake Tribune that he would be willing to go along with a ban on higher capacity gun magazines if it was part of a wider look at mental health care in this nation.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said Obama just reverted to a list of past gun-control proposals, like the assault-weapons ban that lasted from 1994 to 2004, which he considered ineffective.
“The president has reintroduced failed policies of the past that don’t work,” Bishop said. “He is either unaware of or choosing to ignore American history and is therefore doomed to repeated failures.”
Obama, relying on suggestions offered by Vice President Joe Biden’s gun violence task force, promised 23 actions ranging from a gun-safety public relations push to new health rules to make it easier for doctors to notify police about potential threats from their patients. But he said the most critical changes to gun laws won’t happen without Congress, and he called on the public to press their representatives on the issue.
“Ask them what’s more important — doing whatever it takes to get an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their children off for first grade?”
All of Utah’s members of Congress have received an A rating from the National Rifle Association, and Matheson received $6,950 in contributions from the gun-rights group in 2012, the most of any Democratic candidate.
The NRA issued a statement saying Obama’s proposals would affect only lawful gun owners and would leave children vulnerable.
“Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation,” said the group, which boasts more than 4 million members.
Obama said he isn’t relying on his party alone or areas of the nation more open to gun-control measures, rather he is looking for support from more conservative areas and from within the NRA itself.
“We’re going to need voices in those areas, in those congressional districts, where the tradition of gun ownership is strong, to speak up and to say this is important,” the president said. “It can’t just be the usual suspects.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker is ready to be such a voice in Utah.
Becker attended Obama’s White House announcement, part of a contingent of mayors already in the nation’s capital for other meetings. He endorsed Obama’s approach, calling it a “sensible” way to reduce gun deaths while also respecting the constitutional right to own guns.
And, as the president urged, Becker plans to continue to engage Utah’s federal lawmakers on gun safety.
“I’m under no illusion about where they come from on these issues,” he said. “But I would hope they would appreciate that things like background checks can help save lives.”
Thomas Burr contributed to this report.
Obama takes aim at gun violence
The president outlined his legislative plan to reduce gun violence, which he acknowledged will be tough to get through a divided Congress.
Background checks • Mandate a federal background check for all gun sales, including those between individuals. Studies show as many as 40 percent of all gun sales now avoid background checks.
Assault-weapons ban • Pass a beefed-up version of the ban on manufacturing and selling military-style assault rifles that expired in 2004.
Bullets • Limit the size of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, which was the law from 1994 to 2004, and ban the possession of armor-piercing bullets.
School safety • Use federal grants to encourage schools to hire resource officers.