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Utahns in Congress oppose ban on assault weapons

First Published Dec 18 2012 06:37 pm • Last Updated Apr 08 2013 11:33 pm

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.

Do mass shootings lead to new gun-control laws?

Storified by Digital First Media · Tue, Dec 18 2012 11:10:51

The shootings at a Connecticut elementary school have reopened a long-dormant debate over gun control. Some advocates of stronger laws say the massacre represents a turning point, while opponents are mostly keeping quiet for now. 
History shows that mass shootings and assassinations have played a key role in the passage of stronger gun-control laws. But not every shooting leads to new laws. Typically, it has taken more than one high-profile event and several years of debate for a gun-control proposal to become a law. 
Below, a look at some past shootings that led to new laws, and some that didn't.

1929: St. Valentine's Day Massacre

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Police and people gather in front of the S.M.C. Cartage Co. garage on North Clark in Chicago on Feb. 14, 1929, following the St. Valentine's Day massacre. (AP Photo/Chicago History Museum) 
During the Prohibition era, illegal sales of alcohol led to a rise in criminal gangs who used submachine guns. In 1929, members of Al Capone's gang in Chicago used Tommy guns to kill seven members of a rival gang. The so-called St. Valentine's Day Massacre prompted several gun control proposals, but no new laws were passed in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

1933: Roosevelt assassination attempt

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In 1933, an unemployed bricklayer named Giuseppe Zangara shot and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak in what is believed to have been an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. The shooting helped build support for one of the bills first proposed after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The National Firearms Act of 1934 set up the first federal registration system for gun dealers and imposed heavy taxes on certain types of guns.

1963: Assassination of John F. Kennedy

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President John F. Kennedy speaks at dedication ceremonies of the Aerospace Medical Center at Brooks Air Force Base, San Antonio, Tex., Nov. 21, 1963. (AP Photo)
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 sparked debate over gun laws. Assassin Lee Harvey Oswald had bought a rifle through the mail and had it delivered to a post office box under a false name. Debate began over mail-order gun sales, but no new laws were passed immediately after the assassination. 

1966: Texas tower sniper

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Smoke rises from a sniper's gun as he fires from the tower of the University of Texas administration building in Austin at people below in 1966. (AP Photo/File)
In 1966, former Marine Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then killed 13 people and wounded 32 others in a shooting rampage from the tower at the University of Texas in Austin. As with the Kennedy assassination, the shootings led to renewed debate over gun control, but no immediate changes in the law.

1968: Assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King

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This view shows the window in Memphis, Tenn., from which a man shot Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. (AP Photo)
The 1968 assassinations of Sen. Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. came while Congress was debating a gun control measure that was part of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" legislation, helping spur passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which expanded the categories of people who could not buy guns, barred mail-order sales of rifles and shotguns and banned imported handguns.

1981: Reagan assassination attempt

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Hoping to impress actress Jodie Foster, a mentally ill man named John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. One of his shots left White House Press Secretary James Brady paralyzed. Brady and his wife, Sarah, later formed a gun control group now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But it took until 1993 for supporters to pass the Brady Bill, creating the first national system of background checks for gun buyers

1991: Luby's massacre

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Unidentified mourners comfort each other after a funeral service for Michael Griffith on Oct. 20, 1991. Griffith was among the people who were killed in the massacre at the Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
In 1991, an unemployed man named George Hennard drove his pickup through the front window of a Texas cafeteria, then shot and killed 23 people before committing suicide. It was the deadliest shooting in U.S. history until the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 (and now third, after Newtown). Texas expanded access to concealed handgun permits in response to the massacre, but no federal laws were changed.

1993: Long Island Rail Road massacre

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Long Island Rail Road shooter Colin Ferguson is led into a Nassau County court room for a preliminary hearing  Dec. 10, 1993, in Mineola, N.Y. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
In 1993, a mentally ill man named Colin Ferguson shot and killed six people at a Long Island Rail Road station in Garden City, N.Y. Along with a number of other mass shootings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the massacre helped build support for a 1994 federal ban on the manufacture of certain assault weapons for civilian use. The ban expired in 2004, however, and a dozen attempts to renew it have failed.

1999: Columbine High School shootings

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Unidentified family members of the 13 people killed at Columbine High School in April 1999 view the walls of the memorial after the dedication ceremony at the Columbine Memorial in 2007. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
In 1999, two high school students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, shot and killed 12 students and a teacher in a massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The two had obtained three of the weapons from a friend who bought them at a gun show without undergoing a background check. A month later, the Senate approved closing the so-called "gun show loophole" in a 50-50 vote, with Vice President Al Gore breaking the tie. The proposal failed to pass the Republican-led House, however, and buyers at gun shows still do not need to pass background checks.

2007: Virginia Tech shootings

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A video aired by NBC News shows Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho. (AP Photo/NBC)
In 2007, mentally ill Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on campus, the deadliest massacre in U.S. history. In response, Congress passed the first new federal gun control measure in a decade, a bill supported by the NRA which strengthened the federal background check system for gun buyers and required states do a better job of adding records, such as those on domestic violence.

2011: Tucson shootings

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Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, left, leads the Pledge of Allegiance at a memorial vigil remembering the victims and survivors of the Tucson shootings. (AP Photo/Matt York)
In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner killed six people and wounded 13 others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in a shooting spree outside a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Although gun control supporters hoped the involvement of a member of Congress would spur action, no federal laws were changed in response to the shooting.

2012: Aurora, Colo., shootings

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James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, Colo. Holmes was being held on suspicion of first-degree murder. (Denver Post/RJ Sangosti)
Twelve people are killed when a gunman entered an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, released a canister of gas and then opened fire during opening night of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. James Holmes, a 24-year-old former graduate student at the University of Colorado, has been charged in the deaths. No federal laws were changed as a result of the shootings.

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"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.


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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.

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