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Both sides of gun debate make public appeals

Published March 24, 2013 8:49 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Two of the loudest voices in the gun debate say it's up to voters now to make their position known to Congress.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and National Rifle Associate Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre claim their opposing views on guns have the support of the overwhelming number of Americans. They are looking at the next two weeks as critical to the debate, when lawmakers head home to hear from constituents ahead of next month's anticipated Senate vote on gun control.

Bloomberg, a former Republican-turned-independent, has just sunk $12 million for Mayors Against Illegal Guns to run television ads and phone banks in 13 states urging voters to tell their senators to pass legislation requiring universal background checks for gun buyers.

"We demanded a plan and then we demanded a vote. We've got the plan, we're going to get the vote. And now it's incumbent on us to make our voices heard," said Bloomberg.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that legislation would likely be debated in his chamber next month that will include expanded federal background checks, tougher laws and stiffer sentences for gun trafficking and increased school safety grants. A ban on assault-style weapons was dropped from the bill, fearing it would sink the broader bill. But Reid has said that he would allow the ban to be voted on separately as an amendment. President Barack Obama called for a vote on the assault weapons ban in his radio and Internet address Saturday.

Recalling the horrific shooting three months ago at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 20 first graders and six school administrators dead, Bloomberg said it would be a great tragedy if Congress, through inaction, lost the moment to make the country safer from gun violence. Bloomberg said that 90 percent of Americans and 80 percent of NRA members support universal background checks for gun purchases.

"I don't think there's ever been an issue where the public has spoken so clearly, where Congress hasn't eventually understood and done the right thing," Bloomberg said.

But the NRA's LaPierre counters that universal background checks are "a dishonest premise." For example, mental health records are exempt from databases and criminals won't submit to the checks. Background checks, he said, are a "speed bump" in the system that "slows down the law-abiding and does nothing for anybody else."

"The shooters in Tucson, in Aurora, in Newtown, they're not going to be checked. They're unrecognizable," LaPierre said. He was referring to the 2011 shooting in a Tucson shopping center that killed six and wounded 13, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the July assault in a suburban Denver movie theater that killed 12 and injured 70. In both instances, as well as in the Newtown killings, the alleged shooters used military-style assault rifles with high-capacity ammunition magazines.

LaPierre slammed Bloomberg for the ad buy.

"He's going to find out this is a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. And he can't spend enough of his $27 billion to try to impose his will on the American public," LaPierre said, adding, "He can't buy America."

"Millions of people" from across the country are sending the NRA "$5, $10, $15, $20 checks, saying stand up to this guy," LaPierre said, referring to Bloomberg.

LaPierre said the NRA supports a bill to get the records of those adjudicated mentally incompetent and dangerous into the background check system for gun dealers, better enforcement of federal gun laws and beefed up penalties for illegal third-party purchases and gun trafficking. Shortly after the Newtown shooting, LaPierre called for armed security guards in schools as well.

LaPierre would like to see Congress pass a law that "updates the system and targets those mentally incompetent adjudicated into the system" and forces the administration to enforce the federal gun laws.

"It won't happen until the national media gets on the administration and calls them out for their incredible lack of enforcement of these laws," LaPierre said.

In Colorado, a state with a pioneer tradition of gun ownership and self-reliance, Gov. John Hickenlooper just signed bills requiring background checks for private and online gun sales. The legislation also would ban ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.

"After the shootings last summer in the movie theater, we really focused on mental health first then universal background checks," Hickenlooper said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I think the feeling right now around assault weapons, at least in Colorado, is that they're so hard to define what an assault weapon is."

Hickenlooper said he met with a group of protesters against the bills in Grand Junction, Colo., were "very worried about government keeping a centralized database, which I assured them wasn't going to happen." The protesters, he added, view the background checks as "just the first step in trying to take guns away."