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Gun control sparks renewed fervor on both sides of debate

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, at 6:28 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, at 6:19 p.m.

Gun control wasn’t even an occasional topic on Karen Verdusco’s Facebook page a few weeks ago. Then came news of the massacre of 20 first-graders in Connecticut, and suddenly she felt compelled to become a crusader.

“I thought we need to do something,” she said. “This has got to stop.”

Her answer was to form the Kansas City chapter of One Million Moms for Gun Control. Nowadays you can count on Verdusco to send out regular updates about the need for new restrictions on firearms and to defend her position in debates with gun-rights supporters online.

Those supporters are all over Facebook and Twitter too, just as appalled that Washington lawmakers want to restrict a constitutional right and are citing reasons they see as seriously flawed.

“So if guns kill people,” someone tweeted, “I guess pencils misspell words, cars drive drunk and spoons make people fat.”

Kevin Jamison, a Gladstone lawyer and a founder of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, recognizes the new zeal for gun control, but discounts the effectiveness of the proposals.

“It’s human nature to want to do something, but it’s a wise man who does the right thing,” Jamison said.

The current gun debate is bitter in part because, for the first time in at least a generation, gun-control advocates are beginning to show as much passion as the gun-rights side.

According to a new New York Times/CBS News poll, some 54 percent of the American public favor more gun control, compared to 39 percent last April. It’s typical after highly publicized mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School for the numbers to nudge upward.

This time they spiked. Another difference is that the feelings among gun-control proponents, especially, are more intense than before.

Calls for new restrictions dominated social media immediately after last month’s shooting in Connecticut. It was far more emotional, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found, than in the aftermath of the attack at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer and the 2011 assault on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Ariz.

Kansas City pastor Donna Simon says she’s picked up on that deepening conviction in conversations with members of her congregation at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church on Troost Avenue.

“I’m feeling from my folks,” Simon said, “an unwillingness to let it go this time.”

By comparison, the fervor of gun-control opponents never flags. For decades, it’s been the secret to their success in fending off attempts to impose restrictions and to making gains with concealed carry and stand-your-ground laws.

Unlike gun-control supporters, they can be counted on to support candidates who back gun rights and, according to Pew, are four to five times more likely to contribute to a group that takes positions on gun policy.

Which is why, going back to the 1968 assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., there’s been a tendency for this issue to burn hot for a while in the wake of gun-related tragedies, then dissipate on the pro-gun-control side when opponents of new gun restrictions dig in their heels.

Indeed, the current debate in Congress will be won or lost based on whether proponents of new restrictions can equal or surpass the passion of the gun lobby.

President Barack Obama said as much in announcing his proposals this past week for expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons and large magazines.

“I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it,” he said.

Deep conviction

Calls for changing the gun laws grow louder every time some madman sprays a public place with bullets.

“What makes this time different?” asks Allen Rostron, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school and a former staff attorney for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “I guess the pessimistic view is that it’s not all the different.”

But his hope is that both sides of the argument can find some common ground.

“Truthfully, if we could get people all in a room and get over the politics of it, I think we could actually agree on some things,” he said. “Not all the stuff that President Obama is proposing is going to damage the Second Amendment and people’s gun rights.”

The National Rifle Association’s initial response to the Newtown, Conn., shooting was to say that no changes in gun policy were needed. Instead, said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, the focus should be on mental health issues and posting armed guards in the nation’s schools.

Both sides think they have logic on their side — and that the other side is marching down a dangerous road.

The gun-rights supporters believe it just as strongly as ever: “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

Anyone who thinks otherwise has it all wrong, said former U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Wichita Republican who authored successful legislation restricting access to gun registration records among other measures favorable to the gun lobby while in Congress.

“We’re looking at an inanimate object and saying that’s the cause of the violence, but that’s not the cause of the violence,” he said. “The cause of the violence is what’s going on in the head of the person who commits the violence.”

Tiahrt and others in his camp believe our gun laws have no basis in logic, and every new limitation is an attack on the Second Amendment. They say it would make far more sense to address cultural issues that lead to gun crimes, such as violent video games and movies.

Virtually every limitation on firearms fails to show any benefit, they say. Banning assault weapons like the ones used in the Newtown and Aurora shootings are merely feel-good moves that penalize law-abiding folks who might want to use the weapons for target shooting or hunting.

“These proposals have failed every time they have been used,” Jamison said. “They have not decreased crime.”

Those on the other side of the issue are equally perplexed. Why can’t gun-rights supporters see the wisdom of what they view as common-sense regulation, such as outlawing guns capable of spraying 100 bullets without reloading?

“I find it hard to believe that the average person will support personal ownership of automatic weapons,” said local peace activist Ira Harritt, “but the gun lobby has been successful in somehow making people feel it’s just the first step in them taking all of their guns away.”

It’s a commonly held belief among many gun enthusiasts: If restricting a certain type of weapon would have little impact on crime, then there must be a hidden agenda at work.

“They believe there’s an underlying desire on the part of politicians like Obama or the leaders in Congress,” Rostron said, “to dramatically take away people’s rights to have guns.”

Slow-mo murder

But at least the passionate debate has led to a new discussion about gun violence, Kansas City Mayor Sly James said.

Washington’s focus on banning assault weapons will have little impact on the routine gun violence that local police deal with every day, he said. Of the 12,600 homicides committed in the United States last year, only a little more than 300 involved a rifle.

Still, James hopes the debate will lead to other reforms, like a law requiring people whose guns are stolen to report the serial numbers to police so that they can be tracked.

“We’re engaged in slow-motion mass murder every day in this country,” he said. “Right here in this city, I mean, we lose 30 people at the drop of a quarter … We have to be as diligent about that problem as we are about the mass-murder tragedies that show up.”

Longtime Kansas City anti-violence activist Alvin Brooks is also encouraged.

Maybe this latest mass shooting will be the wake-up call, he says.

“Whether it’s Newtown or drive-bys,” he said, “the death is still the same.”

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