Tuesday December 18, 2012

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The massacre Friday of 20 young children and six adults inside a Newtown, Conn., elementary school has prompted nationwide expressions of grief, bewilderment and anger. It's also brought on renewed pleas by some in Vermont and elsewhere for a crackdown on the type of weapon that allowed for so much carnage in so little time.

Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday and began firing a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle at close range. The medical examiner reported that each of the victims was hit by multiple bullets. The firepower and the destruction it caused has some questioning why such weapons are allowed in the hands of the general public.

"I don't understand why we need assault weapons," state Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, said Monday.

"There are things we can do"

Vermont, with its rural and rugged landscape, is populated with avid hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. It has some of the most liberal gun laws in the country and a low crime rate. But Komline said she now questions whether the ease of purchasing weapons in Vermont may be allowing guns to reach states with more restrictions in place.

"I don't think we have enough information on the effect of what our liberal gun control laws have on other states. I think it's something that we have to take a look at. I also know that gun laws in Vermont are sacred. People don't touch that. Is it because the (National Rifle Association) is so powerful?" Komline said.

Komline maintains she is not anti-gun. But, there are likely ways to strengthen regulations and help reduce gun violence, she said. "I've felt this way about the assault rifles for a while, but I haven't felt the need to make it an issue, I guess," she said.

"I'm not saying take everyone's guns, but there are things we can do to tighten it up," Komline added. "A deranged person is going to do what they are going to do, but we don't have to make it easy for them."

Legislation should not be passed "as a knee-jerk reaction to something," Komline said, but Friday's mass killing is just the latest in a series of recent massacres. Action should be taken "when it gets to a tipping point, when it's one thing after another after another," she said.

Komline said she is not seeking "anything that looks political." However, a resolution urging the state's federal delegation in Congress to act would be appropriate, she said. There are likely other Republicans and Democrats in the Vermont Legislature that feel the same way, she said.

Guns are only part of the problem, though. A greater focus on mental health and treatment is also required, Komline said.

State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said there is no fast, easy action that can be taken in response to Friday's shooting.

"As far as state laws go, in my view, the last thing we need is simple answers to complex problems. It frustrates me to no end when I read a quote like the one in today's New York Times from a Connecticut legislator. I hope he was taken out of context: ‘I'm hearing from my constituents, as well as my colleagues, that we need to do something.' My understanding is that Connecticut already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country so I think all of us need to better understand why those laws did not work before we propose them here in Vermont," Sears wrote in an email from Martinique in response to questions the Banner. "I intend to have discussions with Senate leadership and the governor when I get back and may be better able to respond at that point."

Major action will likely have to come from Congress, though, according to Sears. "Let me make clear that I leave any federal response to our federal delegation," he wrote.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is traveling in Italy, urged Congress, in a statement released by his office Monday, to debate ways to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

"Words cannot express the grief and shock that we all share after Friday's tragedy. President Obama made a forceful case last night for engaging in a national conversation about ways to stop violence in our communities. The role of firearms is one part of that conversation, and while I continue to support the right of law abiding Vermonters to own guns, I'm open to a broader discussion about what we can do to keep firearms out of the wrong hands," Shumlin said. "Congress and the President should enter into a vigorous and thoughtful debate about how we can prevent tragedies like this in the future."

The president, speaking Sunday at a vigil in Newtown, noted the frequency of such killings. "Since I've been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we've hugged survivors. The fourth time we've consoled the families of victims," he said.

Obama called for action Sunday, yet avoided specific steps he may seek.

"We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society," the president said. "But that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that -- then surely we have an obligation to try."

The National Rifle Association, has been a powerful force, however, forcefully defending Americans' second amendment right to bear arms, including automatic weapons. A 10-year ban on "assault" weapons expired in 2004, and there has been little support in Congress to revisit it.

Vermont's three-man congressional team issued statements Monday urging lawmakers to debate and understand how to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring. None of them addressed gun rights specifically, however, and spokesmen said they were not commenting further when asked if "assault" weapons should be banned.

Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised hearings when the new Congress convenes "to help in the search for understanding and answers." He said he expects "that other committees will also take part in this national discussion."

"As the President has pointed out, it is unlikely that any single step, or package of steps, can erase the chance of such a tragedy happening again. We know that sometimes things happen that are beyond understanding. We also know that situations vary widely from state to state and from community to community. But we must take on the responsibility of searching for answers," Leahy said. "If there are practical, sensible, workable answers to prevent such unspeakable tragedy, we should make the effort to find them."

Sanders outlined three steps the nation must take to help prevent future mass killings. He called for toning down "the incredibly high level of violence which permeates our media culture and which desensitizes children and others to the killing of human beings." At the same time, there should be an expansion and improvement of mental health services, he said.

Lastly, Sanders said the country must also do more to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands.

"Third, while well over 99 percent of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who use their weapons legally and responsibly, there are clearly some who do not. In that regard, we must make certain that highly destructive weapons do not fall into the hands of people who should not have them," he said.

Welch ventured further than the senators. He said "should be no conflict between protecting innocent children from slaughter and preserving the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens." The country must reach consensus on "practical steps," he said.

"We must find a better way to prevent mentally unstable individuals from obtaining a gun. We must ensure that federal agencies, as well as state and local law enforcement authorities, are sharing information that will improve the effectiveness of federal background checks. We must, even in an era (of) fiscal restraint, improve mental health services at the local level. We must find ways to check the gruesome violence on display every day to our children through television, movies and video games. And we must honestly address the real world impact of assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips that are inflicting carnage on innocent people," Welch said.

The pending discussions must be inclusive, he said.

"It is essential that every American come to the table to participate in this discussion, including parents, teachers, law enforcement authorities, mental health advocates, the entertainment industry and the National Rifle Association," Welch said.