As the leader of a new Congressional task force on gun violence, Napa County Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, is poised to move headlong into a national debate about federal gun regulations that’s gripped the U.S. after a deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut last week.
In announcing the task force Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, promoted Thompson as the right lawmaker to lead a discussion on how to tighten gun laws and bar future violence like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Friday that left 27 children and adults, including the gunman, dead.
Pelosi said Thompson’s background as a gun owner, Vietnam veteran and his experience in crafting bipartisan support for legislation makes him “ideally suited” to push a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips through a Congress notorious for partisan gridlock.
“As we mourn the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, we must respond with more than words; we must take action,” Pelosi said. “We must be able to tell our children that we are doing everything in our power to prevent this from happening again.”
Thompson, who will begin serving his eighth term in Congress next year, said in a statement that he was honored to be chairing the task force, which will be composed of other House Democrats and is tasked with examining potential changes in federal gun laws, mental-health care issues and youth violence.
“As a father and grandfather, I am deeply shocked and saddened by the senseless act of violence we’re mourning in Newtown,” Thompson said. “Something must be done, and so I am honored to be chairing a House Democratic task force on reducing and preventing gun violence.”
Thompson will have plenty of company in proposing and examining legislation. President Barack Obama also pledged Wednesday to deliver his own set of gun-control proposals to Congress through a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has pledged to introduce a new ban on assault weapons, after a ban instituted in 1994 lapsed in 2004.
But Brian Malte, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, acknowledged that whatever proposals are put forth as legislation will need the support of Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and applauded putting Thompson in charge of the House Democratic task force.
The calls for stricter gun laws have mainly come from Congressional Democrats, with some Republicans expressing a willingness to open a dialogue.
“He’s obviously a well-respected member of Congress,” Malte said of Thompson. “He certainly has the ability to bring all sides to the table. In the House of Representatives it’s going to be key to have somebody who can reach across the aisle.”
Gene Kelly, president of Napa-based American Gunsmithing Institute, questioned the value of lawmakers pledging to examine gun-control measures in the wake of the Newtown shooting. He contended that the issue is societal in nature, and advocates addressing the underlying mental health issues prevalent in many recent mass shootings, while improving security training in schools.
Kelly said he’s recently been working on such training methods with citizens of Israel, and believes teachers and administrators need to be able to detect threats, deter them from happening, and be able to eliminate them if needed.
“They need training, real training — not just move under a desk,” Kelly said. “They’re trying to blame a thing. A firearm is a thing. This is very tragic. We’re grieved by this tragedy, but we’re also grieved by the rhetoric of ‘ban, ban, ban.’”
Kelly also questioned lawmakers’ motivations in pursuing new gun laws, and said their ideas are to dust off a 20-year-old law — the ban on assault weapons — that did not work when it was in effect.
“Isn’t this opportunistic?” Kelly asked of the lawmakers. “We have to deal with this in a different way. We have to deal with the real issues of, ‘Why would someone want to do this?’ ”
Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician and gun-violence researcher with UC, Davis, said the weeks and months following the Newtown shooting are critical in advancing federal gun legislation.
He said he holds up some of California’s gun laws as national models, including regulations on private-party sales and requiring a background check for all firearm purchases, which has been in effect for 20 years.
“We know that can be done,” Wintemute said. “We’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
Wintemute said he advocates broadening the list of crimes that would disqualify people from owning guns to include convictions for misdemeanor violence. Studies have shown that to be effective in reducing future gun crimes, he said.
Wintemute said that tighter federal laws are needed because despite California’s legal efforts, gun purchases can be easily made in gun shows across state lines in Nevada or Arizona, which have looser gun laws.
“It seems like the conversation we’re about to have is how to prevent violence generally,” Wintemute said. “I see California as an ideal model. We have served as a laboratory of democracy here.”
Malte said that while lawmakers’ conversations over getting stricter gun-control measures haven’t been fruitful over the past two decades, he hopes the Sandy Hook shooting will change that.
“It is about a national dialogue and conversation,” Malte said. “Something feels very different. That’s why we’re so optimistic that something can be done and should be done.”