Iowa political reaction to the Sandy Hook school massacre (updated)

The horrific mass killing at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut has dominated news coverage since Friday, and almost everyone I know has been talking about the tragedy. But only a few Iowa politicians have publicly discussed the events or possible ways to prevent similar crimes.

Remarks by Senator Tom Harkin, Representative Dave Loebsack, State Senator Rob Hogg, and Governor Terry Branstad are after the jump. I'm disappointed but not surprised that the governor is not open to any new restrictions on assault weapons or large ammunition clips. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who like Branstad has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, today called for moving "beyond rhetoric" on gun control. His comments are also below.

I've sought comment from other members of Iowa's Congressional delegation and will update this post if I hear back from any of them. UPDATE: Added Representative Bruce Braley's comments below.

SECOND UPDATE: Added Senator Chuck Grassley's comments during a December 17 radio interview.

LATER UPDATE: Added comments from Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass.

Senator Tom Harkin's office sent out this press release on December 17:

"We grieve as a nation for the tragedy that unfolded Friday in Newtown.  As a father and grandfather, I struggle to process this event, and send my deepest sympathies to each and every family impacted.  I join them in questioning what we can do to prevent future tragedies.  I also salute the teachers and first responders, who acted so heroically in the face of such terror.

"Though the details of this tragedy are still unfolding, one thing is clear: it is time to address increasing gun violence in this country.  As a hunter, I know that the recreational use and collection of guns is important to many Iowans and I will work to protect the legitimate rights of law-abiding American gun owners.  But we need to ask whether people need unlimited access to any arms, including those capable of shooting hundreds of bullets in a very short time.  We can support gun rights while continuing to support responsible legislation to reduce crime and make our schools and communities safer.  Each of these goals is important and I believe that they can be accomplished simultaneously.

"Another issue we simply cannot ignore is the need to renew our focus on mental health services in our country with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention.  In the coming days, I will take a closer look at how the federal government can ensure that people and communities who need help for mental health conditions have timely access to the services they require and that those suffering after this tragedy also have the resources they need to heal."

Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02) responded to my request for comment with this statement:

"As a father and grandfather, it is truly heart wrenching to think of what the parents are going through. Our entire nation's thanks go to the first responders, teachers and administrators who acted so heroically to protect children.  While there are no quick fixes, it is time for our country to have a national conversation about how to address the troubling frequency with which lives have been cut short by senseless violence. We must sit down and look at proposals that will protect Iowans' well-established Second Amendment rights while keeping these sorts of horrific attacks from taking place.   I believe any conversation must look at ways to deal with military-style assault weapons and extended clips as well as mental health care.  There is a difference between responsible gun owners and those who would use them to carry out horrific acts such as what happened in Newtown.  This is not a matter of politics - it is about ensuring the safety of our children and our communities."

Both Harkin and Loebsack have "F" ratings from the National Rifle Association.

UPDATE: So does Representative Bruce Braley (D, IA-01). He responded to my request with these comments:

"We can't guarantee that mass shootings will never happen again in our country, but we need to try.  Sandy Hook cannot become yet another footnote in the history of gun violence in America.  It's a call to action for all of us.

"I'm willing to listen to every reasonable idea and recommendation.  The stakes are too high, the cost is too great, and failing to act is not an option.

"In the weeks to come, I'll be reaching out to constituents, colleagues, experts, and professionals to address this problem from all angles.  Real solutions can only be found if we put politics aside and work across ideological lines to cooperate, whether it's on improving mental health care or finding a reasonable common ground on gun control.  The victims of these terrible crimes deserve nothing less than our best efforts," said Rep. Bruce Braley.

Governor Terry Branstad wants Iowa schools "to review their school safety plans."

"The thoughts and prayers of all Iowans are with the families and friends of the innocent victims of this senseless tragedy," Branstad said today. "While it is difficult to understand such an evil act, we do know our children and grandchildren remain our most precious gifts and ensuring their safety in our communities is absolutely critical." [...]

Responding to questions from reporters, Branstad said he was not prepared to endorse proposals to provide guns to teachers and school administrators, or to propose new gun control laws. Furthermore, Schouten expressed reservations about providing guns to school staff, saying their first obligation is to provide instruction for students, while law enforcement personnel are trained to respond to such situations.

Branstad said he believes the Connecticut deaths underscore the need for anti-bullying efforts in schools, and to provide mental health care in an effort to address the root cause of school shootings.

The governor also said he would caution the media about its coverage of mass shootings because of concerns about copycat crimes.

"The extreme coverage of this sometimes causes others to come up with ideas," he said, expressing concerns about the impact on mentally unstable people.

"I think we all need to be very vigilant and careful about this," he added.

Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Hogg told the Des Moines Register that

it's important not to rush to action in response to such a tragedy and he wants legislators to be patient and careful in addressing school safety issues.

"The things we are going to be interested in or that I am going to be interested in as chair of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee, are proven strategies for reducing violence and reducing gun violence," Hogg said. "We want some expertise on how to advise us on how to attack these problems; listen to school experts; listen to law enforcement experts; listen to experts on crime and violence."

He added that he hopes that Senate Democrats also focus on mental health treatment. [...]

Hogg said that reinstating Iowa's death penalty, which was abolished in 1965, won't be considered by the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee. He noted that people convicted of first-degree murder are sentenced to life in prison.

He said he wouldn't absolutely rule out the idea of providing firearms to school staffers - explaining he wants to hear the experts views on the issue - but it's not an approach he is personally interested in seeing. He also said that while some Democrats support additional gun control laws, he's not sure such an approach is politically feasible.

Senator Joe Manchin on MSNBC on December 17:

"I just came with my family from deer hunting," Manchin said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "I've never had more than three shells in a clip. Sometimes you don't get more than one shot anyway at a deer. It's common sense. It's time to move beyond rhetoric. We need to sit down and have a common-sense discussion and move in a reasonable way." [...]

Manchin, who declined to say what specific restrictions he would support, said the NRA should have a role in the debate over legislative changes to gun law. [...]

"I don't know anyone in the hunting or sporting arena that goes out with an assault rifle," he said. "I don't know anybody that needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about."

The most interesting piece I've read about the constitutional debate on guns is by Akhil Reed Amar.

UPDATE: Senator Chuck Grassley spoke to Ryan Schlader of WMT Radio in Cedar Rapids on December 17. He endorsed the idea of a commission or task force to study the problem, saying outgoing Senator Joe Lieberman and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani could lead such a commission. He called for letting the family grieve and not politicizing the tragedy. He noted that it's already illegal to have guns close to a school and that Connecticut has stricter gun control laws than many other states. He urged people to look at the broader American culture (less civility and "family breakdown"). The audio link is here.

DECEMBER 19 UPDATE: Braley commented further on policies related to gun violence and mental health.

"I am willing to listen to every reasonable idea and recommendation because the stakes are too high, the costs are too great and failing to act is not an option," Braley said. "In the weeks to come I'll be reaching out to my constituents, my colleagues, to experts and professionals to address this problem from all angles."

That could mean pursuing improved mental health care services and seeking a "reasoned common ground on gun regulation," he said.

More immediately, he said he would sign on as a cosponsor to a bill restricting high-capacity ammunition clips, which were used by the gunman in the Newtown shooting and other recent mass-murder incidents. [...]

Braley's efforts in the coming weeks will include a town-hall meeting on gun regulation in Iowa's 1st District that he said he hoped representatives of the National Rifle Association would attend.

President Barack Obama named Vice President Joe Biden to lead a new working group on gun violence.

The president stressed that the group would develop a holistic approach to preventing future violence that included not just an examination of gun laws, but mental-health policies and services and the entertainment industry.

"We're going to need to look closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence," Obama said, adding that the effort would "begin inside the home and inside our hearts."

The selection of Biden to head the commission is a clear indication that much of the group's focus will center around gun laws. The vice president was a key player in the effort to pass the federal assault weapons ban in 1994, earning him an "F" grade from the National Rifle Association. In 2008, the NRA deemed him the "most anti-gun vice president in American history," decrying Biden's votes to impose a waiting period on handgun sales and his vote to ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

Obama noted that public opinion polls showed support for an assault weapons ban, limits on the size of ammunition clips, and waiting periods for gun purchases.

"There is already a growing consensus for reform," Obama said.

Speaking to Radio Iowa's Matt Kelley, Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass called for administrators to focus on safety systems.

Glass says if guns are allowed into schools, they should carried by trained law officers.

"I am not an advocate of arming teachers," Glass says. "We need to have guns in the hands of trained professionals who are peace officers. That's the individuals who should be carrying weapons in any of our schools."

Glass is advocating a thoughtful appraisal of school safety and says he has NO immediate plans for legislative requests on the subject. Glass is cautioning against making snap decisions.

"I think a prudent postion is to make sure our schools have quality safety systems in place," he says. "That's a good place to start and then I think a prudent reaction, too, is if we are going to have armed individuals within our schools to protect children, we make sure those are peace officers and they're trained. We don't want to create a situation where we have the wild, wild west operating in our schools."

Glass says the safety procedures in place at the Connecticut school saved lives.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association bragged to Fox News that donations have surged since the school shooting in Connecticut.

Login or Join to comment and post.