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Fairbanks gun enthusiasts say mental health care, not gun regulations, at root of shootings

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Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2012 12:06 am

FAIRBANKS — The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings have sparked momentum behind increased federal regulation on firearms, but it’s a debate that likely won’t find any support among Alaska’s congressional leaders and is a proposition that worries local gun enthusiasts.

With calls by President Barack Obama and several high-ranking national politicians to create stricter firearm laws, Fairbanks gun and ammunition sellers have seen a rush in recent days as residents worry about a ban or restrictions on certain firearms.

Business is steady at Arctic Gunworks off Airport Way. A handful of patrons filtered through the shop Wednesday afternoon. The shop’s walls are covered with firearms, and a AR-15 style Bushmaster .223, the same model firearm used in last week’s shooting, sits on a display on the counter.

Store owner Gary Junk bristles at the mention of regulation on firearms termed as assault rifles. He said the 1994 assault weapons ban was ineffective and calls the classification of “assault rifle” meaningless.

The inner workings of the Bushmaster .223 are nearly identical to the innards of most hunting rifles, he said.

Junk said the lack of mental health services, not gun control, that is at the root of the shootings.

“You have people who are depraved, you have people who are mentality ill, you have people who are focusing on soft targets,” he said. “It’s a shame to the memory of these children to make a political fight over assault weapons.”

Junk’s associate Lynn Levengood, a fellow gun enthusiast, said he believes the slew of major mass shootings can be linked to the closure of major mental health facilities. Levengood said better treatment, mandatory reporting to the national firearm database of mental health issues that are indicators of violent crimes and committing high-risk mentally ill to institutions will help solve the problem.

The sentiment of increased services to identify and treat risky individuals has been echoed among Alaska’s congressional leaders.

Rep. Don Young, a well-known advocate for strong gun rights and National Rifle Association board member, has rejected any new assault weapons bans. His office released the following

statement:

“Congressman Young has not and will not support an assault weapons ban, and believes any such ban would be an infringement on an individual’s Second Amendment rights. The conversation going forward should be larger than any one gun law; it should be about how we diagnose and treat mental illness in this country.”

A strong line against firearms could be a risky political proposition in the gun-friendly 49th state. Many studies and surveys show Alaska ranks among the top in ownership of firearms. A 2011 study by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Violence Policy Center showed Alaska led the country in gun-related deaths, though a sizable portion of those deaths were considered suicides.

That political risk hasn’t stopped Democrats in conservative, gun-friendly states from splitting from previously strong lines on gun control to express interest in exploring new firearm laws. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, made headlines for expressing a willingness to explore such new laws in the wake of the tragedy.

However, Sen. Mark Begich hasn’t sounded off on new gun laws. In 2009, he wrote Attorney General Eric Holder, saying “such a ban would be highly unacceptable to me and the Alaskans I

represent.”

Instead, Begich released a statement earlier this week focusing on the mental health component of shootings, calling for increased services to identify and treat risky individuals.

“After multiple tragedies across the country, there is no doubt that we must do more to keep our families and communities safe, and that is why I believe we must start with the ever-pressing issue of mental health services in this country,” he said.

“I have already introduced a bill to improve mental health services on college campuses and will continue to urge my colleagues to recognize that mental health services are a critical component of any conversation about the well-being of our families and the safety of our communities.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has not released a substantive comment on the upcoming political debate about regulation. She previously has spoken out against such a ban. A statement released by her office says, “In the near future, we will seriously discuss the issues that led to the Newtown shooting, and whether we are doing all we need to do to protect our children and one another.”

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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