FAIRBANKS — Sen. Mark Begich gave a tepid response to firearm restrictions proposed by President Barack Obama on Wednesday, saying he’s “not at all anxious” to pass new laws as an approach to curbing gun violence.
Obama unveiled his plans for new gun restrictions at a news conference, asking Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, along with expanded background checks for gun buyers. The proposals come a month after a shooting in Newtown, Conn., killed 26 people, including 20 elementary school children.
Begich, a Democrat, cautioned in an interview with the News-Miner that he’d only seen bullet-point summaries of Obama’s proposals and wanted to learn more details. He said he is unlikely to support new gun restrictions, preferring instead to focus on enforcement of existing laws to attack the problem.
“I think they’ve got a long haul here,” Begich said of the Obama administration’s gun proposals. “There are some of us who just fundamentally believe in a Second Amendment right.”
Begich said he was skeptical of the assault weapons ban, saying there’s uncertainty about how those weapons are defined and whether a similar ban from 1994 to 2004 was effective. He said the debate about expanded background checks warrants a “fair discussion,” but that there already are significant hurdles for most gun purchases.
“To be frank, I feel like it’s going to be hard for any of these pieces of legislation to pass at this point,” Begich said.
Rep. Don Young said in a statement that he was concerned by Obama’s proposed new laws. The Alaska Republican called the plan to ban “aesthetically altered rifles and shotguns” and high-capacity magazines a “dangerous limitation on a family’s ability to defend itself.”
“Perhaps in cities where the police response time tends to be more rapid, it is easy to forget how important a firearm is to keeping loved ones safe,” Young said in the statement. “However, in rural America where law enforcement is many miles away, a semi-automatic weapon could mean the difference between life and death.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was in Japan on Wednesday on an energy policy trip, but issued a statement expressing general concern about Obama’s proposals. She said the issue deserves “far wider discussion” in Congress than the president’s position.
“Alaskans have mourned with all Americans at the tragic, senseless deaths in recent years but we do not believe those emotions should cloud our resolve to protect our constitutional right to bear arms,” Murkowski said. “I have spoken with gun owners, shopkeepers and hunters in Alaska in recent weeks and share their concerns that the rights and opinions of responsible citizens are not being fully respected in this conversation.”
Both Begich and Young had a warmer response to 23 executive orders being proposed by Obama to reduce gun violence, which appeared to focus largely on stronger enforcement of existing laws and streamlined sharing of information. Obama also is asking Congress to provide incentives for schools to hire “resource officers” to respond to problems.
Begich, a former Anchorage mayor, said Alaska’s largest city has had success dealing with gun crimes using those approaches. City attorneys worked with federal prosecutors to push felons caught with firearms into the tougher federal justice system, he said, and the city funded armed police officers at public high schools.
“These are very successful programs, and you don’t need to arm every school employee,” Begich said. “We have shown in Alaska, especially Anchorage, how you can make this work successfully.”
Begich said better sharing of information between agencies — particularly involving people suffering from mental illness — is an important step and a change he’d consider in background checks for gun purchases.
Begich introduced a bill last year designed to help employees at college campuses identify mental illness among their students. He said he’ll reintroduce an expanded version this year that also includes younger students.
“I know people from the mental health arena are concerned about stigmatizing people, but there has to be a happy medium,” he said.
Young also had praise for some of Obama’s executive orders, saying he supported measures to prevent mentally ill people from obtaining weapons, along with better training for school personnel to respond to shootings. He also said he appreciates efforts to help schools hire resource officers.
“I continue to meet with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to discuss ways to address mental health, and keep guns out of the hands of madmen, all without infringing on responsible gun owners’ Second Amendment rights,” Young said in the statement.
Young’s statement didn’t include a position on expanded background checks for gun buyers. A spokesman said Young was unavailable for an interview Wednesday.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.