The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 26, 2012

Sunday Forum: Up in arms

From Jefferson City to Washington, D.C., legislators focus on gun laws, mental health system

By Eli Yokley
Globe Columnist

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The age-old debate about American gun laws has reignited with new fuel following the tragic shooting of 26 people at a school earlier this month in Newtown, Conn.

With two pistols, a shooter took the lives of 20 children and six adults before taking his own life. The Newtown tragedy followed a series of gun tragedies in recent months. In July, an gunman killed more than a dozen people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. In August, a shooter killed seven at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. In late September, a laid-off employee killed five coworkers at a factory in Minneapolis.

Speaking to reporters in Washington last week, President Barack Obama said the problem — which he believes encompasses mental health, societal influence, as well as the ease with which one can obtain a gun — is complex, but added that should not “be an excuse for doing nothing.”

The White House said Obama was supportive of legislative efforts — led by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and supported by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. — to ban many automatic rifles and large magazines by renewing the so-called “Assault Weapons Ban,” which expired in 2004.

Despite support from Senate Democrats and the White House, it is unclear whether such legislation could move through the House of Representatives, where many of the members enjoy significant support from the National Rifle Association, an organization that doubled down on its position on guns during a news conference on Friday.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., speaking with reporters earlier in the week, said he expects to focus much of his legislative energy on the nation’s mental health system, which he said lacks serious efficiencies for communication between educational institutions — whether they be K-12 or higher education — and local law enforcement agencies. His concern was echoed earlier in the week by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who vowed, in light of the Newtown tragedy, to continue a focus on expanding the state’s mental health programs to individuals above the age of 18.

Nixon was characteristically vague about new legislative proposals dealing with gun safety and gun rights, which lawmakers have already begun to file as they prepare to return to Jefferson City for next year’s legislative session.

Even prior to the Newtown shooting, Missouri state Sen. Dan Brown, a Rolla Republican, proposed his own legislation that would require Missouri public and charter schools to teach a gun safety course to first graders. In rural Missouri, in the outskirts of Joplin and towns such as Rolla, guns often play a positive role in growing up, whether they be used at the gun range or on hunting trips with family.

But in other parts of the country this year, gun violence has caused many other children to grow up much too quickly, particularly in Newtown. Following the shooting there, Missouri state Rep. Mike Kelley, a Republican from Lamar, introduced legislation that would allow classroom teachers and school administrators to carry concealed guns inside schools, a deviation from years of federal laws banning guns in schools for anyone besides a law enforcement officer.

“This is just another line of defense that would give the teachers in those horrible situations another chance to protect those who are most innocent,” Kelley said in an interview with the Globe last week.

In the Missouri House, the bill is cosponsored by incoming House Speaker Tim Jones and Majority Floor Leader John Diehl. Companion legislation has not yet been filed in the Missouri Senate.

C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin School District, said in an interview Thursday that he has “great concerns” about the idea of arming teachers, despite his own background growing up around guns and his use of them recreationally.

“I own guns. I like to shoot guns. I’m comfortable with guns. I’m very much a gun-rights proponent,” Huff said. But, he added, “I don’t know very many businesses in this community or in this country that would say let’s give all the employees a handgun to protect themselves because of violence in the workplace.”

Huff said he would be more comfortable with lawmakers taking a look at the state’s mental health system, which he — reiterating the concerns of Blunt and Nixon — believes is lacking in terms of accessibility for those who need assistance and efficiency between various agencies.