NRA Renews Criticism of Weapons Ban as Gun Debate Begins

The National Rifle Association publicly pledged yesterday to “offer meaningful contributions” to avoid a repeat of the Connecticut elementary school killings -- even as it signaled to members that it will resist the return of a 1994 assault-weapons ban.

As President Barack Obama today announced he is assigning Vice President Joe Biden to lead the administration’s efforts to reduce gun violence, he said he backs restricting military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips such as that used by the shooter at the school in Newtown.

The president said the NRA, which has opposed bans on guns and ammunition, is made up of “mothers and fathers” who have been affected by the Dec. 14 shootings.

“Hopefully, they’ll do some self-reflection,” Obama said.

The NRA’s brief statement yesterday ended its silence since the massacre in which 20 children and six adults were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The 20-year-old gunman also killed himself and his mother.

The Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA, which spent $12 million in an unsuccessful attempt to deny Obama a second term in this year’s election, said it was “shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown.”

Assault Weapons

The group also has been laying early groundwork to oppose a return of the assault-weapons ban.

NRA News Update host Ginny Simone began a webcast aired on the group’s media site yesterday by saying that “as the nation continues to mourn the loss of the 26 innocent victims” of the shooting, Obama has directed his Cabinet members to propose measures that would curb gun violence.

“Measures that would likely include the assault-weapons ban because word from the White House is that the ban remains a commitment of the president,” Simone said, characterizing it as “a ban we all know was a failed experiment from the start.”

The dual messages are reminders of the difficultly lawmakers likely will face as they try to impose new restrictions on gun ownership.

As the NRA girds for a legislative confrontation that it has avoided for more than a decade, its allies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere began broadening the discussion to include the issues of mental health and violent movies.

NRA Proposals

That’s a message expected to be echoed when the NRA unveils its proposals at a press conference Dec. 21. In a webcast aired on the group’s site on Dec. 17, National Review columnist John Fund called what happened in Newtown “a mental health issue as much as anything.”

“I know the people who work there, and I know they’re horrified,” said Richard Feldman, a former political director for the NRA. “This is almost an existential moment for the gun community. It’s the worst-case scenario.”

Feldman said the association, which spent more than $2.2 million on lobbying in the first nine months of this year, will be “aggressive” in resisting the effort by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, to reinstate the federal assault-weapons ban. The ban expired in 2004.

Beyond Guns

Gun-rights advocates, including those who have said that some new restrictions should be considered in the aftermath of the tragedy, began pressing that case to focus beyond the weapons carried by the gunman in Newtown to other causes that contributed to his crime.

Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who has an “A” rating from the NRA, said he raised the possible influence of the entertainment industry and the issue of mental health in a meeting yesterday with Obama.

“I know my friends at the NRA and those who support our Second Amendment rights will participate” in grappling with gun violence “because I know that their hearts are aching for the families in Newtown, just like all Americans,” Manchin said in a statement afterward.

“To have a productive dialogue, we also need to address a number of critical issues, including our mental health system, safety in our schools and a media and entertainment culture that glorifies unspeakable violence,” he said.

Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association and an “endowment” member of the NRA, said “the issue should never be about guns, it should always be about whose hands the guns are in.”

Calling Republicans

The NRA began reaching out to allies on Capitol Hill yesterday, making calls to Republicans to gauge the temperature of their supporters, according to two House Republican aides with knowledge of the calls.

The group also used the calls to trade ideas as they formulated their response to the shooting, said the aides, who requested anonymity to speak about the calls.

Some Republican supporters of gun rights have agreed to discuss new firearm restrictions

“Having this discussion is a very important part of the process that we must go through as Americans,” Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, said on MSNBC. “I‘ve also said you cannot leave out the mental health situation of this.”

Calls for a broader discussion went beyond NRA allies.

Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced legislation to direct the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the impact of violent video games on children.

“We need to take a comprehensive look at all the ways we can keep our kids safe,” he said in a statement.

Video Games

Rockefeller also said he’d call on two agencies, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, take a fresh look at the effectiveness of the video game ratings system and the impact of violent programming on children.

“Changes in technology now allow kids to access violent content online with less parental involvement,” he said.

Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, yesterday suggested creation of a national commission on violence to examine the role of the entertainment industry in addition to gun laws.

“Very often, these young men have had an almost hypnotic involvement in some form of violence in our entertainment culture, particularly violent video games,” he said on the Senate floor. “Then they go out and obtain guns and become not just troubled young men but mass murderers.”

At today’s press conference, Obama also said “any single gun law can’t solve all these problems.” He said Biden’s group would look at mental health issues and school safety in addition to gun laws.

Background Checks

Obama endorses legislation requiring purchasers at gun shows to undergo background checks, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, and would look at efforts to restrict high-capacity magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle with 30-round magazines as his main weapon, Connecticut State Police Lieutenant Paul Vance said at a Dec. 16 news conference.

The author of legislation to ban those magazines, Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, asked his colleagues to co-sponsor the measure and push it through the new Congress.

“High-capacity magazines are used by soldiers fighting wars; they do not belong on our streets and in our communities,” Lautenberg said in a letter to other senators.

To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Bykowicz in Washington at jbykowicz@bloomberg.net; Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at jsalant@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

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