Politics

As Texas school shooting reignites national debate on gun control, many Alaska politicians are leery of limits

In the aftermath of another school shooting that left 19 elementary school students and two teachers dead in Texas, a national conversation on gun control has reignited. In Alaska, where many politicians tout their personal firearm ownership as a campaign selling point, some politicians are saying a mental health crisis — not guns — is the problem.

Alaska’s GOP U.S. senators called the Uvalde, Texas, shooting a “horror,” a “senseless act of violence,” and “evil.” But like other Senate Republicans, they did not immediately come out in support of gun control measures favored by most of their Democratic colleagues in Congress.

Sen. Dan Sullivan is one of several Republicans pinning recent mass shootings on a mental health crisis rather than a lack of gun control measures.

“The common theme of almost all these mass shootings is the social alienation of sick young men, often fueled by social media,” Sullivan said in a Twitter post. “In that regard, I believe our nation is in the initial stages of a severe mental health crisis manifesting in the worst ways imaginable, especially among our youth. The causes are multifaceted, and I am deeply committed to understanding and addressing this crisis.”

[Q&A with Alaska U.S. House candidates: What should the federal government do to address mass shootings?]

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is widely seen as a moderate willing to buck the party line on some issues, did not immediately say whether she would support any existing legislative efforts to expand and strengthen background checks.

Murkowski “will vet any gun related measures that come before the Senate,” spokesperson Hannah Ray said in an email.

“There is no question that we must improve public safety, end gun violence, and keep guns out of the hands of those disqualified to possess them,” Murkowski said in an emailed statement. “We can take additional steps to address the mental health epidemic, expedite the sharing of information for background checks when purchasing a firearm, and tackle violent crime. As part of that, we will need concrete legislative proposals to evaluate that are designed to address the problem and not just send a partisan message.”

[Q&A with Alaska U.S. House candidates: Do you support gun control legislation?]

Murkowski has an A rating from the National Rifle Association and has received $146,000 in campaign donations from them over the course of career, while Sullivan has an A+ rating and received $25,000 over the course of his career, according to reporting by the New York Times.

Both Murkowski and Sullivan declined interview requests on Friday.

Murkowski is running for reelection last year, and faces a Trump-backed Republican opponent in Kelly Tshibaka, who also pointed to mental health as the cause of mass shootings.

“We must address the root of the issue, rather than blaming inanimate objects. I do not support legislation that restricts the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. In Alaska, the lawful ownership of guns is fundamental to who we are, and I will always stand by the Second Amendment,” Tshibaka said in an emailed statement.

“We’re learning more about the delayed police response, and it’s heartbreaking and completely unacceptable. Leftists are taking the wrong lesson from the police response, however. If law enforcement is unable or unwilling to help in a life-or-death situation, the answer is not to disarm the law-abiding public.”

[Democrats seek swift action on limited gun-control proposals]

Pat Chesbro, a Democrat running in the Senate race, whose daughter was shot to death with a handgun, called for increased gun control measures and said arming teachers — a solution proposed by some Republicans — would not solve the problem.

“I know all the things about rights, but along with rights come responsibilities, and we need to take responsibility for these kinds of things that are happening in our country,” Chesbro said in a phone interview Friday morning, sounding shaken after reading about a child who was covered in her friend’s blood during the shooting.

Chesbro said she supports closing loopholes in existing background check laws and limiting assault weapon purchases.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I do believe that we need to try something and we need to gauge whether that’s effective or not,” she said.

[Inside Mitch McConnell’s decades-long effort to block gun control]

In Alaska, politicians said, guns — often used for hunting and self defense against wildlife — are part of a way of life, and many across the political spectrum face pressure to show their unwavering support for the firearm ownership.

“My husband was a big gun owner. We had lots of guns,” said Chesbro, adding that she gave most away to their children when her husband died, but still kept some.

“We need rifles. People target shoot, people need to protect themselves from bears,” she said. “But that’s not the same as owning these things that just shoot many, many bullets at people indiscriminately.”

Gun control in the U.S. House race

In the special race for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, candidates have shown a reticence to support any gun control measures, with only two saying they would support a ban on assault style rifles that are used in many mass shooting incidents, including the one in Texas.

Democrat Chris Constant and nonpartisan progressive Santa Claus both said they support banning the sale of assault style rifles, universal background checks, red flag laws, and magazine capacity reductions — all measures promoted by gun safety groups.

However, even for progressives in Alaska, favoring gun restrictions is not without qualifiers. Constant, an Anchorage Assembly member who says he has faced death threats over his work on the assembly during the coronavirus pandemic, says he carries a firearm for self defense, including in some Assembly meetings.

“I literally feel like I’m in a crucible on this issue. My personal experience, my values — in this moment, it’s all in conflict,” said Constant, insisting multiple times in the span of a 15-minute interview that he does, in fact, support the Second Amendment.

Other Democrats and moderate candidates the U.S. House race who responded to a survey conducted by the Anchorage Daily News took a middle-of-the-road approach on gun control legislation, saying they would support some tightening of background check laws. Still others, including Republicans Nick Begich and Sarah Palin, said they would not support any gun control measures, instead pinning the problem on a mental health crisis.

“As policymakers, you cannot make policy in the wake of tragedies like this. Emotion cannot lead that discussion,” Begich said at a recent Republican candidate forum hosted by the Anchorage Republican Women.

Adam Wool, a Democratic state House member from Fairbanks who is also running for the U.S. House, called that a stalling tactic.

“Republicans who oppose any kind of gun measures I think dig in deeper when stuff like this happens, and they say, ‘Let’s wait,’” said Wool, who sponsored the only gun safety bill in Alaska’s most recent legislative session. “Of course, as you wait, the urgency slips away.”

Wool said that when he first ran for office, an adviser told him that “you have to take a picture with a gun.” Wool, who is not a gun owner, declined. But for other Alaska candidates, ranging from conservative Palin to independent Al Gross, footage with guns has become a campaign staple.

Gun control measures in the Legislature

Recent efforts within the Alaska state Legislature to put limits on gun access have failed to gain traction, and the lawmakers behind them say that is because legislators fear backlash if they anger the gun lobby.

In 2018, House Democrats attempted in the wake of a Florida school shooting to pass a bill that would limit gun access for people deemed dangerous by police officers or judges. But it didn’t advance amid pushback from the National Rifle Association, according to Anchorage Democrat Rep. Matt Claman, who worked on the legislation at the time and said in an interview on Friday that he thought the gun lobby had convinced Republicans not to vote for bill.

“Even though no one said that to me, it was really apparent to me from watching where the NRA lobbyist was going around the Capitol,” Claman said.

[Governors diverge on gun control, school security efforts]

Wool’s recent bill would have required gun owners to keep their firearms locked when not in use. The measure, which received one committee hearing but never advanced to a vote, was initially cosponsored by Fairbanks Republican Rep. Stephen Thompson, but Thompson later withdrew his support for the measure.

That move, Wool said, is indicative of the pressure Republicans face to avoid the appearance of questioning Second Amendment rights.

“He has a young kid, about my kid’s age, and he has the same concerns about finding a gun laying around,” Wool said. “And then the NRA lobbyist came to town recently. And — what do you know — he pulled his sponsorship. Is it a coincidence? I’m not sure.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has opposed calls for gun limits.

“Stricter gun laws are not a solution to this problem – we must focus our attention on the status of mental health in our communities,” Dunleavy’s office said in email to the Associated Press.

Thompson said in an interview that he withdrew his support for the bill because “it got took over by the completely anti-gun people.”

Thompson, who owns 12 guns and is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, said he had conversations with an NRA lobbyist about the bill but declined to share details about the conversations.

Yet he acknowledged that the NRA and gun lobby will likely make it difficult to come to a broad agreement on gun control legislation.

“They aren’t going to sit down and discuss and come up with something that is viable for everybody, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.

Passing gun related legislation in Alaska “takes courage and people standing by their principles,” Wool said, but even he is not immune to the pressure. He insisted on saying his bill was about “gun safety” rather than “gun control.”

“The word ‘control’ scares people,” he said.

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