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Twin State Delegation Weighs a Ban on Assault Weapons

West Lebanon — Several lawmakers in the traditionally gun-friendly states of New Hampshire and Vermont yesterday voiced support, some more explicitly than others, for a federal ban on assault weapons following the school shootings in Connecticut that left 28 people dead, including the shooter.

“I think this might be the moment where Republicans and Democrats together can actually work on this, and do something for the good of the people and for the children of this country,” said Democratic U.S. Rep.-Elect Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, who voiced her support for a federal ban on assault weapons — as well as a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, and the requirement of federal background checks for those who purchase weapons at gun shows.

Two other Granite State Democrats — U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Rep.-Elect Annie Kuster — provided statements expressing a desire to “rid the streets” of assault weapons. New Hampshire Governor Elect Maggie Hassan also released a statement yesterday indicating her support for an assault weapon ban and highlighting the need to improve the state’s mental health system.

In outlining those policy prescriptions, Shea-Porter was the only member of Congress from either Vermont or New Hampshire willing to discuss the specifics of gun legislation that could potentially be introduced next year in Washington.

She was also the only politician to agree to an interview out of the Twin States’ seven-member Congressional delegation who were asked speak about gun control yesterday. The remaining six members released carefully-worded statements instead.

Dean Spiliotes, a political analyst and civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University, said it was no surprise that politicians were still “laying low” yesterday.

“I think there is a level of decorum to be observed here, given the magnitude of the tragedy,” he said. “Nobody wants to step on the necessity of trying to mourn and process what happened in Connecticut.”

The fact that gun control is a “very complex area legislatively and legally” will only serve to further complicate Congressional action on the issue, according to Spiliotes, who said that there have been hundreds exemptions for different types of weaponry included in gun control legislation crafted in the past.

“Do (members of Congress) want real reform or do they want to just check a box politically?” he said. “The gun lobby is very powerful, and clearly they’re going to be on the defensive.”

Jeff Grappone, communications director for U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, said that while the Senator “believes that denying the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens will not change the behavior of those intent on using firearms to commit horrific crimes, she supports a thorough review of our laws, including how we deal with mental illness, to determine what can be done to deter and prevent mass shootings.”

Ayotte is a former attorney general and the lone Republican in the Twin State delegation.

Of the three members of the Vermont delegation, only U.S. Rep Peter Welch, D-Vt., used the term “assault weapons” in statements released to the press. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders mentioned the need to “make certain that highly destructive weapons do not fall into the hands of people who should not have them.”

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that his committee “will be holding a hearing early in the next congressional session to help in the search for understanding and answers.”

Leahy voted in favor of an assault weapons ban in 1994, but the ban expired ten years later. Sanders also voted in favor of that assault weapons ban as a member of the House of Representatives. Aside from that vote, both lawmakers have mixed records on gun control issues.

According to former Montpelier Associated Press Bureau Chief Chris Graff, now an executive with financial services company National Life Group, the Newtown, Conn. shooting was a “game changer” that could alter how politicians in northern New England approach the issue of gun control.

While Graff acknowledged that “Vermont politicians of all political stripes tend to be very careful when it comes to gun control,” mostly due to a rich tradition of hunting in the state, he also said that both Leahy and Sanders are now “elder statesmen.”

“They may or may not have other elections ahead of them,” he said, “But I think the debate has changed.”

Former U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, a New Hampshire Democrat who served two terms in the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2010, said that he has “been doing a lot of thinking and soul searching” since the tragedy in Connecticut.

While Hodes said he still feels strongly about taking a libertarian view of the Second Amendment, he has been “deeply disturbed” by what he described as the “repeated carnage that we have witnessed as a country.”

“We have the bodies of 20 little babies laid out there before us, and I think any parent, any responsible person, has to look long and deep for the answers,” he said.

According to Hodes, a rising trend of public violence can be attributed to “a constellation of factors that include a culture of violence in our country, a decade-plus of endless wars overseas, the glorification of violence by the entertainment industry, the decline in available mental health services, and the access to weapons capable of inflicting the kind of carnage we saw in Connecticut.”

Hodes said that Congress should “re-examine” how assault weapons are sold, who owns them, and what steps could be taken to reduce the amount of assault weapons available for purchase, but he added that it wouldn’t be easy.

“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What about the politics? Does the (National Rifle Association) have a lock on Washington?’ ” said Hodes. “I answered, ‘Yes, and I think it’s time to break that lock.’ ”

Yesterday, two developments gave gun-control advocates new hope. Many Democrats, including President Obama, who for years have been reluctant to speak out for tougher gun laws, aren’t holding back.

“I actually think things could change. The terrible nature of this shooting has the potential to transform the national debate,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

And there were some signs yesterday that was occurring. “This has changed the dialogue, and it should move beyond the dialogue. We need action,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., an avid hunter, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

If a posting to the Norwich Listserv is any indication, some New Englanders who have been supportive of gun rights organizations in the past might be open to new ways of viewing a federal ban on assault weapons.

A posting by Windsor resident Glenn Ricard encouraged hunters to speak out on the issue.

“Speaking as a hunter and a father of twin girls ... as well as five grandchildren, I think it is past time for the hunters to speak out,” he wrote. “It is our rights the (National Rifle Association) claims to be fighting for, do we really want them using us as a reason to keep these types of guns available?”

In an interview with the Valley News, Ricard said that he has been a member of the NRA for several years, but that he does not plan on renewing his membership.

He said that after the shooting in Connecticut, “It just dawned on me, (an assault weapon) is not really a necessary item out there.”

“If you need that many shells in the woods, maybe you should stay out of the woods and spend more time at the range perfecting your skill,” he said. In more than 30 years of hunting, he had never needed more than one shot to put an animal down, he noted in his Listserv post.

According to Ricard, the reluctance in the hunting community toward banning assault weapons can be attributed to the fear that, “When you start with one thing, it just leads to another.”

One of the last major pushes for gun control came in 1999, one month after the nation was stunned by the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which two heavily armed students killed 12 fellow students and a teacher and injured nearly two dozen others before committing suicide.

As part of a juvenile justice bill, Democrats pushed a plan to require background checks at gun shows and pawn shops. The vote in the Senate was a 50-50 tie, with Vice President Al Gore breaking the tie and allowing the change to pass.

The vote became political mythology - that Gore’s decision cost him valuable votes in his 2000 presidential bid, chilling gun-control talk by future Democratic White House hopefuls. Not only are longtime gun-control supporters ready to fight, perhaps with Obama’s help, but Republicans are in some disarray.

“The 2012 election shows Republicans need to reposition themselves,” said West of the Brookings Institution. As the party struggles to broaden its appeal, gun control could become attractive for certain Republicans.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213. McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this story.