Mass shootings in schools, concerts, and even army bases are a familiar specter in the United States of America over the last decade or so and there is a lot of daylight between how a Democrat and a Republican 2nd District Congressman would address it.
KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman asks the faces – some old and some new - hoping to represent central Arkansas in the U.S. House after November’s election, what do they plan to do about guns and mass shootings.
It’s not a new problem but it’s certainly one that hasn’t been solved. There have been some calls for action – Arkansas’s 2nd District Democratic candidates have plenty of ideas they’re willing to work with. Arming teachers was one of President Trump’s first reactions.
That’s a no-go for the actual teachers running for the 2nd District seat.
“I think it’s too risky. I think it puts kids in jeopardy of being put in crossfire. I think it complicates SWAT teams’ responses to situations when they don’t know who might be carrying a loaded gun,” said Gwen Combs.
Combs knows the other side of a gun too, she’s the only veteran in the contest. And her household has guns in it. As does that of her Democratic primary opponent Paul Spencer, who is also an educator. He doesn’t want to arm teachers either.
But Spencer says if Congress is unwilling to do anything to tighten background checks or restrict certain gun sales – they need to put their money where their mouth is on making schools a “hard target.”
“I would challenge lawmakers if they’re not going to act in any way to mitigate the problem, since they seem to be pretty okay with this going down, then let’s spend the money to protect the schools. Rather than having untrained novices, even with a concealed carry, why not have federally trained and federally funded security agents at every school – public, private, every single one,” said Spencer.
The third-entrant into the Democratic 2nd District primary isn’t too enthusiastic about arming teachers either, but says it might make sense in some circumstances. Arkansas already has 13 school districts with armed staff.
“If there’s a local school district and there’s a particular teacher who wants to do it on a very local basis and they want to make that decision, then that probably ought to be up to them. But as far as a national policy goes I think we already put enough, too much on our teachers,” said Tucker.
As for French Hill, the incumbent who endorses the President? Hill hasn’t responded to KUAR’s question about that. His stated interest on a recent Talk Business and Politics interview is in making sure the current background check systems actually work.
“We’ve been let down by our background check system this year. We saw the Las Vegas shooter was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force. He should have been blocked from buying guns and ammunition, and be in the background system. We saw this instance, where this young man in Florida had been turned into an FBI tip line and yet the FBI didn’t pursue it,” said Hill.
Hill continued, saying he has acted to make it better already.
“I was one of the 70 members of Congress that wrote the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms administration to reconsider their regulation about the bump stock issue,” Hill said.
And he says he’s tried to look at bump stocks. After the Las Vergas shooting Hill recommended the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms take a look at it.
But abdicating Congressional lawmaking to ATF rulemaking is an abandonment of leadership to some, like Spencer.
“The idea of just giving the responsibility to ATF where it’s safely out of the hands of legislators, who don’t want to touch this at all, I think is a cowardly way out. This needs to be in the public discourse and to be done through the legislative branch,” said Spencer.
Spencer said beyond that, the existing background check rules just aren’t very comprehensive.
“You have all these laws in regards to HIPPA but if someone’s adjudicated to be mentally ill to the point where they’re being involuntarily committed, or they’ve committed a domestic problem, or they have a history of trying to harm themselves or somebody else…the exact avenue towards doing that in a more robust way, would seem to me you need a lot of medical professionals on board with that.”
Combs echoed that.
“It’s important to consider domestic abuse and not only in the ways that it’s considered now. Currently if a person is in a relationship but they don’t cohabitate, or they’re not married, or they don’t have children together a restraining order can be issued against the person but that person can still own a gun – and that’s dangerous,” said Combs.
Tucker feels much the same, “I’ve tried to work on this issue to the extent I could in the state Legislature. A couple bills that I filed last year…one, was to protect victims of domestic violence and make sure their are no guns in their homes as they move forward and then also to restrict access to loaded weapons for minors. Obviously you can take your kids hunting but this bill was directed toward leaving loaded firearms unattended in the presence of minors.”
He continued, “Those are some examples…someone on the terrorist watch list should not be able to buy guns, the list goes on and on.”
But it’s not all about background checks and gun show loopholes. There’s the actual guns themselves. Tucker and Combs are okay restricting some types of weapons available to the public.
“You would have to take a look at it. Weapons of war that are designed for use overseas ought to be used in war overseas,” said Tucker.
Combs said, “We don’t need semi-automatic or automatic weapons. I know that automatic weapons are already banned but semi-automatics are just as dangerous. I have fired an M-16 which is the military equivalent of an AR-15 and there’s no reason that a person needs to have those guns unless they intend to kill people.”
Spencer, additionally thinks less firearms in society is generally a good thing. But he doesn’t have hope that a Congress that takes National Rifle Association money will get far.
“Congress knows that the NRA, they hold the keys to their victory and defeat when it comes to the election cycle. They’re essentially vassals to the NRA. A lot of these Congressman, particularly Mr. Hill, he certainly knows that. I know Mr. Hill’s a good man and I just for the life of me can not understand why he doesn’t repudiate that money. We all need to act on our own accord and not have a little moneyed angel or devil sitting on our shoulders telling us how we need to legislate,” said Spencer.
Congressman Hill has not expressed support for bans on certain guns or age limits. Though President Trump has. The Republican President thinks Republican lawmakers are chicken.
TRUMP: It doesn’t make sense that I have to wait until I’m 21 to a handgun but I can get this weapon at 18, I don’t know. So I’m just curious as to what did you did in your bill?
SEN. TOOMEY: We don’t address it, Mr. President.
TRUMP: You want to know why? Because you’re afraid of the NRA right?
Hill is often cited as receiving more NRA support than any member of the U.S. House – though nearly all of the $1-million-plus came through indirect support, through independent NRA expenditures rather than direct campaign contributions. Hill told Talk Business’s Roby Brock it just doesn’t influence him.
BROCK: How does someone not feel like you having benefitting from a million dollars worth of NRA spending is going to influence your vote?
HILL: Well, it just doesn’t. I have people who continue to me from all over, all walks of life, and I do my best job representing the people of Arkansas.”
Tucker says he can’t say whether it influences Hill or not but points to Hill’s voting record.
“When you have an overwhelming amount of money from one organization like that, even if Congressman Hill’s totally objective about it, it does create the issue of the appearance. And when your voting record lines up with that…you would rather not see something like that happen.”
Hill voted to repeal an Obama-era background check rule after Trump came to office in February 2017. NPR’s Scott Horsely reported it stopped the Social Security Administration from reporting people with severe mental disabilities, and those unable to care for themselves, to an FBI database, “making it easier for people with mental illness to buy guns.”
Hill insists Congress will be hard at work making it harder. However, if the President’s latest budget is any guide it’ll be an uphill struggle. The President’s budget call for a $665 million cut to the Substance Ayse and Mental Health Administration and a 30 percent cut to the National Institute of Mental Health. So what’s step one, what’s a seemingly agreed upon easy stem? Perhaps the Dickey Amendment?
SPENCER: Absolutely, I think that should be funded post-haste. That is step one.
TUCKER: It doesn’t make any sense for the CDC not to be able to research the causes of gun violence.
COMBS: Gun related violence is absolutely a critical element of public health.
That amendment blocks the Centers for Disease Control from collecting basic data and research about gun violence. Former Arkansas Republican Congressman Jay Dickey said he regretted the law before his death in April 2017. No word yet to KUAR from Congressman Hill whether he can go along with that.