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Preventing mass shootings? Utah delegation sees no clear solutions

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a national debate on gun control revived last week by an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead, Utah's six-member congressional delegation has no clear vision or defined path forward on how to prevent mass shootings.

All but one spoke with the Deseret News this week about the Orlando shooting and what could be done to prevent another elementary school, movie theater, church or other public place from becoming the next scene of horror.

Rep. Chris Stewart says the Obama administration should get tougher on terrorism but acknowledged that that would do little to prevent shootings like the ones that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, or Charleston, South Carolina.

Rep. Rob Bishop, says the problem is a societal one brought on by a culture that glamorizes violence — and solutions are unlikely to be found in Congress.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah's longest-serving senator, called mass shootings “a terrible problem in this country, and one without an easy answer or legislative fix.”

Sen. Mike Lee is the only member of the delegation who would not speak with the Deseret News about Congress' response to mass shootings in the country. Communications director Conn Caroll said he felt such an interview would not be objective and instead pointed to an opinion Lee published after the Sandy Hook school shooting about how gun control is ineffective.

Although they differ on where to look for solutions, the all-Republican delegation agrees on one thing: Making it harder for law-abiding citizens to buy guns is not the answer.

Many say they are unconvinced that gun control measures proposed by Democrats will reduce mass shootings or make them less deadly.

Stewart, who sits on the House intelligence committee, said the Obama administration has not done enough to defeat ISIS. He supports mental health reform and better law enforcement.

But asked about Democratic proposals to expand background checks or restrict access to the military-style semiautomatic rifles used in several recent mass shootings, Stewart said he wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know what the answer is on these other mass shootings,” he said. “I think there’s an awful lot of things we need to look at.”

And when asked whether he believes mass shootings are the price of the Second Amendment, Stewart said, “I think, unfortunately, it is.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz sees it differently.

"I don't think we should ever get comfortable and say that's the price we pay," he said. "I've heard people say that, and it's a great question, but it fires me up."

He, like Stewart and Rep. Mia Love, point to mental health reform as a possible solution.

Chaffetz supports a bill proposed by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., that aims to improve Medicaid coverage of mental health services and increase protections for volunteers who staff crisis centers and help lines.

Chaffetz called mental health reform an “expensive proposition” and one that is mostly a state and local issue, but said it could be an area of common ground for Republicans and Democrats.

He is wary of legislation that would require private sellers to perform background checks — often referred to as the "gun show loophole" — or that ban people on the FBI's terror watch list from buying firearms.

“I really do worry about taking away somebody’s constitutional right by some bureaucrat,” Chaffetz said. “We’ve got to tread very carefully and get it right.”

Chaffetz, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, said he does not necessarily believe people should need to apply for a concealed carry permit.

"I see that as a guarantee in the Second Amendment," he added.

Bishop said he doubts the problem has a legislative solution at all.

“If there is to be a solution to this kind of violence, you’ve got to go after the heart of the individual that produces this type of violence,” he said.

He blames the country's series of mass shootings on a culture of violence — perpetuated in the media and movies and worsened by a loss of respect for life.

“We simply have a cavalier attitude about life at the beginning of the process and we’re starting to have a cavalier attitude about life at the end of the process,” Bishop said. “I’m talking about abortion to euthanasia.”

“If we pass laws that value life, at the beginning and the end, that may have as much impact as trying to restrict the means that were used for this particular kind of violence at this particular time,” Bishop said.

“It’s got to be part of an overall attempt, a whole lot of creative ideas, maybe thinking differently about how we’ve addressed this issue in the past.”

Uncomfortable topic

James Curry, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah who studies Congress, said that for the six Republican members of Utah's delegation, gun control is a difficult and often uncomfortable topic.

"It puts them in a tricky position. They know that not seeming to be interested in doing something about gun violence can hurt them with a certain subset of voters," he said. "No matter what they say, they're likely to alienate somebody."

Curry believes Congress is unlikely to pass any gun legislation until after the election — and only then if either party manages to win a large majority.

Gun legislation is a highly divisive issue for core voters in both parties, he said, making it hard for lawmakers to compromise.

"It's bleak, but this is the reality of electoral politics and the reality of democracy," Curry said. "The members are constantly torn between being interested in making good policy and being interested in winning the next election."

Gun control legislation would make it harder for people to protect themselves, according to Love. Instead, she says the Obama administration should do more to enforce laws already on the books by prosecuting criminals who get guns illegally.

The vast majority of guns used in 16 mass shootings since 2009 were purchased legally, according to the New York Times.

Love says Congress also has to focus on improving mental health access and fighting terrorism.

"People who are intent on doing harm are going to find ways to do harm," she said. "And the best thing that we can do is to address mental illness."

Pressed on what mental health legislation she would support, Love did not have specifics but said she supports Murphy’s mental health reform proposal.

In the Senate, efforts have not produced a bill both sides can support.

Monday votes

On Monday, the Senate voted down four gun control measures — two sponsored by Democrats and two by Republicans — in what was essentially a replay of votes after the attack in San Bernardino, California, last December.

Utah's senators supported the two Republican measures.

Hatch said Democractic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's amendment, which would have banned any individual on the FBI’s terror watch list from buying a gun, was too broad.

The FBI’s consolidated terror watch list contains hundreds of thousands of names, including both Americans and foreigners. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the watch list for being error-prone and lacking in transparency.

"Of course I and all of my colleagues want to stop terrorists from getting guns," Hatch said. "We just want to ensure there's an effective, decent, honorable, constitutional approach to it."

Hatch and Lee instead supported an amendment from Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn that would have delayed someone on the watch list from being able to purchase a gun for 72 hours while a federal prosecutor proved probable cause in court.

Democrats said the burden of proof for that proposal was too high.

Another amendment, from Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, would have required background checks for nearly every firearm sale with some exceptions, like gifts between relatives.

Hatch and Lee voted against that measure, stating that it was also too broad.

Hatch said he believes the Senate has "a real opportunity for compromise" but hasn't seen a willingness to reach across the aisle from Democrats.

“All I can say is that this has become a big political issue and some of the things that they’ve proposed would not have prevented Orlando,” he said.

Asked about possible solutions, Hatch was frank.

"There aren't any real great solutions," he said.

Contributing: Dennis Romboy

Contributing: Ashley Stilson

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_