Governors Ask Lawmakers to Prevent Future Shootings
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Slideshow: Governors Slam Federal Government
Recent mass shootings in Connecticut and Colorado have reshaped governors’ legislative agendas this year, spurring many of them to use their once-a-year legislative addresses to ask lawmakers to take up gun control, mental health treatment and school safety.
In their state-of-the-state speeches, Democratic governors tended to push for restrictions on gun sales, such as bans on automatic weapons or universal background checks. Republicans often defended the rights of gun owners and pushed for armed guards in schools and better training for police. Governors of all stripes encouraged lawmakers to improve mental health services.
The killing of 20 first-graders and six adults in a Newtown, Connecticut, school happened just weeks before most governors gave their annual addresses, and the memory of gunned-down schoolchildren cast a pall over many state capitols. More governors mentioned the Newtown tragedy this year than invoked the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings or the 1999 Columbine murders in the yearly addresses that followed those massacres.
Governors brought plenty of other concerns to their legislatures this year, of course. Many railed against the ineffectiveness of the federal government and vowed to act on their own when they could (See slideshow). They took sides on whether to expand Medicaid coverage. They touted road projects, tax credits and school funding increases.
Naturally, the governors also talked about local concerns, such as the recovery from Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey or the need for repairs to the capitol building in Oklahoma. But the shootings weighed heavily.
“Who can watch the sad images of the last several weeks, who can see the pictures of those young faces, and honestly say that we are doing enough?” asked Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.
Governors in Alabama, Colorado and Washington state each alluded to shootings in their own states. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, spoke of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl shot to death a mile from President Barack Obama’s Chicago home. Pendleton had marched with her school band in Obama’s inaugural parade just weeks before she was killed. First Lady Michelle Obama attended Pendleton’s funeral and invited her parents to Tuesday’s state of the union address.
“There are no words in the English language — or any language — to relieve the pain of parents who lose a child,” Quinn told Illinois lawmakers last week.
Democrats Push for Gun Control
A handful of Democratic governors, following Obama, called for greater gun control. Their ideas include banning assault weapons, limiting the number of bullets clips can hold and requiring that all gun buyers pass a background check.
“This is not taking away people’s guns,” Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said last month. “I own a Remington shotgun. I’ve hunted, I’ve shot. That’s not what this is about. It is about ending the unnecessary risk of high-capacity assault rifles. That’s what this is about.”
Less than a week after delivering his speech, Cuomo signed a new gun control measure into law. The New York law, one of the nation’s strictest, requires background checks on gun buyers, even when the sales are private. It also limits the size of clips to seven bullets each; adds a new felony for carrying a firearm in a school; and mandates life sentences for people who shoot first responders. Furthermore, the law requires more mentally ill patients to get treatment.
Cuomo muscled the law through the legislature by working with Republicans, who, with the help of breakaway Democrats, hold a slim majority in the state Senate. But the politics of gun control are tricky everywhere, as legislatures split on regional as well as partisan lines. Suburban Republicans are often more open to restrictions than rural Democrats. Even governors of solidly Democratic states, such as Illinois and Maryland, face formidable opposition to their gun control ideas.
Republicans Defend Gun Rights
Republican governors also mentioned the recent shootings in their state-of-the-state addresses, but many of them cautioned lawmakers against restricting access to firearms.
In Indiana, newly sworn-in Republican Governor Mike Pence said the debates after the Newtown shootings should not be about guns. “While others have rushed to the well-worn arguments over gun control, Hoosiers know this is not about access to firearms. It is about access to schools,” he said.
“We will protect our kids, and we will protect our rights. Hoosiers know we can do both,” Pence added.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, also cautioned against “infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
“The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was unimaginable,” she said. “Our job now is to take common sense steps that lessen the likelihood of a similar tragedy striking Arizona, while resisting the urge to turn a school into a fortress.”
Brewer said her budget proposal would include more money for training police officers at schools.
Governors of both parties also called for better training and frequent drills to improve school safety. Quinn asked lawmakers to require all Illinois schools to conduct annual drills to prepare for a shooter. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, called for better training for police to respond to active shooters. Last month near Midland City, Alabama, a gunman attacked a school bus carrying more than 20 students, shot the driver to death and took a 5-year-old boy hostage.
In response to the Newtown shootings, the National Rifle Association proposed putting an armed guard in every U.S. school. But Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, dismissed that idea.
“More guns are not the answer,” Malloy told Connecticut legislators. “Freedom is not a handgun on the hip of every teacher, and security should not mean a guard posted outside every classroom.”
Malloy has appointed a task force to recommend possible solutions, and he suggested few remedies of his own until the group finishes its work.
Likewise, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado encouraged legislators to bring ideas of their own.
“There are no easy solutions,” he said. “Some point to guns, others to a violent culture. Still others believe that the line between community security and individual freedom must be re-drawn. We shouldn’t be restrained from discussing any of these issues. Our democracy demands this type of debate.”
Hickenlooper has suggested that no set of gun laws would have stopped suspected gunman James Holmes from going on a rampage in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last July. Twelve people were killed and 58 were wounded in that incident. But the governor said lawmakers could start by requiring universal background checks for all gun sales and by overhauling Colorado’s mental health system.
Mental Health Focus
Across the nation, governors of both parties encouraged legislators to improve mental health services.
Democratic Governor Jack Markell of Delaware, for example, asked for a tenfold increase in the number of mental health professionals working in middle schools. He suggested rewriting the state’s medical rules to let pediatricians and family doctors consult with child psychiatrists on the phone. And he said children should be able to get mental health services over the Internet.
Republican Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho cited the Newtown shootings in his request to build a new mental health hospital for state prisoners, about a quarter of whom have some sort of mental illness. “We all saw just a few weeks ago the terrible impact on a community and a nation when mental illness leads to tragedy,” Otter said.
In Missouri, Democratic Governor Jay Nixon asked for $10 million to expand mental health services, to teach police how to deal with mentally ill people and to help families learn how to care for family members with mental illness.
In Connecticut, the scene of the horrific Newtown killings, Malloy called for changes in his state and throughout the country. The first third of his speech focused on the school massacre and its aftermath.
“It won’t surprise you that this speech is very different from the one I first envisioned giving,” he said. “While it’s only been a few short weeks on the calendar (since the shootings), we have all walked a very long and very dark road together.”