Mark Schoeff Jr.: Hoosier Members skeptical on guns; optimistic on immigration
Thursday, February 14, 2013 8:49 AM
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama tapped the emotional core of the gun debate during his State of the Union address, urging Congress to act quickly on stricter controls and drawing skepticism from Indiana Republicans.
Obama’s comments about another volatile issue – immigration – were more tailored to appeal to the GOP, as he emphasized border security, “earned citizenship” and an improved legal immigration system.
On this topic, the president may have a better shot at winning over Hoosier lawmakers.
It took Obama nearly an hour to get around to guns in his speech before Congress. When he did, he generated more applause and energy than in his previous several thousand words.
Invoking recent deadly mass shootings, he asserted that a majority of Americans support strengthened background checks for gun sales and that police chiefs want to “get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets.”
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” Obama said. “The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote.”
The entreaty did not move Hoosier Republicans.
“What he was talking about [Tuesday] night I know wouldn’t have stopped Sandy Hook,” said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-4th CD, said in reference to the December shootings at the Connecticut elementary school.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd CD, worries that Obama’s approach would curb constitutional rights.
“Let’s not punish [gun owners] because of a few crazies who have committed these heinous acts in a couple places around the country,” said Stutzman, who has introduced a measure that would allow gun-permit holders to take their weapons into other states that also have concealed-carry laws.
The GOP message the day after Obama’s speech was to tread carefully on gun control.
“I’m going to do everything I can to ensure people’s Second Amendment rights are not undermined by ill-conceived or hastily assembled legislation,” said Rep. Todd Young, R-9th CD.
While Obama pushes for stronger gun laws, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly acknowledged that the skepticism of House Republicans will limit what kind of gun controls can be put in place. He said that enhanced background checks have the best chance to draw bipartisan support.
“My focus is on what we can pass that can make a difference… in providing additional protection for our children and families,” Donnelly said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
Hoosier Republicans want the discussion to include an exploration of mental health care as well as gang and drug violence and the effect of movies and video games.
“The problem is the individual,” said Rep. Susan Brooks, R-5th CD. “A gun is the tool they choose to use. We have to look deeper than what the weapon is.”’
A former U.S. attorney and deputy mayor of Indianapolis, Brooks said that more attention should be paid to initiatives that bring together law enforcement and members of the community to work on crime prevention and economic development in struggling neighborhoods.
“These are holistic approaches, far more holistic than what we are talking about now,” Brooks said.
Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd CD, said that the best solutions to gun violence likely will percolate up from local government, citing advances South Bend has made in school security.
“As communities wrestle with what works for them, we’ll probably see some creative ideas emerge,” Walorski said.
Rep. Luke Messer, R-6th CD, said that improving care for the mentally ill is an area that could gain wide support.
“I would be open to the consideration of additional funding there,” Messer said. “I speak to no one who does not believe that there’s a role for government in protecting those who cannot protect themselves.”
Messer is disappointed in the approach that Obama is taking.
“He has chosen the most divisive topics, including a gun ban that now virtually everyone agrees will not pass,” Messer said.
Obama may be launching immigration reform on more solid footing, especially with his emphasis on border fortification.
“If we address the border security issue early, I think people like myself would be willing to look at the options for the 11 million people who are here [illegally],” said Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-8th CD.
Another area that Obama mentioned – reforming the legal immigration system and making it easier for highly skilled immigrants to stay in the country – also resonates with Republicans.
In Rokita’s district, that would help keep in Indiana – or at least in the United States – international students earning science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees at Purdue University and other schools.
“There’s some very good common ground on the STEM side of immigration,” Rokita said.
But like other Hoosier Republicans, Rokita wants to ensure that illegal immigrants pay a price for breaking the law before becoming legal residents.
“A crime was committed, and the punishment has to fit the crime,” Rokita said. “The issue is: What is that punishment?”
Stutzman is cautiously optimistic about Obama’s immigration proposals.
“I didn’t sense any amnesty program from the president [Tuesday] night,” Stutzman said. “But we’ll see what his actions are moving forward.”
How Republicans handle the immigration debate may determine whether the party can make inroads with Latino voters, who are rejecting the GOP as they become a more influential voting bloc.
“Immigration reform can be part of the platform to help us invite people from other countries to support our party and become part of our party once they become legal citizens,” Brooks said.
Bucshon said that the GOP needs to expand its appeal. “Conservative policies are good for all of our citizens,” Bucshon said. “We need to show we’re compassionate. We want legal immigration.”
As a U.S. attorney, Brooks presided over many swearing-in ceremonies for new Americans. She calls those events among the most moving of her political career. They’re part of her motivation to streamline the legal immigration system.
“I want to give opportunities for more people to go through that process,” Brooks said.
Getting to that outcome will be a difficult political journey for Brooks and her colleagues.
Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.