Within days of the massacre that left 26 dead in a Connecticut elementary school, including 20 first-graders, politicians from Washington to Harrisburg have sought to rekindle an often-avoided issue: gun control.
While gun-control advocates announced plans this week to reintroduce the country's defunct assault-weapon ban - earning support even from longtime gun-rights supporters - central Pennsylvania legislators in both the national and state capitals steered clear of proposed policy changes.
In a brief email statement issued Monday, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th District, expressed condolences for the school attack's victims in Newtown, Conn., without going into specifics.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Ebensburg Fishing and Hunting owner Marty Zearing (right) finishes the paper work for the purchase of a .22 revolver by Jim McIntosh of Gallitzin on Monday afternoon. McIntosh said he will use the pistol for “plinking.”
"As we learn what led to this senseless act, we will do all that we can to protect the public while upholding the ideals of our Constitution and Second Amendment rights," Shuster said.
It's not surprising that pro-gun-rights politicians and organizations would refrain from extensive public comments this week, said Matthew Woessner, associate professor of public policy and political science at Penn State Harrisburg.
"It's politically wise to lay low and let the horror of the moment pass," Woessner said.
After massacres like Newtown's - in which the perpetrator reportedly used a semiautomatic M-16-type rifle - public opinion among moderates tends to shift, at least temporarily, toward gun control, he said.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.., announced over the weekend that she intends to reintroduce the country's expired ban on assault weapons, while in Pennsylvania, state Rep. Ronald Waters, D-Philadelphia, announced Monday that he'll propose a similar law.
The proposals received qualified support even from national gun-rights supporters, including U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a longtime National Rifle Association ally. President Barack Obama also expressed vague support for policy changes during a memorial service Sunday.
But in west-central Pennsylvania, where every sitting legislator holds an "A" rating from the NRA, none have explicitly recommended changing gun laws.
"I can't imagine why anyone would use this terrible tragedy as a pretext for infringing on our civil liberties," John McGinnis, set to take Altoona's state House seat in January, said Monday. "It's just totally misguided."
McGinnis expressed support for assault weapons both as self-defense and hunting tools - even endorsing automatic weapons, which are considered exceedingly difficult to purchase and own legally.
While the definition of "assault weapons" can be a matter of debate, the nationwide ban from 1994 to 2004 included semiautomatic rifles, shotguns and handguns with multiple features like folding stocks, grenade launchers and interchangeable magazines.
"These events don't lend any credence to bans," McGinnis said.
Some lawmakers acknowledged that high-capacity assault weapons seem excessive, but stopped short of endorsing total bans.
"You don't really need 100 rounds, 70 rounds. If you have a huge magazine, you can do total devastation," state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said. "Automatic weapons are one thing. Those aren't key to a sportsman."
Still, Haluska said, assault-weapon regulation should come from federal laws, not a hodgepodge of states.
Haluska, like several other legislators, pointed to mental-health reforms as a more pressing means to prevent mass shootings like Newtown's.
State Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, said he expects gun control to emerge as a broad issue in the next state legislative session - and if it doesn't, a small but dedicated group of lawmakers will likely keep it alive, he said.
"I'm always up for a debate once the passions cool down here," said Fleck, who noted that he owns 16 guns.
"Do you need one that can shoot off a hundred bullets a minute? Probably not. But we don't want to infringe on someone's right to have that, either," he said.
Woessner said gun-control legislation can be highly controversial at the federal level; politicians in both parties have often avoided the issue, while legal challenges are stronger nationally.
Serious gun-law changes will likely come at the state level, he said, although Pennsylvania isn't a likely candidate for sweeping bans or new regulations. With Republicans holding the governor's seat and both legislative chambers, gun owners won't likely see changes soon, he said.
Rural Pennsylvania Democrats, too, generally oppose gun restrictions, state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, said - a fact evidenced by local Democrats' universally high NRA ratings.
"[But] if ever there was a time when gun control would become fashionable, it would be now," Woessner said.
Waters' proposed state legislation would ban the possession, use, sale or manufacture of assault weapons by civilians, according to his official website. The law is meant to replace the lapsed federal ban, Waters said Monday.
"You just don't want to shoot from the hip," Woessner said. "Policies made in the heat of the moment are rarely thoughtful or effective."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.