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Published January 08 2013

Gun control group strikes at Heitkamp for calling Obama plans 'extreme'

FARGO - A national gun control group is running print ads attacking Sen. Heidi Heitkamp for calling new regulations the Obama administration is expected to propose to tighten gun laws “way in extreme of what I think is necessary.”

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence purchased the ads slated to run today in The Forum and Bismarck Tribune. The ads, which also ran in the Washington newspapers Politico and Roll Call on Tuesday, were prompted by the comments the Democrat made in a TV interview Sunday, three days after she was sworn in as North Dakota’s junior senator.

“That was really responding directly to those remarks, which we viewed as offensive, and particularly offensive to people who have lost loved ones in these types of tragedies,” Ladd Everitt, the coalition’s communications director, said Tuesday.

The full-page ad in today’s Forum refers to mass shootings, including the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and is also signed by survivors of those killed in shootings at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Ariz., and Aurora, Colo.

“No parent should have to send their children to school wondering if they will come home,” the ad states.

In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Heitkamp, a member of the National Rifle Association and former North Dakota attorney general, was asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos if she was willing to sign on to reforms being discussed by the president and vice president – which the coalition’s ad notes may include universal background checks and a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“It’s unclear,” Heitkamp said. “I mean, you read Washington Post stories and you listen to what the administration says, and so I think what we need to do is we need to take a look at what happened at Sandy Hook.”

Heitkamp noted that as attorney general she served on a national task force on school violence.

“We made a number of recommendations which in fact were adopted at Sandy Hook to help keep schools safer. They weren’t adequate,” she said.

“Let’s start addressing the problem,” she continued. “And to me, one of the issues that I think comes – screams – out of this is the issue of mental health and the care for the mentally ill in our country, especially the dangerously mentally ill. And so we need to have a broad discussion.”

When Stephanopoulos asked her if that included gun control, she said, “I think you need to put everything on the table, but what I hear from the administration – and if the Washington Post is to be believed – that’s way, way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about. And it’s not going to pass.”

A Washington Post story published Saturday, quoting anonymous sources, reported a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden is mulling a broad set of gun control proposals including a national weapons database, universal background checks, more robust mental health checks and stronger penalties for carrying guns nears schools or giving them to minors. Those steps would go beyond restoring the expired bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Heitkamp’s communications director, Whitney Phillips, issued a statement Tuesday in response to the ad campaign, saying the senator believes Americans have a responsibility “to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill” while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

Heitkamp believes the ultimate solution to mass violence tragedies must go beyond a singular focus on gun laws and must examine mental health, school security and community development “to help parents identify and address children potentially suffering from mental illness,” the statement read.

Everitt said the coalition was pleased with the remarks.

“That seemed to signal to us that she got the message,” he said.

Heitkamp has an “A” rating from the NRA and is one of 10 Senate Democrats rated “A-minus” or higher, compared with 40 Republicans. The dust-up over her remarks on gun control illustrates what political observers predict will be a difficult issue for red-state Democrats.

But Everitt said he believes the country is entering a new era of politics on the gun control issue.

“I think that was probably an example of some growing pains,” he said of Heitkamp’s televised remarks, “a senator that maybe thought … that was a good conventional response to that question and maybe needed a little bit of a wake-up call that the country is not there anymore, and that’s what we tried to provide.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528