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Jane Ahlin, Published January 12 2013

Ahlin: In the wake of Newtown, Heitkamp is tone-deaf

Pardon the bad pun, but Heidi misfired. When Sen. Heidi Heitkamp,

D-N.D., appeared on the Sunday ABC news show “This Week” and gun control came up, she used language more apropos to an National Rife Association press release than to the common sense she usually shows – common sense and down-to-earth thinking that make her the appealing politician she is. Intentionally or not, she slipped into defensive NRA language, language that in the wake of the Newtown massacre not only sounds tired but also is downright tiresome.

When asked by host George Stephanopoulos about her willingness to support gun regulatory proposals reportedly coming from the Obama administration, Heitkamp said that regulation the administration appeared to favor is “way in extreme of what … is necessary or even should be talked about.” She added. “And it’s not going to pass.”

To be fair, Heitkamp always has been an NRA supporter. On one level, her response to the gun question is in line with her campaign of a few months ago. The fact that the public’s reaction to her words is different from what it’s been before involves two things: 1) She’s on the national stage where any blip can become a brouhaha; 2) America is hearing standard NRA rhetoric with a new ear and not liking it.

Language is powerful. Well, it’s powerful unless we grow so accustomed to the talking points of a group, we tune them out, and in doing so, put them in control. That’s what has happened with the NRA. Before the Newtown, Conn., shooting that killed 20 schoolchildren – first-graders – chances are Heitkamp’s use of the word “extreme” might not have grated like fingernails on a blackboard. Ditto, her notion that improved gun regulation is a subject too radical to “be talked about.” However, in Newtown’s wake, she sounded tone-deaf to national concern about public safety and guns in our violence-obsessed culture.

Public concern runs deeper and is less partisan than the NRA would have us believe. Forget the Democrats; a recent CNN poll showed that even 97 percent of Republicans support universal background checks and 60 percent support a ban on semi-automatic weapons and high capacity ammo clips.

For that matter, the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns also released results reported by GOP pollster Frank Luntz (months before the Newtown tragedy) “showing that NRA members and other gun owners overwhelmingly support a variety of laws designed to keep firearms out of dangerous hands” In fact, “74 percent of NRA members and 87 percent of non-NRA gun owners support requiring criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun,” and about 80 percent of both groups think gun merchants should have to do those checks on their own employees. Sixty-four percent also want laws requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to the police. It’s only the NRA mucky-mucks who control the purse strings and the organization’s monotonous message (more guns, more guns) who oppose reasonable gun measures.

On “This Week” Heitkamp rightly said America is not dealing with our “dangerously mentally ill.” Mental illness does not get enough attention. Still, I wish she’d talk to former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, who are launching a group to end gun violence. Giffords, of course, was shot and critically wounded at a supermarket meet and greet in January of 2011 by a gunman with a semiautomatic pistol and large capacity ammo clip who killed six others in the melee. (There have been 11 other mass shootings in America since Giffords was shot.)

In a recent op-ed carried in USA Today, Giffords and Kelly wrote: “This country is known for using its determination and ingenuity to solve problems, big and small. Wise policy has conquered disease, protected us from dangerous products and substances, and made transportation safer. But when it comes to protecting our communities from gun violence, we’re not even trying.”

Unthinkable tragedy makes this much clear: gun violence cannot be addressed without the reasonable regulation of guns.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com