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Helmut Schmidt, Published April 16 2013

Heitkamp still mulling background checks

WASHINGTON – North Dakota’s senators are on different sides of the political aisle, but they do agree on one thing: The Senate’s gun control debate should focus more on dealing with the mentally ill and criminals than on expanding background checks to buy those weapons.

“It really is about mental health and violence in our society, and that’s where we should be focused,” Republican Sen. John Hoeven said Tuesday.

Debate began Tuesday in the Senate on a bipartisan compromise measure sponsored by Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. It would expand background checks from the 55,000 or so licensed gun dealers in the country to include commercial sales at gun shows and over the Internet.

The measure still allows sales without background checks between relatives and friends.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, didn’t say how she would vote on the bill but did say the gun control debate has been “enormously frustrating” for her.

“What is my deepest level of frustration? We started talking about school safety and started talking about mental health” and ended up with a bill that tries to expand background checks.

Heitkamp said she’s still evaluating the background check measure. She is one of a handful of red-state Democrats in the Senate considered by many political observers to be key votes on the background check measure.

“We’ve had a lot of tough meetings both ways on this. We’re just trying evaluate this bill in light of our state’s needs. Obviously, the voices I’m listening to are North Dakota voices,” Heitkamp said.

Hoeven was among a group of Republicans that voted to allow debate on the measure. But, he said, he definitely opposes it.

“I’ve been clear on that. I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms,” Hoeven said.

He said he’s working with Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Thune, R-S.D., on a bill that would aim to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Some opponents of wider background checks on gun sales worry it opens the door to a federal registry of weapons.

Heitkamp said “if there is any whiff in this that it would lead to a federal registry, it’s a non-starter.”

On the other hand, she said the amendment will make life fairer for gun dealers who already follow federal law on background checks if dealers at gun shows or online must follow the same rules.

Hoeven said he doesn’t believe the measure will get the votes it needs to become part of an overall gun control bill.

“Again, the real problem, and that’s how we deal with mental health and violence in our culture, and that needs to be the focus,” Hoeven said.

In Minnesota, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken, both Democrats, both support the expansion of background checks.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583