President Barack Obama’s gun control speech is being praised by supporters as a bold step, but the White House acknowledges that sweeping reforms will require support from pro gun areas like Kentucky in order to pass Congress.
Surrounded by a group of elementary school students Wednesday, the president signed 23 executive actions to enforce current laws. He also urged Congress to pass a number of legislative measures such as a ban on military-style assault weapons and armor piercing bullets.
The package includes universal background checks for gun purchases and a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines.
“I will put everything I’ve got into this — and so will (Vice President) Joe (Biden) — but I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it. And by the way, that doesn’t just mean from certain parts of the country,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important.”
Third District Congressman John Yarmuth was an early proponent of gun regulations in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, but he is the only Democrat in Kentucky’s entire federal delegation.
Yarmuth says he is proud of Mr. Obama’s leadership, however, he acknowledges gun owners and Second Amendment advocates will have to play a bigger role in order for lawmakers to pass any reforms.
“I have talked to one (Republican) member of the Kentucky delegation who thought that the president needed to take action,” he told WFPL in a telephone interview. “I don’t know whether that will translate into votes or not, but I think again Kentucky is probably no different than any other state with a lot of gun owners, and that is the vast majority are responsible individuals who want to make sure that only responsible individuals have guns.”
Asked to identify the GOP member who signaled a willingness to get behind the president’s plan, Yarmuth declined saying it was a private conversation.
Despite Yarmuth’s support of new regulations, Kentucky is considered a heavily pro gun state amongst Republicans and Democrats that has expanded gun rights in recent years.
Last fall, voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment securing hunting and fishing rights that was viewed as an effort to get pro gun residents out to the polls. And the National Rifle Association has backed a number of bi-partisan measures in the state, including a law that is forcing the Louisville Metro Council to take firearms out of its definition of deadly weapons.
Some state officials have flirted with disobeying any new federal gun laws outright.
“They need to go back and study that. We are a commonwealth. I can ask federal people to leave, they have to leave. I can ask state people to leave, they have to leave,” (Jackson Country Sheriff Denny) Peyman said.
But Wednesday on CNN, Peyman said he would enforce laws approved by Congress.
Outside of Yarmuth, who represents a mostly urban area, Kentucky’s federal representatives and senators have little appetite for Mr. Obama’s gun agenda.
“A bigger federal government can’t solve this problem. Weapons bans, magazine bans, and federal gun free zones are unconstitutional,” says Fourth District Congressman Thomas Massie. “They do not and cannot prevent criminals or the mentally ill from committing acts of violence. But they often prevent victims of such violence from protecting themselves.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., didn’t come out against the president’s speech directly. But Paul did tell Kentucky Public Radio’s Kenny Colston that he will scrutinize Mr. Obama’s use of executive power, and expects pro gun Democrats will do so as well.
And in a statement to WFPL, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s office stressed that the GOP leader will continue to defend the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Kentuckians while awaiting for a proposal to be introduced in the Judiciary committee.
“While the administration acknowledged that there is much more to be done to enforce existing law, Sen. McConnell’s first test of any new legislation the majority leader decides to bring before the Senate will be on whether or not it infringes on the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms,” says McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.
Still, the president’s supporters argue that the administration is taking the fight to the gun lobby and that 58 percent of Americans favor stricter laws. And many believe the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is a spark that has ushered in a new debate on guns.
“The support is there. The question is whether or not that support is delivered to members of Congress with enough pressure where they feel that they have to rethink what is normally their default position—which is just blindly follow whatever the NRA wants so they get a silly A-rating,” says Yarmuth.