White House efforts to keep gun control atop the national agenda could mean some difficult choices for two Coulee Region Democrats with strong records of supporting gun rights.
Both U.S. Reps. Ron Kind of La Crosse and Tim Walz of Minnesota enjoy top ratings from the National Rifle Association, which endorsed Walz in his November re-election bid.
But the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School may have shifted the debate.
“I think it’d be disingenuous of me not to speak up,” said Walz, a former high school teacher from Mankato. “Myself and others who know firearms, who’ve been around them a lot, who have advocated for the use of law-abiding citizens to have them. I think we have a special responsibility to speak up on that.
“I refuse to accept a world where children aren’t safe in our schools.”
Walz, who also served 24 years in the National Guard, said while he will continue to advocate for the rights of law-abiding citizens to own guns, he is open to discussing limited restrictions, such as on high-capacity magazines.
“As someone who’s been in the military … I’ve never really seen the need for that,” Walz said. “No, you may not stop some of this carnage, but you may slow down the impact.”
As for a ban on assault weapons, Walz said that would depend on the definition, noting the gun used in the Newtown killings would not have been covered by the 1990s assault weapon ban.
Kind, who before this fall’s election said he opposed any new restrictions on gun ownership, noted lawmakers have to balance the responsibility of ensuring safety while protecting the Constitutional rights of citizens to bear arms.
“We’re going to have to have a discussion while also keeping in mind the concerns of law-abiding, safety-conscious gun owners in America,” he said.
Kind has not said if he would support gun restrictions — whether on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines — deferring instead to Vice President Joe Biden’s talks with stakeholders, which began Wednesday when he met with victims’ advocates and representatives of the video game industry. Biden is expected to meet today with the NRA and other gun owner groups.
“I think the first thing we need to do is let the investigations go forward, collect all the facts, look at what can be done to avoid these type of tragedies in the future,” Kind said. “I’m not one that subscribes to supporting or endorsing solutions before we know what the problem ultimately is.”
A former La Crosse County prosecutor, Kind said he believes the best solutions may be local rather than federal.
“Communities are different,” he said. “Inner-city Chicago problems will be different than the type of issues that western Wisconsin will be focused on.”
Walz, who received an endorsement in October from the NRA’s political action committee, rejected the gun lobby’s proffered solution and said he was disappointed educators haven’t been included in the discussion.
“I just don’t see where armed guards or teachers with guns in our schools means freedom for our children,” the fourth-term Congressman said. “I think it’s more complex than that.”
Fiscal cliff, deficit fight still loom
Lawmakers likely will have more pressing matters this winter, as automatic, across-the-board spending cuts avoided with a New Year’s compromise again loom at the end of February.
Walz said he’s glad the deadline is soon, as he’d like Congress to work on other priorities, including immigration reform and the passage of a new five-year Farm Bill.
Underlying the ongoing fiscal crisis is a need for Democrats and Republicans to agree on a deficit reduction plan, which Kind said must not “jeopardize the crucial investments we need to be making as a nation right now to stay competitive globally.”
Kind laments those investments — education, research, job training, broadband and infrastructure — that he calls the nation’s “seed corn” often are targets for deepest cuts in budget talks.
He’d prefer to focus on big-ticket items such as health care and defense, which account for about a third of all federal spending.
“I think there are areas we can go to for cost savings without jeopardizing national security,” Kind said.
The government could realize other savings by basing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements on quality, rather than quantity, of service.
“The challenge here — many of my Democratic colleagues feel that there can be no savings in Medicare. That’s off the table,” he said. “And I disagree.”
Walz said the U.S. could save $900 billion simply by allowing the government to negotiate on prescription drug prices and expanding the payroll tax, used to cover Social Security benefits, to include those earning up $174,000 a year, the salary of rank-and-file Congressional members.
Defense cuts could yield another $900 billion, he said.
Kind, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, also hopes to be part of a tax reform effort.
“We are long overdue in reorganizing, reforming our tax code that has become a monstrosity littered with special loopholes and special breaks that average families can’t take advantage of,” he said.
Of course some of the most costly deductions — home mortgage interest and health care benefits — also are among the most popular.
“That may not be popular among employees and employers alike,” Kind said.
Kind and Walz would like to address immigration reform this year as well.
Both have supported the Dream Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children, and say we need to secure the borders while ensuring Midwestern employers — particularly food producers — can hire the workers they need.
“I talk to dairy farmers all the time, and they say the migrant labor they rely on is crucial to helping them stay in business,” Kind said. “Production agriculture is still the number one industry we have as a state. There needs to be some economic realism involved in immigration reform.”