In Mississippi, protecting the Second Amendment is the emotional issue

Apr 30, 2013

The first class of National Newspaper Association Foundation News Fellows arrived in Washington, concurrently with the “We Believe in Newspapers Leadership Summit” to test their news literacy skills on one of the nation’s toughest subjects: gun control legislation.

Five college journalists sponsored by state press associations and journalism schools were selected for the inaugural news literacy program. They were paired with working community newspaper journalists and set up for a couple of key news briefings. Then they were on their own to roam Capitol Hill, the K Street lobbying corridor and other venues in the nation’s capital to try to find out who is shaping public opinion on gun control and how.

By Emily Roland

University of Mississippi

WASHINGTON—Rep. Allan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, wanted to make sure he left no doubt how he felt on the question of any gun restrictions.

“I fully support the Second Amendment,” Nunnelee said emphatically, his arms crossed over his thrust out chest as he sat in his gold-studded caramel leather chair in his Capitol Hill office, surrounded by Ole Miss and Delta memorabilia.

A ban on assault weapons?

“I fully support the Second Amendment.”

Limits on magazine clips?

“I fully support the Second Amendment.”

Background checks on purchasers at gun shows?

“Again, I fully support the Second Amendment,” he said, his round face swelling into a deeper shade of red now, as though each question was offensive in presuming that it might trigger a different answer.

The interview was over.

Although the Sandy Hook school massacre, the Aurora movie theater killings, the Sikh temple shootings and other events have moved a majority of the American public to favor stricter gun laws, Mississippi and the South remain bastions of faith in the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

New legislation backed by President Obama to re-impose a ban on assault weapons, limit magazine capacity and require expanded background checks on gun purchasers made their way through the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate before dying in the Republican-controlled House on April 17.

But the wave of public emotion that pushed gun control legislation closer to passage than it would have come five years ago aroused an equally emotional counter reaction in Mississippi. Fifty-four percent of Mississippi households own guns, and their fear is not school shootings. It is that the national furor over mass shootings would enable the federal government to take away their guns.

“In the South, in Mississippi, a lot of people hunt, fish and learning how to shoot is something that boys and girls both do,” U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Pearl, said. “So, there are some that might want to restrict those Second Amendment rights, and that would not be a good idea. And it would not solve the problem that they’re perhaps intending to address.”

Seeking out and confiscating the guns of law-abiding citizens is nowhere in any of the Obama administration’s bill texts, nor does it touch any current hunting or recreational guidelines. Even if the bill passed exactly as it had left the office of the vice president, there would not be a single search and seizure of guns, no matter the type, size or magazine limit, in the U.S.

“Critics are sort of using this point of confiscating guns from law-abiding gun owners, and that’s really, absolutely not where we are,” a White House official said during a background briefing, acknowledging that there are about 300 million guns currently owned in the country. “If we can make sure these guns don’t get in the wrong hands, that’s a huge step forward,” he continued, reiterating that confiscation is not the goal. The focus here is regulation and prevention, as divided into three categories: physical weapons, school safety and mental health.

Sal Gentile, one of PBS’ political and international news journalists, wrote that polls have proved “large numbers of Americans know very little about how our political system works.” And those voters, he continued, do not just vote, but they are encouraged to vote, making their choices based on emotional connectedness instead of policy and facts. His theory is made stronger thanks to the media, whose concentration on gun restrictions have been making the most noise.

However, although Southerners may be reluctant to budge on the issue, the Gallup Poll has found that in the wake of the Newtown school massacre and other recent mass shootings, a majority of Americans are now in favor of tightening restrictions on gun sales. A year ago, only 44 percent of those polled called for stricter gun laws, 43 percent thought the current laws were adequate, and 11 percent wanted to loosen gun restrictions. This year, the numbers have changed drastically, with 58 percent of Americans pushing for increased restrictions on gun sales, 34 percent in favor of keeping the current laws, and only 6 percent of those polled arguing that the laws should be less strict.

Still, the opposition in the Magnolia State is strong.

“I have a lot of folks back in Mississippi who come up to me and say, ‘Don’t let them hurt the Second Amendment,’” Harper said of his constituents in the third district. “They’ve all been people that didn’t think that this law would be restricted or something would happen, perhaps to take their right to bear arms away. I don’t know of anybody coming up to say that we need stronger gun control.”

In truth, any person waiting in line to check out at a grocery store or reading in a coffee shop in Mississippi can gather what people are thinking from the ever-present signs: “Don’t take away our guns.”

But now that it has been established that no guns are going to be confiscated, the question is: How is a bill that doesn’t plan to reduce the number of guns in America plan to reduce the number of gun-related crimes?

The three main categories of Vice President Joe Biden’s Assault Weapons Ban each have their own bullet-pointed goals. In terms of mental health, White House Officials said concerns center on access to care, community health resources, training and funding. The school safety issue, which has taken on a life of its own in different parts of the U.S., is focused on preparedness and funding for security, counselors and officers on the campuses.

The heart of the physical weapons category will probably surprise many law-abiding citizens holding tightly to their guns. It calls for a restriction on the sale of assault weapons, a 10-round limit on magazines, a stronger universal background check and beefing up trafficking laws. There’s nothing in there about search and seizure.

Nevertheless, after Obama announced a series if unilateral executive orders on gun control, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant joined House Speaker Phil Gunn at a news conference at the State Capitol in Jackson to denounce the gun control measures and call on the legislature to make it illegal to enforce any of the new federal gun control laws.

“We are here to assure Mississippians that we are going to continue to fight for their Second Amendment rights to bear arms,” Gunn said. “These are dangerous times, and people have a constitutional right to protect themselves and their property.”

Bryant tweeted out a letter he wrote to Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, saying that the president’s executive order “infringes our constitutional right to keep and bear arms as never before in American history.

“I am asking that you immediately pass legislation that would make any unconstitutional order by the president illegal to enforce in Mississippi by state or local law enforcement,” adding that other states have “introduced similar measures and I believe we will be successful in preventing this overreaching and anti-constitutional violation of our rights as American citizens.”

In fact, Mississippi has been moving to loosen its gun laws, not to impose further restrictions.

Policy 1106 from the Board of Trustees for State Institutions of Higher Learning, the governing board for all public universities in the state, stated that a weapon being carried on campus or at a campus function “creates an unreasonable and unwarranted risk of injury or death to its institutions’ employees, students, visitors and guests and further creates an unreasonable and unwarranted risk of damage to properties of the institutions, employees, students, visitors, guests and properties of others.”

The policy stated that because of these dangers, the possession of any weapon, unless by an authorized law enforcement official or other authorized officials, should be prohibited on college campuses.

But this policy was overruled by the Mississippi Legislature.


Supporting gun control in Mississippi is political suicide

Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker was one of 16 GOP lawmakers who voted to end the filibuster in the Senate, paving the way for debate to begin on the legislation, which he then voted against.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-MS, joined 30 other votes against allowing debate on the gun control legislation to start.

The reaction from Mississippi’s pro-gun majority is just too strong. Last month, a harried Cochran staffer fielded a call from an angry constituent, who demanded to know why Cochran wasn’t being quoted every day attacking the gun control proposals.

“We can’t control what the media writes,” the staffer said pleadingly. “We can’t be any more opposed.”