Tragedy at Sandy Hook prompts calls for local discussion on gun control

Close up photo of an AR-15 rifle similar to the one used in the Newtown shooting.

Close up photo of an AR-15 rifle similar to the one used in the Newtown shooting. (Flickr creative commons image by Robert Freiberger)

The National Rifle Association says armed police officers in every school could stop the next killer “waiting in the wings.”

The NRA broke its silence Friday about the Dec. 14 tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut, when 26 children and adults were killed at an elementary school. It took a week for the powerful gun lobby to comment.

In a news conference, the organization blamed school shootings on video games, violent movies and Hollywood.  NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said gun control isn’t the solution.  He said the only thing to stop “a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The gun control question is being raised around the country, even in Juneau.

Mayor Merrill Sanford said he’s not likely to call a community meeting to talk about gun control. But the Assembly has been asked to consider sponsoring a local discussion or task force on the issue.

Douglas resident Mike Peterson told the panel last week that he’s been raising this question around town:

“Can you have a meaningful dialogue or conversation about gun control?”

He said responses have ranged from “you can’t. Just flat out, you cannot have a meaningful conversation about it”  to finding common ground – in this case the horror of the Sandy Hook incident.

“Another response was no matter what kind of conversation you begin to have in this community, or any community in the United States, the NRA will stop it dead in its tracks,” Peterson said.

Peterson said Juneau should join what appears to be a ground swell toward a national dialogue on the issue.

“I believe that you can have a meaningful conversation and a dialogue in this community on gun control. I think you have to try, you at least have to try,” Peterson said.

But it’s not likely to happen, at least not now, Mayor Sanford said.

“You know, the fanaticals are going to be out there on either side of the story right now, as you can see, and I don’t want to get into that. It’s like church and state things, you know. If you get into the middle of it then you have the crusades going and it’s just a battle you can’t win,” Sanford said.

Since Sandy Hook, Assembly members have received a number of comments from Juneau citizens about gun control, but it is not a local issue. In Alaska, guns are regulated by state law.

Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl reminded his colleagues of that after Peterson requested the local conversation.

“It certainly does not prevent a good conversation as a community,” Kiehl said. “It also does not mean that we can’t take a serious look at the steps our community can take to be a healthier place. To deal better with those that suffer from mental illnesses, and I think that’s an important part of the conversation.”

Sanford said that’s an easier conversation to have because mental health is already part of various city discussions and funding.

City officials also have heard a number of complaints from citizens about a new indoor shooting range and gun store to be built on the corner of Crest Street and Yandukin Drive.

City Planner Greg Chaney said it’s become  a very hot topic.

The Planning Commission recently granted Juneau Mercantile and Armory a conditional use permit for the 13,000 square foot facility, where customers will be able to fire assault and other automatic weapons, similar to those used in the Sandy Hook massacre.

But the main questions to be considered in granting the permit were such things as noise, parking, traffic, and whether the facility was in compliance with city regulations.

The permit can be appealed within 20 days after it’s signed by the city. The appeal deadline is January 3rd.

But Chaney said people should not appeal because they don’t like assault weapons. Appellants would have to base their argument on something within the CBJ Comprehensive Plan and Land Use Code.

“And none of those documents address the difference between a hunter safety range and a range using automatic weapons. So the burden of proof for an appellant would be to state that the Planning Commission made a mistake based on the information presented to them, in particular did the approval not comply with the comprehensive plan or some goal in the land use code or some statute,” Chaney said.

Automatic weapons, school shootings and gun violence were brought up during the Planning Commission hearings on the shooting range.

Gun range owners said customers renting automatic weapons would be trained by an NRA certified instructor.

Planning Commissioner Dan Miller is part owner of the facility.

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