President Barack Obama’s proposals for stemming gun violence drew a divided response Wednesday from local officeholders and community leaders, highlighting the polarizing nature of the national gun debate a month after the Connecticut school shooting.
While even some supporters of gun rights said they would not object to enhancing background checks for prospective gun buyers, interviews revealed a community deeply ambivalent over a proposed ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
“Guns are the equalizer that let the weak defend themselves against the strong, and the single female heading the household is the one most impacted by what the Obama administration is proposing,” said Woody Jenkins, chairman of the Republican Party of East Baton Rouge Parish.
“This is an assault on our natural right of self-defense,” Jenkins added. “Five rounds in a .38 are not enough to stop a home invasion. An AR-15 is an appropriate weapon.”
Dawn Collins, chairwoman of the East Baton Rouge Parish Democratic Executive Committee, said Obama’s proposals would help alleviate the unbridled gun violence that is “tearing our culture apart.”
“This is really not a partisan thing, and it’s not about taking away people’s Second Amendment rights,” said Collins, adding that she comes from a family of hunters and embraces the right to gun ownership.
“Even the beer industry gets the idea of being responsible within your own industry,” Collins said. “They promote a culture of responsible drinking and they still make a great profit, so why can’t the gun industry do the same?”
Several law enforcement officials were reluctant to speak publicly regarding their views on gun control. Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White and U.S. Attorney Donald J. Cazayoux both declined to comment on Obama’s proposals.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux issued a statement reaffirming his support of the Second Amendment, but said it would be “premature to respond to inquiries without specific measures in mind,” noting that there “currently are no specific legislative or congressional proposals.”
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, a Democrat, said he supports citizens’ gun rights. But, he said, law enforcement officials would like to close the “gun-show loophole” that enables an “illicit market for gun sales.”
Obama has urged lawmakers to require “universal” background checks for all gun buyers.
“Today, the friends of a drug dealer, felon or juvenile can buy a gun lawfully and then turn around and sell it to the drug dealer, felon or juvenile without encountering any background check,” Moore said in an emailed statement. “Let’s have everyone who buys a firearm subject to the same background check to be certain that they meet the requirements for lawful gun ownership: they are of adult age, free from felony conviction and free from mental impairment.”
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said the community needs to recognize “there are unstable, dangerous people roaming freely among us, some with access to guns and others who can find it all too easy to legally possess firearms.”
“Federal and state government have seen to it that there exists almost no significant services for the mentally ill and society is left to fend for themselves,” he said in a statement.
Several local gun stores declined interview requests Wednesday, saying they were too busy dealing with the crowds of customers rushing to buy firearms before new restrictions are enacted.
Robert Rich, owner of Rich’s Coin and Gun on Monterrey Drive in Baton Rouge, said Obama had not offered enough details about how an assault-rifle ban would be implemented.
Rich said he received up to 300 calls a day in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, and that he hasn’t been able to keep assault rifles on the shelves.
“Banning assault weapons is just feel-good legislation,” Rich said. “It’s like banning automobiles because a drunk goes out and wrecks a car and kills a couple of people.”
The topic of gun control has made its way to the pulpit at Broadmoor United Methodist Church, where pastor Fred Wideman has begun a three-week sermon series called “Waging Peace.”
A gun owner, Wideman supports the Second Amendment and describes himself as a conservative, “but when it comes to some of these issues, I tend to agree with many of the recommendations of the president.”
Wideman said he doesn’t see any use — beyond “annihilation” — for magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, and he questioned whether the Second Amendment protects the right to own certain assault rifles.
“If Jesus were here and went down to Plank Road at midnight tonight, I don’t think He would carry a weapon with Him,” Wideman said. “I think the people He would meet and visit with would find themselves mysteriously disarmed by His love, and they would find and experience a deeper form of security than they’ve ever known.”
Wideman said Baton Rouge has a “serious issue” with violent crime that “is going to require something that legislation cannot do, and that is the building of community and intercepting some of these families that are hurting.”
Col. Richie Johnson, of the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, said he agreed with some of Obama’s proposals, including enhancements to background checks. But Johnson, who describes himself as a “hard-core Republican,” said restricting high-capacity magazines would have little effect on crime because gunmen can still carry extra ammunition.
“If you think guns kill people, then you’ve got to believe pencils are responsible for misspelled words,” Johnson said. “People who can load a gun can load a gun.”