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Sen. Leahy to help lead national debate on new gun control measures

MONTPELIER — As families began laying to rest the children slain in a Connecticut elementary school shooting Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy said he’ll use his Judiciary Committee next year as a platform for a national debate over gun control.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate committee took to the floor Monday afternoon to announce a hearing “early in the next congressional session to help in the search for understanding and answers.”

“As the president has pointed out, it is unlikely that any single step, or package of steps, can erase the chance of such a tragedy happening again... But we must take on the responsibility of searching for answers,” Leahy said. “If there are practical, sensible, workable answers to prevent such unspeakable tragedy, we should make the effort to find them.”

Leahy stopped well short of proposing specific gun control measures. But he is among the chorus of lawmakers — all three members of Vermont’s delegation among them — calling for intensified focus on the issue of restricting access to firearms.

In a written statement, Rep. Peter Welch called the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School a “transformational moment in the national conversation on gun control.”

As the community of Newtown, Conn., “begins the heartbreaking process of burying the victims of this horrific massacre, America must begin its own process of reaching an overdue consensus on practical steps we must now take to prevent similar tragedies from happening again,” Welch said.

Sen. Bernard Sanders said there is no “15-second soundbite answer” to what he characterized as an “epidemic of mass killings.” But he said the country can start by “ton(ing) down the incredibly high level of violence which permeates our media culture and which desensitizes children and others to the killing of human beings.”

“Second, we must greatly expand and improve our mental health capabilities so that individuals and families in need of psychological help can find that help when they need it,” Sanders said. “Third, while well over 99 percent of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who use their weapons legally and responsibly, there are clearly some who do not. In that regard, we must make certain that highly destructive weapons do not fall into the hands of people who should not have them.”

The Newtown shooting that claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren ages 6 and 7 has fueled a nationwide cry for stricter gun measures. By early Monday afternoon, more than 150,000 people had signed a national online petition asking the Obama administration “to produce legislation that limits access to guns.”

Even some of the staunchest gun rights lawmakers on Monday were calling for legislative responses to the Sandy Hook incident. West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, whose pro-gun stances have won him an “A” from the National Rifle Association, said the Connecticut shootings have opened him up to the possibility of restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

In legislative scorecards sent to its members in advance of the November elections, the NRA gave Welch a “C” and Sanders a “D-minus.”

The gun-rights organization says a “D” connotes “an anti-gun candidate who usually supports restrictive gun control. A grade of “C,” the NRA says, indicates a “mixed record” on gun-related issues.

Welch said addressing the “real-world impact” of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines is among the practical steps we must now take to “prevent similar tragedies from happening again.”

Welch outlined a number of other areas he wants to see Congress turn its focus.

“We must find a better way to prevent mentally unstable individuals from obtaining a gun. We must ensure that federal agencies, as well as state and local law enforcement authorities, are sharing information that will improve the effectiveness of federal background checks,” Welch said. “We must, even in an era of fiscal restraint, improve mental health services at the local level. We must find ways to check the gruesome violence on display every day to our children through television, movies and video games.”

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