U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman can recall the first gun he owned: a BB gun when he was 7 years old.
Today, he has a small arsenal of firearms.
“I have four or five handguns. I’ve got a lot of rifles, a couple of shotguns,” Stutzman, R-3rd, said in an interview last week in Fort Wayne.
A corn and soybean farmer in LaGrange County, Stutzman has had what he calls “varmint guns” for dealing with animals, such as groundhogs, that feed on crops.
He also owns an assault rifle.
“I enjoy recreational shooting, target shooting. I do have an AK-47 for target shooting,” he said.
“I am a gun enthusiast.”
Stutzman is also a gun-rights advocate in Congress. So far this year, in his second term in the House, he has sponsored legislation that would require states to honor one another’s concealed-carry gun permits, and he has written letters inviting gun manufacturers Beretta USA and Magpul to move to Indiana from Maryland and Colorado, respectively, because of gun-control bills advancing in those states’ legislatures.
“In Indiana, we treat our manufacturers respectfully and do not take Constitutional infringement lightly – Hoosiers revere the Second Amendment,” Stutzman wrote in a letter sent Friday to Magpul.
Stutzman recently was named chairman of the House Republican Study Committee’s Second Amendment Initiative, a gun-rights caucus of sorts.
“Legislative ideas, anything that pertains to Second Amendment issues, can be dealt with in this particular committee. There hasn’t been one in the past, which is kind of surprising,” Stutzman said.
He said the Second Amendment Initiative sprang from federal gun controls proposed since the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were killed.
“Any gun legislation discussed should recognize the freedoms and protections that gun owners have across the country,” Stutzman said.
“I don’t want this to be just wild, crazy rhetoric about gun ownership,” he said. “I want this to be thoughtful, I want it to be reflective. I want new ideas. … How can we as Americans discuss responsible gun ownership.”
Yet in the March 7 announcement that he had been named chairman of the Second Amendment Initiative, Stutzman took the offensive, claiming in a statement that President Obama’s “aggressive gun-control campaign” is “based on misinformation and will infringe on the freedoms of everyday Americans.”
‘See the bodies’
Former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, who headed up the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence from 2006 to 2011, is wary of Stutzman’s forum.
“If Congressman Stutzman and others would be actually willing to discuss the issue and have an open mind on the issue and learn about the issue, then it could be positive,” Helmke said.
But he said he is “not encouraged” that Stutzman and his cohorts will do those things.
“What kind of background or understanding does Congressman Stutzman have about violence in cities like Fort Wayne and urban areas?” wondered Helmke, the Republican mayor from 1988 through 1999. “I came to the gun-control issue as mayor, as much as anything, when we had an increase in shootings. After hiring police officers and working with the faith community and others, I still realized how weak the gun laws were in the country.”
Helmke, now a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said Stutzman and other gun-control opponents should talk to police officers and families who have been affected by gun violence as well as “see the bodies” of shooting victims and meet with shooting survivors who have suffered permanent disabilities.
Helmke spoke on the issue Wednesday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, minutes before he received its Father Tom O’Connor Light of Christ Award.
“He was selected by the award committee for his leadership in public policy and nonviolence,” the church said in a prepared statement.
Guns “have almost become something religious to some people,” Helmke told about two dozen people attending the award ceremony. Some are “looking at the gun as the solution to all their problems, looking at the gun as how to help with others, looking at the gun as really something to worship,” he said.
“The gun can be a tool, the gun can valuable, but the gun can also kill a lot of people” – including dozens of Americans every day in homicides, suicides and accidents involving firearms, he said.
St. Mary’s gave Helmke a $1,000 check for the cause of his choice, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
The national coalition’s more than 900 members include Democrats Tom Henry of Fort Wayne and Richard Hickman of Angola.
Congressional staffer Austin Vevurka is not familiar with the Second Amendment Initiative.
“I am not sure what this group is, or what their efforts will be,” he said in an email.
Vevurka is communications director for Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, which formed in December. The task force consists of a dozen Democrats.
Among them are Arizona Rep. Ron Barber, who was a staffer for then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when both were injured in the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead; and New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was among six people slain by a gunman on a Long Island train in 1993.
By comparison, the Second Amendment Initiative attracted 13 members in a week’s time ending Thursday, among them Reps. Todd Rokita of Indianapolis and Bob Latta of Bowling Green, Ohio.
All belong to the 168-member Republican Study Committee, whose mission is “advancing a conservative social and economic agenda” in the House.
The Second Amendment Initiative “will educate RSC members and offer conservatives a platform to marshal a unified and effective defense of the Second Amendment,” said James Wegmann, Stutzman’s communications director, via email.
Despite its all-Democratic makeup, the Thompson-led task force has met with lawmakers “on both sides of the aisle and will continue do so,” Vevurka said. “His task force is also willing to work with anyone or any group to reduce gun violence while respecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.”
The House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force is pushing for various gun controls that Stutzman and many in Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike, mostly from rural districts – oppose: bans on the sale of military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and a requirement for background checks for guns sales other than those among family members.
After the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 Thursday to approve a bill that that would outlaw assault weapons and ammo clips containing more than 10 rounds, Stutzman issued a statement in which he said, “This ban undermines the Constitutional right of law-abiding Americans to keep and bear arms.”
Helmke disagrees, citing Supreme Court decisions in 2008 and 2010 that he contends “make it clear that the Second Amendment is ‘not unlimited’ and that restrictions on who get guns and where they can take them, how they are sold and how they are carried, how they are stored and what kind of guns they are, are presumptively lawful.”
For example, he said, machine guns have been regulated since 1934.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
In the 2012 election cycle, Stutzman received an A rating and $1,500 in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association, the leading opponent of gun control.
He wasn’t alone. All six Republicans elected to the House last year from Indiana got an A and as much as $4,000 from the NRA.
Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly earned an A but no money, while Republican Sen. Dan Coats received a C+, Rep. Andre Carson, D-7th, received a D and Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-1st, received an F.
The New York Times reported in December that more than half of the members of the new Congress received an A rating from the NRA.
Yet Helmke pointed to polls that consistently show most Americans support tougher gun laws, particularly universal background checks for gun buyers.
“If you take marching orders from the NRA, then you don’t listen to the arguments” from gun-control proponents, he said.
Stutzman insisted he isn’t staking out a polar extreme in the debate.
“That’s not my intent. My intent is to talk about the person behind the gun,” he said. “The gun is a tool that that person decided to use to commit a crime.”
He would prefer that lawmakers weigh the mental-health disorders associated with gun violence.
“Can we explain to communities certain characteristics, certain things to watch for, and hopefully keep this from happening again,” he said, referring to the killers in mass shootings such as in Newtown.
Instead of butting heads with gun-control supporters, “I’d love to hear their perspective and why they think something should be done,” Stutzman said.
“Let’s not have it just be a one-sided discussion,” he said. “Let’s have both sides at the table and have an open, honest dialogue and evaluate what the problems really are.”