Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, avid hunter-fisherman and darling of the National Rifle Association, on Tuesday said he would support the creation of a special commission to explore solutions and a legislative response to the mass shooting in Connecticut last week.
His comments are the latest by several pro-gun Democrats who have begun introspections of their rigid opposition to any gun control legislation in the wake of last week’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The commission idea, put forward by Connecticut independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and President Barack Obama, appeals to these conservative Democrats because the blue-ribbon panel’s brief would presumably go beyond just gun control to include issues of mental health and school safety, among others.
“I think we have to investigate violence in our country,” Baucus said. “It’s complicated. I think we should do it thoughtfully and meaningfully and get to the bottom of the issue as much as we can.”
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., also indicated he would not reject new gun legislation out of hand. “I’ve said from the beginning this is a time when we’ve got to take every step possible to protect children and to protect communities,” he said.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, agreed, saying violence is an issue that must be addressed. He did not rule any particular response in or out.
“What I’ve said on this issue, and we are going to look at larger issues of violence in this country, I think that’s a big part of this equation,” Begich said. “There is a lot of discussion still ahead of us.”
They join Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who earlier this week also voiced an openness to possible new gun legislation.
All have received high ratings from the NRA.
Baucus, for example, is rated A-plus. He is up for re-election in 2014 and has always been considered a reliable vote for gun interests. He supported the effort to repeal the District of Columbia gun ban, led the effort to end lawsuits that opponents said were aimed at bankrupting the firearms industry, and he voted for legislation to prohibit gun confiscation during states of emergency.
He was also one of only two Democrats to vote against an amendment to limit sales at gun shows in 1999.
It’s not clear whether Baucus would back new gun control legislation, but he, like the others, at least appears more open to the idea than before last week’s shooting.
A senior Senate Republican aide warned that such openness would not play well with voters in Montana.
“It’s shocking that Sen. Baucus wouldn’t ask his constituents for their views before speaking on their behalf,” the aide said.
Republicans are also exploring a response, but most want to wait to have a debate until sometime next year, when feelings are less raw.
“It’ll be up to the majority leader,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said when asked about having a debate. “He’s indicated that the subject [is one] he’s [likely] to turn to next year,” McConnell said. “I think right now, people are properly thinking about the catastrophe in Connecticut last week.”
Others Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who was elected minority whip for the next Congress, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and retiring Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, agreed with McConnell and argued that now is not the time to have a debate.
“I think it’s appropriate for us to have a period of respect for the families,” said Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “It’s also going to be appropriate for us to have a dialogue on the safety of our children’s schools.”
He declined to say when that dialogue should take place.
Others expect to have a better sense of what to do as details emerge from the grim day last week when a gunman shot his way into an elementary school and killed 26 people, including 20 children. Other incidents will also be explored.
“This week they are still burying children and teachers and principals,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “I think when we come back next year we are going to be looking at every facet of the causes of what happened in multiple places, mental health issues, cultural issues, about everything.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he’s not convinced that new laws are the answer.
“I don’t know what the government can do when you have someone this disturbed unless you take everybody’s guns away,” the Republican said.
So opposition remains, but perhaps it’s not as staunch as in the past.
“I think there is a hope among people who don’t want any action that once the grief of the moment is over Americans will go on to other things,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “I really don’t agree with that. I think this is a sea change.”
John Gramlich contributed to this report.
This article has been updated from the print version.