Congressman brings common sense to gun control debate

Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — As the national firearms debate reaches a crescendo, a Northern California congressman is proving that you can be both a gun lover and a gun controller.

Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, a moderate "blue dog" Democrat who represents the premier Napa-Sonoma wine country, puts the lie to the National Rifle Assn. demagoguery that this is a firefight between pro-gun and anti-gun forces.

An earlier version of this article stated that Thompson represents the North Coast and the Napa-Sonoma wine country; as of January, his district no longer includes the North Coast.

It's not about government agents swooping down in black helicopters to seize the guns of innocent, law-abiding citizens.

"As a hunter and gun owner, I will not give up my guns and I will not ask other law-abiding Americans to give up theirs," says Thompson, 62, a former state legislator and eight-term congressman. "But as a father and grandfather, I also know we have a responsibility to keep our kids, communities and country safe from gun violence."

He resists the term "gun control."

"My philosophy is it's not gun control, but gun violence prevention," he asserts. "We ought to have reasonable laws that protect the 2nd Amendment and keep our communities safe, and I think we can do both."

The U.S. Supreme Court, the congressman points out, ruled five years ago "that individuals have a right to own guns. Period. It also said that the government has a right to regulate firearms. Period."

Thompson has been a shooter practically all his life. The NRA's contention that gun owners need to protect themselves against gun grabbers is "ridiculous," he says. "I just think it's an argument ginned up as a means to generate more members for the organization.

"I know a lot of NRA members and I don't know of any who think they should have the same weapons as the police or military — or should be able to buy a gun without a background check. What we're hearing from is the real extreme."

Thompson's portfolio exceeds a personal hunting arsenal. He's chairman of a House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, composed of Democrats. It recently issued a "set of policy principles" aimed at respecting gun ownership while reducing gun violence.

Among the panel's recommendations was reinstatement of the national assault weapons ban, championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

"I'm a gun guy, but I carried an assault weapon in Vietnam. And if I never see another one, it'll be too soon," says the former Army infantryman, who earned a Purple Heart.

Assault weapons "give a bad name to gun owners," Thompson continues. "There are more people who don't own guns than do. If they think all of us gun owners are running around with assault weapons, that's going to do us a real disservice. And we'll just fall out of favor with the voters."

But Feinstein's proposed assault weapons ban was stripped from Senate gun legislation by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid contended it had no chance of passage and only weakened the rest of the bill, which apparently will include requiring background checks for all purchasers of firearms at gun shows. Currently the checks are required merely when a gun is bought from a licensed dealer.

Thompson is practical. He brings common sense to the debate. He believes too much time and rhetoric may have been wasted on trying to ban assault weapons — and more focus should have been placed on outlawing the sale of mega-magazines holding more than 10 bullets. They are, after all, what turn assault weapons into such mass-killing machines.

The congressman calls them "assault magazines."

"Take the assault magazine out of an assault weapon and all you have is an ugly semiautomatic," he says.

Thompson says he hasn't given up hope that the Senate will vote next month to ban high-capacity magazines. Reid has said he'll allow Feinstein to offer it as an amendment to the bill, and she intends to. If the magazine limitation were to pass the Senate, its prospects would improve in the Republican-controlled House, Thompson believes.

At any rate, Thompson intends to push bipartisan legislation to require background checks at gun shows, but exempt transfers within families or sales to hunting buddies. He'd also increase the penalties for illegal gun trafficking.

California, of course, has among the most restrictive gun controls of any state. And the Legislature is plowing ahead with even tougher legislation, much of it aimed at closing loopholes pried open by gun manufacturers.

Sales of assault weapons and magazines holding more than 10 rounds long have been banned in California. But old weapons and magazines were grandfathered in and remain legal.

There is new legislation to ban even the possession — not just the sale — of mega-mags. Another bill would bar the sale of any detachable magazine. Still another would require a license — issued only after a background check — to buy ammunition.

There's also a bill to prohibit anyone twice convicted of drunken driving within five years from owning a gun for a decade.

"That makes perfect sense; it's almost a forehead slapper," says Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. "Alcohol abuse is a huge risk factor for being a perpetrator and a victim."

The mass murder of first-graders at a Connecticut school in December "reawakened everybody that there's more to do," Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) says. "Our attitude is we ought to do more that is smart, reasonable and aggressive."

But Thompson says he's concerned that Sacramento — unlike Washington — may be "overreaching" on gun laws. "I just hope state legislators talk to people who know guns."

They could start by talking to Thompson.

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