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Lawmakers backpedal on gun bills in wake of mass shooting

March 5, 2018

Republican leaders in the Indiana Legislature are backpedaling on gun rights legislation in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida — killing two measures that would have loosened firearm restrictions.

In pro-gun Indiana, it’s an unusual look for Republicans who dominate the Statehouse, and for years have championed efforts to loosen gun laws.

Now, instead of engaging in what could have been a partisan and uncomfortable debate on the bills, they plan to develop a pared down proposal that will be added to separate legislation at a later date. Gov. Eric Holcomb, meanwhile, is calling for a statewide audit of safety procedures at schools.

“The country is tense and understandably so,” said Republican Senate leader David Long of Fort Wayne. “So we’ll try to focus on what is doable ... and not try to allow some gamesmanship.”

While some Republican lawmakers have long desired to eliminate state handgun licenses, GOP leaders started the session with the simple goal of eliminating fees charged for a lifetime handgun license.

Quickly, additional proposals gained traction. Gun rights supporters wanted to reduce some point-of-sale background checks and allow worshippers to carry guns in churches that are also located on school grounds, which is prohibited under current law without authorization from school officials.

The bills were moving forward. That is until 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by a former student with a history of mental illness and a debate over gun laws reverberated throughout the country.

Democrats, itching to bring the debate to the floor of the Indiana General Assembly, filed a raft of gun control amendments to a bill pending in the House. Those votes would have put some GOP lawmakers in an awkward spot heading into an election year.

“If there were ever a time to take a step back and reassess our gun laws, now is that time,” Democratic Sen. Jean Breaux of Indianapolis wrote in a letter on Friday.

But it wasn’t just limited to Democrats. Gun rights supporters filed their own amendments, including one by libertarian leaning GOP Rep. Jim Lucas, of Seymour, who has repeatedly tried — but failed — to pass legislation eliminating handgun licenses in Indiana.

“The bill became a magnet for virtually every measure, pro- and anti-gun,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican.

“We’re under no compulsion to debate and consider every proposal that someone from the minority especially might throw up on a bill,” Bosma later added, referring to a total of 19 amendments filed from both sides of the gun issue.

Long echoed the idea, saying lawmakers have already debated it thoroughly. “How many more debates do we have about things that have no chance of passing anyway, that are being done for political purposes?” he asked.

So what will end up advancing?

Long and Bosma said they are not in favor of eliminating or reducing background checks, but both said they were open to eliminating or reducing permit fees.

But there is some question about what will happen with the measure that would allow church-goers to pack guns during worship services held on school property. Long raised doubts that would pass, but Bosma said he favored the idea.

“I think we are going to tread very lightly in this area,” Long said.

School safety is also an issue they plan to deal with. On Thursday, the school safety audit Holcomb is seeking was added to a bill. Another measure would allow school staff to temporarily barricade doors in the event of an unplanned fire alarm, giving officials time to investigate.

Holcomb said he wants to “make sure drills are occurring, to make sure they have a plan in place by law, and that we’re not caught flat-footed when something happens.”

With the final details still to be worked out, whatever consensus proposal emerges will come in the final days of the session, which is slated to end March 14.

“This issue is on everyone’s mind,” Bosma said.

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