As gun control talks continue in Washington, the North Country's representative in the House thinks Congress should tread carefully on a matter that has far-reaching constitutional implications.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said this week that Congress needs to start the gun control debate by focusing on areas of common interest, like expanded background checks for gun buyers. He said some of the other issues being discussed on the national level, like tighter restrictions on assault weapons, are "far more volatile" and it makes sense to move forward on an incremental basis.
Owens spoke to the Enterprise at length Tuesday about his thoughts on gun control. The following interview has been edited for length.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh
Adirondack Daily Enterprise: The Senate and the president are pushing pretty hard for action on gun control. What about the House? Will the Republican leadership bring this issue to the floor?
Bill Owens: There hasn't been a lot of conversation about activity in the House. What (House Speaker John) Boehner has indicated is if the Senate passes something, essentially he'll take a look at it and decide whether or not he's going to put it up on the floor. I would suspect that if it does come over with an assault (weapon) ban, magazine ban and a number of other elements, that it may well get broken down into separate votes.
ADE: You've indicated that because this is a constitutional issue, Congress needs to be careful about how it proceeds. Can you elaborate?
Owens: When people talk about a large number of issues, they'll say, "Well, we should take action on a particular issue." But there aren't many issues that have as clear-cut a position under the Constitution as the Second Amendment, much like the First Amendment. If you were looking at issues related to the news media because people might be unhappy with what is portrayed in the news, that is a very tricky area because it has constitutional protection, as do weapons have a constitutional protection. I think those two areas are ones that I think require people to move a bit slowly in the process. It's one of the reasons why I think the background check issue is a little bit easier because it doesn't deal directly with the weapons or the ammunition.
ADE: Can you talk about your beliefs regarding gun ownership? Did you grow up around firearms?
Owens: No, I didn't. And I don't own a gun currently. I have very strong feelings about both the First and Second Amendment. I think they're very, very critical to our way of life, I think particularly in our district. We have literally tens of thousands - maybe hundreds of thousands - of folks who are gun owners, who use them for recreation, use them for hunting. We have people who are gun collectors. And we really hear of very few crimes that are committed with weapons in the district. It is truly a newsworthy event when that happens.
ADE: Many of the voices in this debate acknowledge that no laws can put an end to gun violence. But in your view what steps need to be taken to try to prevent it?
Owens: I think that stronger enforcement against gun crimes is certainly a good step. The vast majority of crimes committed with weapons are handguns, so we need to be more diligent about gun running. We need to be more diligent about prosecuting gun crimes. Those are things that we need to focus on that may have some impact. Again, I don't think that those things, in and of themselves, will eliminate gun violence. I don't think you can really accomplish that, unfortunately.
ADE: You've made it clear that you strongly support expanded background checks. What are some of the measures that you absolutely won't support?
Owens: I don't believe that we should move towards an assault weapons ban or the large (ammunition) clip ban. That is not something, at this point, that I see as accomplishing the goal. And the goal here, in my mind, is to prevent another Sandy Hook, prevent another Aurora. I think we have to be taking actions that are moving in that direction.
ADE: What's your reasoning for that? Why don't those bans accomplish that goal?
Owens: Because the vast majority - and I think it's something over 90 percent - of the crimes that are committed, are committed with handguns. That, to me, says you need to be focusing on that arena if you're really interested in stopping gun crime. ... The vast majority of folks in our area use those weapons for target practice and, if you will, recreation. So why would you inhibit their ability to do that? And I think that because there are so many of these weapons out there, you may well be putting yourself in a position where, if you ban them, you really can't enforce it, and it becomes just another piece of legislation that doesn't accomplish a goal.
ADE: When we spoke about gun control in Lake Placid, you said you wouldn't have voted for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's gun control bill. What aspects of that law do you disagree with?
Owens: I had some concern over the mental health piece and how that will be implemented. One of the areas that people have talked about, who are professionals in the area, is how do you make that determination? That's somewhat like putting someone on the no-fly list. I think there's some danger associated with that. You don't want to have false positives - somebody who's put on a list inappropriately who then has a very great deal of difficulty extricating their name from it.
ADE: In the debate about the Second Amendment, you hear a lot of people arguing about its wording and its historical context. How do you interpret its language?
Owens: The courts have interpreted the Second Amendment. ... From my background as a lawyer, I come at it from that perspective. I have not given it, from a philosophic standpoint, that much thought.
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