If a strong push for gun-control measures emerges among Democrats in the U.S. Senate, what will Sen. Mark Begich do?
Begich, one of about a dozen Democratic senators from traditionally Republican states, said Tuesday that emotions are still too raw after the school shootings in Connecticut last week to have the kind of broad discussions that new gun control measures deserve.
But Begich, facing re-election in two years, said he wouldn't "shy away" from challenging the National Rifle Association.
"I'm going to be one of the more cautious (ones) about doing anything on new gun laws, but I'm not going to say we can't have this discussion," Begich said in a telephone interview from his home in downtown Washington, D.C., where he had just picked up his 10-year-old son at a school guarded for the first time by a police cruiser.
"The dialogue is going to clearly change. But I want to be careful that we just don't start throwing new laws on the books driven by emotion when we need refocus on this whole issue."
The larger issue, Begich said, is the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, which he said was the "driving factor" in all the recent mass killings. He said he's especially concerned that people have come to "tolerate" violence and mental illness as things that just happen.
That might have been the case in the Lanza household, Begich said, citing early reports from Connecticut.
"The young man in this situation, he did have mental illness, but his mother trained him in the shooting range," Begich said. "I'm aghast by that."
"If you look at every single one of these incidents there is a common denominator, in some form or another, of mental illness," Begich added. "What this will do is force the gun rights groups and the anti-gun groups to a table. I don't know what that will produce, but we (need to) get on to the discussion of what we're going to do about violence in this country and the severe impact of mental illness on our streets."
Unfortunately, he said, money for mental health is an easy target for budget cutters.
"Look at what we're doing on the budget right now," he said. "How much you want to bet that's going to be one area we're going to cut, because it's in discretionary funds. It makes no sense."
Begich said he didn't want to comment about Alaska's state gun laws, among the most liberal in the country. Long ago, when a resident still needed a permit to carry a concealed weapon, Begich said he received one of the first permits.
"But I also took the course. I think that was good for people to take that course," he said.
Now any adult who can legally possess a weapon in Alaska can possess a concealed gun without a permit or safety training certificate, and few places are off limits for carrying.
While some congressional Democrats have been in the forefront of pushing new gun-control measures, few of their red-state colleagues are among them. Begich, like fellow Alaskan Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, has an "A" rating from the NRA.
Through a spokesman, Murkowski said she wouldn't talk about a congressional response to the Newtown massacre because it was still too recent.
Begich said that even though he's gotten an "A" rating, he's never been endorsed by the NRA and wouldn't let their opinions rule what he does.
"If I worry about where these guys rate me, my life would be miserable around here," he said.
But the NRA, too, may have found the congressional landscape has changed, Begich said, citing a statement from the organization Tuesday that it was planning a "major" announcement Friday.
"Having the NRA actually say in a press release that they recognize this is significant, now we'll see," Begich said. "I think there's a sea change."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4345.