Alaska, which has especially liberal gun laws and one of the nation's highest rates of gun deaths, isn't taking the lead for a political solution to gun violence in the wake of the Connecticut massacre.
Top elected officials, including Gov. Sean Parnell and House Speaker Mike Chenault, said Wednesday it's too early to act, with the nation still grieving and facts about what happened still unfolding. But they said they are open to a debate on how to make society safer.
"It's a much larger issue than simply about the weapon used," said Parnell, who owns guns, hunts moose every fall and has an "A" rating from the politically powerful National Rifle Association. "I know many want to capitalize on grief for an agenda. That's not something I think we should do."
Authorities say Adam Lanza, 20, killed his mother at their home Dec. 14, then, using a semi-automatic rifle, gunned down 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Here, in the 10 years ending in 2010, 1,183 Alaskans were killed in firearms deaths, or 118 a year on average, according to the state Bureau of Vital Statistics. Most of them died at their own hand in suicide. But a number were killed in homicides: 26 in 2001, 33 in 2003, 15 in 2008, 30 in 2010. A few deaths were accidental. Except for 2009 when none died, at least one and as many as nine Alaska children age 14 or younger died in gun deaths each year since 2001, the statistics show.
Alaska's rate of gun deaths varies widely year by year because of its small population, but it is consistently far above the national rate, according to public health statistics.
The state "should not be afraid to have the larger conversation about how do we protect children, schools and society at large," Parnell said.
School security, mental illness and gun use, and the illegal use of weapons are all issues that need to be examined, Parnell said.
Chenault, R-Nikiski, a gun owner whose NRA rating is A-plus, said most of the clamor concerns gun controls that wouldn't have made a difference in Connecticut, such as background checks for weapons bought at gun shows.
Asked about a return to the federal ban on semi-automatic rifles, Chenault said: "Some may call them assault rifles. Some call them semi-automatic guns. I have a few myself." He doesn't use semi-automatics for hunting, he said. He said he just enjoys shooting them and is careful and experienced.
The state should have a deliberate discussion, not a knee-jerk reaction, Chenault said. Criminals will find a way to get guns no matter what laws are passed, he said.
Alaska gun laws have gradually been liberalized over the years, including the 2003 change that allows anyone who can legally own a gun to carry it concealed nearly everywhere with no permit or safety training. Alaska is one of just four states with no permit required. And after some municipalities said they still intended to enforce their own permit requirements, the Legislature in 2005 barred cities from passing gun laws stricter than state law.
State Sen. Hollis French of Anchorage, who will be part of a small five-senator Democratic minority when the Legislature convenes in January, said the tragedy in Connecticut weakens the likelihood gun laws will be further liberalized here. At the same time, the GOP-controlled majority probably won't support tougher laws, he said.
"So the most likely result is that we get a stalemate," said French, whose NRA rating is D.
On Friday, Parnell said, he will join with other governors and calling for a moment of silence in memory of the Newtown tragedy. The bell outside the Capital will ring 27 times, once for each victim.
SIDEBAR: ALASKA'S LIBERAL GUN RULES
By LISA DEMER
Back in 2003, Alaska's Legislature did away with the requirement that Alaskans get a permit and safety training before carrying a concealed handgun. The state still offers permits and the classes for adults 21 and older who can legally possess a gun and want a permit, typically for travel. Thirty-five other states recognize Alaska's permits, according to Alaska State Troopers.
State law prohibits concealed weapons in:
• Someone else's home without their permission;
• Bars (loaded weapons only), except for the owner and authorized employees;
• Schools, unless the school administrator gives permission or it's unloaded in a locked vehicle trunk;
• Child care centers;
• Domestic violence or sexual assault shelters.
Hospitals, universities, gymnasiums and private businesses also can ban guns on their premises. Whether they do so varies. First National Bank of Alaska doesn't allow guns, a spokeswoman said. Fred Meyer stores do.
And the general rules that apply to gun ownership apply to concealed weapons, said troopers Lt. Rex Leath, deputy commander of the Alaska Bureau of Investigation. Felons generally can't own guns. Intoxicated people can't possess a gun.
As of Wednesday, 6,999 Alaskans had valid concealed weapons permits, according to Alaska State Troopers.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER