JUNEAU — U.S. Rep. Don Young said Thursday that he supports arming teachers, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski urged patience and cooperation in response to the nation's latest school shooting.
Young, R-Alaska, in a sharp exchange with one of his Democratic challengers at a Juneau conference of municipal officials, said guns aren't the problem. Instead, he pointed to mental illness and people's exposure to "violence beyond anyone's imagination" in video games.
"Up until 40 years ago, kids brought to school every day: guns. They didn't shoot anybody. Something's happened," he said. "It is easy to blame an object — why don't we look at the mental concept and the family structure?"
In his back-and-forth with the Democrat, Dimitri Shein, Young stressed his opposition to gun control measures such as banning AR-15 rifles. And he asked how many Jews were "put into the ovens" during the Holocaust because they were unarmed, repeating a theory often put forth by gun control critics like National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre.
"Everybody knows where I stand and why I believe it," Young said.
Blocks away, at the state Capitol, Murkowski, R-Alaska, was telling lawmakers that there are "no easy answers for these acts of violence."
In her annual speech to the Legislature, followed by a question-and-answer session with lawmakers, Murkowski addressed school shootings for 10 minutes without using the word "gun." She told reporters later that she wants to avoid pitting gun control supporters and opponents against each other.
"All of this needs to be discussed. But if we put ourselves in a situation where it's the NRA versus the rest of the world, have we really gotten to the root of what we're dealing with?" she said.
Young's and Murkowski's responses came a week after a school shooting in Florida in which 17 people were killed. And they underscore the raw emotions involved in the country's debate over mass shootings, as well as Congress's inability to agree on how to respond.
Since 26 people were killed in a 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been more than 200 school shootings. But over that five-year span, gun control measures have stalled in Congress.
Alaska lawmakers have typically opposed tighter restrictions on guns, and both Murkowski and Young have received "A" ratings from the NRA. Alaska, where many residents hunt to help feed their families, has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the nation, at about 60 percent, according to multiple studies.
It also has the highest rate of gun deaths, according to federal data.
The shooting in Florida has sent ripples across the country. Students at Anchorage high schools this week staged walkouts and rallies in response.
State troopers also said they detained an 12-year-old student from the Kenai Peninsula town of Ninilchik this week after he said he was going to bring a gun to school.
And last week, Anchorage police visited the home of a student at Romig Middle School after other students overheard a lunchtime conversation and thought they heard something about "shooting up Romig," according to a police account of the subsequent investigation. The student told police that he was actually talking about the Florida shooting and never made any threats.
Shein has a daughter at Romig, and he provoked Young's comments at the conference Thursday by asking, during a question-and-answer session, what government officials can do "to stop the massacre of children in our schools."
Shein's campaign provided video of the exchange to the Anchorage Daily News.
In a subsequent interview, he called the idea of arming teachers "completely crazy," suggesting that it would also be costly.
"Right now, we don't have enough money to buy teachers pencils," he said.
One measure Shein would favor, he said, would be to create a special permitting system for weapons like AR-15s, which he said would force gun owners to "demonstrate a degree of responsibility." And Shein said he's frustrated with the polarized debate over mass shootings.
"Responsible gun owners and people having their children massacred can compromise," he said. "We need to have less people who are so entrenched in their position."
Alyse Galvin, an independent candidate running for Young's seat, also said she opposes giving guns to teachers, citing comments she's heard from teachers and retired teachers this week during a campaign trip on the Kenai Peninsula.
"They do not want to leave that conversation without telling me how ridiculous it is," she said in a phone interview.
Galvin said she supports "expanding mental health services" and closing the "gun show loophole." That loophole allows some guns to be sold — including at gun shows — without background checks on buyers.
Murkowski, meanwhile, said that there's "no simple fix" to mass shootings, which she called a "multi-multi-headed issue."
Asked if the U.S. has a problem with the accessibility of guns, however, she responded: "I think the U.S. has a problem with the accessibility of guns by those who are mentally ill, yes, absolutely."
Murkowski expressed skepticism about a ban on AR-15s, and she asked whether one would stop a mentally ill person from "finding another weapon that can be equally destructive."
But she said she's interested in improving systems to allow people to report "signals" that could precede mass shootings, like an app that allows anonymous tips. And she cited bipartisan legislation she's co-sponsored to enhance a federal background check system.
Neither Young nor Sen. Dan Sullivan, the third member of Alaska's congressional delegation, has signed on to that bill, which has versions in both the U.S. Senate and House.
Sullivan was on a military-focused congressional trip to Asia this week. Asked about Sullivan's reaction to the Florida shooting, spokesman Matt Shuckerow pointed to an interview the senator did Sunday with Fox News.
In the interview, Sullivan said he doesn't believe that mass shootings stem from people "legally owning a firearm."
"It's who owns it, and how do we keep firearms away from people who are, for example, mentally disturbed?" he said.
He didn't point to any specific legislation or steps to accomplish that goal, and neither did Shuckerow. But like Young, Sullivan added in the interview that another problem is the "coarsening of our culture" and the "promotion of violence."
"It rarely gets talked about — you can almost be ridiculed for talking about violent video games," Sullivan said. "But I think these are broader cultures that promote violence and harden our view of life, and I think that those are also important issues to be looking at as we want to make sure our kids are safe in school."