WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble is the proud owner of an assortment of guns, including an 1896 12-gauge shotgun he inherited from his grandfather. Ribble also is a member of the National Rifle Association.
But as the debate over gun control has reignited in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre, Ribble says serious consideration must be given to proposals to keep guns out of the hands of those who would harm others.
“The tragedy in Newtown brought the issue of mass violence in America front and center and prompted the start of an important national dialogue about how to prevent these horrific acts from occurring,” Ribble said. “As the dialogue shifts into action, it’s important that the focus remains on keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous citizens, not all citizens.”
With lawmakers in Washington about to consider gun control legislation — Sen. Dianne Feinstein already has introduced a bill to ban assault weapons — the Gannett Washington Bureau and USA TODAY attempted to ascertain the level of gun ownership in Congress.
On Monday, President Barack Obama was in Minneapolis pushing his proposal that would require criminal background checks for all gun sales, including private sales; banning so-called assault weapons; and limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
Gun control efforts face a steep climb politically in the face of a powerful pro-gun lobby, a strong U.S. tradition of hunting and gun ownership, and Americans’ constitutional right to bear arms.
The Gannett-USA TODAY survey asked members if they owned guns and, if so, what type. Wisconsin lawmakers were asked additionally whether they were members of the NRA, the nation’s largest gun lobby.
Of the 310 members of the House and Senate who answered the survey, 165 said they were gun owners, or 53 percent.
Some members of Congress were more forthcoming than others in their responses. Forty-seven members responded but declined to give answers. The rest chose to ignore the undertaking.
Ribble, R-Sherwood, was one of five members of the 10-member Wisconsin congressional delegation who acknowledged owning at least one gun. The others were Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison; Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse; Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac; and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville.
Ribble, Kind and Ryan also said they are members of the NRA, which claims to have more than 4.6 million members nationwide.
Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, said they were not gun owners. An aide to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said he declined to answer the survey question “for security reasons.”
Both Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who was elected in November to succeed Tammy Baldwin, and Sean Duffy, R-Weston, declined to respond.
Baldwin owns a single handgun. Petri owns a .22-caliber rifle he inherited from his father. Ribble, Kind and Ryan are hunters and sportsmen who own a variety of firearms.
While Ryan’s office would not provide details of his arsenal, a Washington Times story last October provided details based on an interview with Ryan’s brother-in-law. According to the report, Ryan, the Republican 2012 vice presidential candidate, owns a Remington Model 700 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and two handguns.
Ryan, an avid hunter who also uses a bow, bought his 10-year-old daughter, Liza, a Remington .243 youth rifle for Christmas in 2011, which she used to bag her first deer on a hunting trip with her dad in November.
Ribble’s gun collection includes a newer model 12-gauge shotgun that he uses for sporting clay competitions, two .22-caliber rifles he has had since he was a teenager, one commemorative Colt .45 and a 1944 M1 Garande World War II rifle.
Josh Sugarman, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which advocates for gun control, said he was not surprised by the number of members of Congress who are gun owners. He said survey data shows one-third of Americans are gun owners.
But Sugarman said he was encouraged by a downward trend in gun ownership. He cited General Social Survey data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago that found a 40 percent drop in gun ownership from 1977 to 2010.
“We would hope anyone, whether a member of Congress or a constituent, would recognize the heightened risk they place themselves and their families in when they bring a gun into the home,” Sugarman said.
“There’s an education process taking place both on Capitol Hill and across the country on a wide range of gun control issues,” Sugarman said.
Wisconsin’s gun-owning members said they are ready to participate in the dialogue in an effort to prevent more tragedies like the one in Newtown, where 20 children were among the 26 people killed.
“As a gun owner myself, I strongly support the Second Amendment and believe that it is entirely consistent with prudent gun safety measures,” Baldwin said. “We now need to work across party lines to treat those with mental illness, provide services for victims of domestic violence, and prevent gun violence in our communities.”
Ribble expressed similar sentiments.
“Reading through the president’s proposal, I found areas where we can work to find agreement,” Ribble said. “It was encouraging to see improved mental health services as a key part of the plan. I also support strengthening and improving the background check process.”
— Larry Bivins: 202-906-8105 or firstname.lastname@example.org