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Gun-shy to debate?

Area reps tight-lipped about specific gun control measures

Stephen Klein, an associate professor of communications at Augustana College, said "there is no upside" for lawmakers like U.S. Reps. Cheri Bustos (left) and Adam Kinzinger (right) to make any kind of specific statement on gun control.
Stephen Klein, an associate professor of communications at Augustana College, said "there is no upside" for lawmakers like U.S. Reps. Cheri Bustos (left) and Adam Kinzinger (right) to make any kind of specific statement on gun control.

STERLING – U.S. Reps. Cheri Bustos and Adam Kinzinger are of different parties, but they have something in common: They avoid specific questions about guns.

For weeks, Sauk Valley Media has unsuccessfully sought to interview Bustos, a Moline Democrat, and Kinzinger, a Manteno Republican, about the points raised by President Barack Obama in his recent proposal to curb gun violence.

Obama pushed for background checks on all gun purchases, a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban, and a limit on ammunition magazines to 10 or fewer rounds, among other things.

The congressional staffs did not make the representatives available for an interview about the issue. Instead, they issued emailed statements from the representatives in response to questions.

Stephen Klien, an associate professor of communications at Augustana College, offered an explanation for the apparent hesitation to discuss the issue.

“Politically speaking, there is no upside for the legislators to making any kind of specific statement [on gun control],” said Klien, who specializes in political rhetoric and communications.

In response to a request for an interview on his position on gun control, Kinzinger issued this email:

“There is no easy answer to how we prevent future tragedies from occurring, but we must be willing to take a comprehensive look at all factors that influence violence in our society, including mental health and community awareness.”

He does not support “laws that would infringe on law-abiding citizens’ constitutional right to own and possess a gun,” the email said.

“In the weeks and months ahead, I welcome an open dialogue among elected officials, community leaders and the American public that addresses these elements and finds solutions to bring about stronger, safer communities.”

In an email seeking a “yes” or “no” response to five points outlined by Obama in his initial plan to reduce gun violence, both representatives said they would not give answers until specific legislation was put forth.

Klien said Kinzinger’s vague statement was hard to disagree with.

“Who could possibly be opposed to open dialogue on an important issue?” Klien said. “The tricky part comes in nailing down specifics on policy that is controversial.”

In her emailed statement, Bustos said she is a “strong supporter of Second Amendment rights.”

“Everyone agrees that preventing gun violence is a priority, especially following the tragedies in places like Newtown,” she wrote. “I continue to hope that Congress will come together in a bipartisan fashion to pass a comprehensive, common sense bill that achieves this goal.”

Like Kinzinger, Bustos did not touch on specifics or offer proposals on how to eliminate violence, other than to say dialogue is necessary.

That’s intentional, Klien said.

“There’s no reason to get voters within your constituent groups upset with you,” Klien said. “So there’s no political upside to taking a stand on gun control at this point.”

Legislators will offer a particular opinion when there is a piece of legislation to vote on, but even then the way they present their opinion will be “cagey,” he said.

The more specific a public official’s position, the more opportunity there is for people to disagree, Klien said.

Over the past three decades, a “significant majority” of Americans have supported increased gun control measures, Klien said. He said national polls show that number to be between 50 percent and 70 percent.

“The level of support drops precipitously when you ask gun owners, which is a relatively small minority of the population, but it’s a population that is very invested in Second Amendment rights.”

Such constituents are much more likely to talk to state and federal representatives, he said.

“The legislators know that there’s nothing to gain and everything to risk by taking any kind of stance that would support any kind of regulation that’s gun-related,” he said.

The best way to have a conversation about the topic with Bustos and Kinzinger is face to face, constituent to representative, in public venues, Klien said. It may be easy to avoid a reporter’s questions, but avoiding constituents is much harder, he said.

Bustos represents the 17th Congressional District, which includes all of Whiteside County. Kinzinger represents the 16th Congressional District, which includes all of Lee County.

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