Juneau high school students and dozens of other Alaskans offered two hours of impassioned testimony Wednesday afternoon on the first gun-control proposal considered by the Alaska Legislature since a mass shooting killed 17 people and injured 14 more at a Florida high school on Valentine’s Day.
House Bill 75, sponsored by Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, does not directly address mass shootings but has nevertheless become the prime vehicle for Alaskans to show support for gun control after the Florida massacre.
“I know that this bill won’t end all gun violence, but I do know that people can make a change,” said Thunder Mountain High School student Talya Johnson to the committee.
“As an American, I should not feel scared to come to school,” said Stella Tallmon, a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas High School. “We need stricter gun laws.”
“If this is a step in the right direction, then I support it,” said Anna Frazier, a junior at TMHS.
Introduced last year, HB 75 allows courts to issue orders temporarily confiscating the firearms of those deemed a danger to themselves or others. The order must be requested by an immediate family member or a police officer. The order can last up to six months.
It’s an idea that has already been signed into law by several other states, including California, Oregon, Washington, Connecticut and Indiana. President Donald Trump appeared to offer comments in support of similar ideas on Wednesday.
“We have to do something about the mentally ill not being able to buy a gun. No. 1, you can take the guns away immediately from people who you can judge mentally ill,” Trump said in a Wednesday conference with U.S. senators. “Now, a lot of people are saying, ‘Oh I shouldn’t be saying that.’ Well, I don’t want mentally ill people to be having guns.”
Many of Wednesday’s testifiers supported HB 75 with similar language, saying they want to keep firearms away from people who may be mentally ill or thinking about suicide.
“Anything that we can do to help people avoid doing things in a state of crisis, in a state of emotion, would be really helpful for the state of Alaska,” said Jayne Andreen of Juneau.
Some lawmakers pushed back against that concept.
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, suggested that if clinically depressed people fear having their firearms seized, even temporarily, they might not seek a diagnosis that could add weight to a courtroom argument.
“That may very well keep people from going to psychiatrists to discuss this sort of thing if they’re going to end up with an order that they’re going to have to sell or give up their guns,” she said.
Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, pressed those who testified by asking whether they believe the issue of guns should be put into the context of larger questions about mental illness. If the state considers taking someone’s firearms, she asked, shouldn’t they also consider taking someone’s vehicle or pills out of their medicine cabinet, given that those might also be used to commit suicide.
“To me, those are sidelines. The guns are what the issue is,” said testifier Luann McVey.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alaska has the highest rate of firearm deaths in the nation. Most of Alaska’s firearms deaths are suicides, and suicide by firearm is far deadlier than suicide using other means.
When TMHS senior Joshua Quinto testified in support of the bill, Reinbold pressed him by asking whether Alaska’s schools would be safer with increased security and metal detectors rather than a bill like HB 75.
“So basically, have you done any research into the effectiveness of metal detectors?” Reinbold asked.
“Actually, yes, I have,” he responded, then discussed a 2015 study that found Transportation Security Agency screeners failed to find more than 95 percent of mock firearms in controlled tests.
“It’s basically just security theater,” Quinto said.
Only two testifiers spoke in opposition to the measure. The most vocal was Bruce Edwards, who said he was from Butte. (It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to the Montana city or the unincorporated town in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.)
“It looks like a conspiracy to me,” he said. “It looks like a bunch of women are calling in with prepared statements.”
He suggested the state merely needs to enforce existing law rather than implement any new law.
“All we’re looking at is a conspiracy to take our guns away,” he said.
No action was taken at Wednesday’s meeting, and the judiciary committee is not scheduled to hear HB 75 again for at least one week.
Even if the bill does advance, it has a long path to become law. It must pass through one more House committee, then pass a vote of the full House, full Senate, and avoid a veto from Gov. Bill Walker.
For his part, the committee’s chairman promised action.
“This bill is not going away. We’re going to have a lot of time to get through these questions (raised by members of the committee),” said that chairman, Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage.
Correction: The original version of this article said Talya Johnson attends Juneau-Douglas High School. She attends Thunder Mountain.
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