On mass shootings, Murkowski leaves a word unspoken

Sen. Lisa Murkowski gave her annual address to the Legislature Thursday. Behind her are state Senate President Pete Kelly, left, and House Speaker Bryce Edgmon. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

In her annual address at the state Capitol, Sen. Lisa Murkowski spoke passionately about the shooting that killed 17 at a Florida high school last week. She called on Congress to take action.

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“We cannot have an escalation of tragedies in this country. So we have to come to grips with things,” Murkowski told legislators. “But the way that you start is not by drawing red lines.”

No issue, she said, should be off-limits in the national discussion about how to stop mass shootings.

Murkowski spoke to legislators on the subject for about nine minutes without saying the word “gun.”

(“Weapon” wasn’t in the address, either, nor any synonym for firearm.)

In much of her speech, she discussed recent accomplishments in Washington, D.C., particularly new opportunities for oil development on Alaska’s federal lands and waters.

Then she turned to the shooting. Murkowski said the political impasse in Congress has to end, as does the tragedy cycle.

“Where we have a tragedy happen, we all express our condolences,” Murkowski said. “We then lock into our political stances and nothing is done until the next tragedy hits. And then we express our outrage all over again.”

Murkowski touched on a number of areas Congress can improve, even mentioning the possibility of an app kids could use to alert adults to a classmate who seems off-kilter.

“Help with the mental health side, help with the assessment, help with the training side, address the clear inadequacies that we have within our background check system,” Murkowski said. “And then deal in some of these other areas where we know we have way too many open doors.”

At a press conference afterward, a reporter asked why she didn’t use the word. She pointed out that she did say “background checks.”

“Background check for what? You have to go through that background check in order to get a gun,” Murkowski said. “I’m using the word ‘gun.’ I’m OK using it.”

One of the loudest calls from the high school students who survived the Florida shooting is to ban the AR-15 and similar semi-automatic rifles of the type that were used in Newtown, in San Bernardino, at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, in a Texas church, in Las Vegas.

At the press conference, Murkowski asserted her support for the Second Amendment and said banning a particular weapon isn’t the answer.

“A weapon can be a gun. a weapon can be a vehicle. a weapon can be a chemical,” Murkowski told reporters. “So I don’t want us to focus on just the weapon.”

Asked whether America has a problem with the accessibility of guns, Murkowski gave a more narrow answer.

“I think the U.S. has a problem with accessibility to guns by people who are mentally ill, yes,” Murkowski said.

(Mental health advocates emphasize that the vast majority of people with mental illness are non-violent, and a 2015 study found people with diagnosed mental illness commit only a small percentage of U.S. gun fatalities.)

State Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, said later that he appreciated Murkowski’s thoughtful discussion. He said he also liked Murkowski’s focus on mental health, though Wool doubts that’s the root cause of America’s problem with mass shootings.

“You know what? It’s an issue in a lot of countries … there’s mental health issues everywhere,” Wool said. “But in this country, it turns into mass gun violence. And I think that’s an important distinction.”

KTOO reporter Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this story from Juneau.