July 14, 1999
Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat who supported legislation to expand the three-day waiting period to all gun purchases, comes to terms with his pro-gun congressional district.
KWAME HOLMAN: Like many members of Congress, Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak spent part of the Independence Day recess holding town meetings in his home district. Regular get-togethers with constituents are routine business for most elected officials. But for Stupak, they take extra effort.
REP. BART STUPAK, (D) Michigan: This is, I think it's my 13th or 14th town hall meeting this year already.
KWAME HOLMAN: Some 580,000 people live in Michigan's 1st Congressional District, but they're not easy to get to. Stupak's constituents are flung sparsely over the 23,000 square miles that comprise all of Michigan's upper peninsula and part of the lower. Marquette -- with a population of 21,000 -- is the district's largest city. And in the farthest reaches of the district along Lake Superior the towns of Ontonagon and Wakefield are home to only a few thousand. But that's the area Congressman Stupak chose to hold his holiday town meetings. His mission was to set the record straight about gun shows and background checks.
REP. BART STUPAK: We're talking about gun shows. We're talking about should the background check, whether you buy it at K-Mart or a gun show, be the same. Most people say yes. When you start talking guns in this district, it's a very emotional issue, and, if you don't adequately explain your position, people just going think you're going to take your guns.
|Left to explain himself|
KWAME HOLMAN: Northern Michigan is a sporting paradise. It's thick with forests - lakes - and wildlife. Here hunters shoot for sport as often as they shoot for food. Guns are a vital part of the local economy and culture. But just a few weeks ago back in Washington, Stupak took a position many viewed as anti-gun during an emotional House debate on guns and violence. He voted in favor of a new, three-day waiting period for the purchase of guns at gun shows. Stupak's vote drew the attention of the New York Times and USA Today. The National Rifle Association had lobbied him repeatedly to support a shorter waiting period. Stupak - a hunter and NRA member himself -- knew his position might not be popular with some constituents.
REP. BART STUPAK: With so many gun owners and hunters in my district the last vote and this vote are very tough votes for me politically. But you know this is the right vote.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, Stupak's wasn't the winning position. Supporters of the three-day waiting period fell just a few votes short. And Stupak was left to explain himself back home.
DOROTHY PHILLIPS: I really hate to see talk about, you know, more gun control, and licensing and everything. To penalize the honest person that enjoys guns for sport and recreation -- I just don't think that's right.
KWAME HOLMAN: Dorothy Phillips owns the River Pines RV Park in Ontonagon. She's lived here for 35 years and is a hunter herself.
DOROTHY PHILLIPS: I haven't gone deer hunting for about 15 years. But I do love to hunt rough grouse and geese. There's nothing like the call of the wild geese - and try to sneak up on one of them.
KWAME HOLMAN: Phillips says she doesn't think Congressman Stupak was trying to take guns away from hunters. But she found the debate on the floor of the House so confusing it was hard to tell.
DOROTHY PHILLIPS: And this is one of the problems with many of our politicians --when they come up with these bills, they make them so complicated that if you don't hear every debate or read the papers every day, it's really hard to understand what it is they're trying to get across or keep from getting across.
KWAME HOLMAN: So Dorothy Phillips and 25 or so of her neighbors went to the town hall meeting in Ontonagon to hear from Stupak himself. The Congressman spoke deliberately and tried to explain the issue simply.
REP. BART STUPAK: Right now, the instant check system you have up to seventy-two hours or three business days to allow a background check. And the argument was: Shouldthat seventy-two hours or three days be extended to gun shows, which it was not extended to gun shows, and I thought it should be. The competing interest said no -- gun shows if you do an instant background check and there's a question, you have only 24 hours - 24 hours to do your background check. The problem with the 24 hours is most guns shows are on weekends, and if it's a Saturday and if there's a question that comes up about an individual's background, you have to wait till the courthouse opens up, which is usually Monday. That's why it was always 72 hours to begin with. So if you go 24 hours, you'd never get it within that period of time.
KWAME HOLMAN: For some in the room, however, it still came down to an issue of gun control.
GERALD LIGHT: I strongly believe in the right of gun ownership. In fact, I believe in the right to carry a concealed weapon. Somehow you got an indication that people in the country or across the country want more gun control. Now, I'd be interested in a show of hands in this group right here as to how many people do not want more gun control.
|Gun control vs. background checks|
REP. BART STUPAK: In this district, if you say gun control, everyone is against if. If you say should we have background checks before you purchase a gun, in this district, most people would favor that. A show of hands, how many people think we should have background checks at gun shows? How many think we shouldn't? Very few. And that's about what I'm seeing.
RANDY SCHOBER: This is a very nice gun here. This is a Rugar 30 --
KWAME HOLMAN: Randy Schober owns the Wilderness Supply Store in Ontonagon. He has available all of the sporting equipment necessary to enjoy outdoor life on the upper peninsula, including guns.
RANDY SCHOBER: This is another Rugar.
KWAME HOLMAN: Schober says he sympathizes the concern expressed by many of his hunting customers.
RANDY SCHOBER: The majority of them view that as you don't want to part with anything that you already have. They get a little worried too - you know -- that they may lose a right of theirs that was given to us a couple hundred ago.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Schober agrees with Congressman Stupak that the three-day waiting period should be applied to all gun purchases. The state of Michigan adopted it for handguns long before the Brady bill made it a national requirement.
RANDY SCHOBER: There were two situations that I ran into in the last fifteen years where the husband came into the store and I knew their marriage was on the rocks. I had a strong belief that their marriage was on the rocks and he was inquiring about purchasing a handgun, and he wanted to know what needed to be done and when I told him that he had to go to the sheriff's department to get a permit to purchase a handgun, the deal was cancelled.
KWAME HOLMAN: For his next town hall meeting Bart Stupak had to drive another 50 miles West through the rain and, in a sense, back through time. Wakefield, Michigan, is a town that relies heavily on attracting tourists to its ski resorts in winter, lakeside resorts in summer, and hunting grounds year round. But residents who came out for the town meeting at the VFW Hall seemed more interested in the long-awaited awards ceremony than in Congressman Stupak's gun votes. Wakefield Veteran Rudy Brownell received several medals for distinguished service during the Korean War, but never one for injuries he suffered when a landmine exploded.
REP. BART STUPAK: But of all the medals you can see that Corporal Brownell has, he never got his Purple Heart.
KWAME HOLMAN: Stupak's office heard about the oversight and rectified it - 46 years later.
REP. BART STUPAK: It really is an honor to do this. Corporal, congratulations. And -- if I may -- there you go. It's now complete for all your years of service. Thank you again.
KWAME HOLMAN: What followed were questions to the Congressman about Medicare, veterans' benefits, military base closings, even cable TV rates, but only one about Stupak's votes to restrict gun sales at gun shows.
BONELLO: Recently, you voted on that bill regarding guns, and I thought
I knew a little bit about it - kept pretty well track of it -- but there
was an editorial
REP. BART STUPAK: If the law would have said we're going to take away your gun, as they have in the past, I voted against it. If I thought they were going to put some kind of control on your rights, I would have voted against it. But I didn't see it. And I'll admit the NRA was not happy with that vote.
KWAME HOLMAN: Many of Stupak's constituents got mailings from the NRA alerting them to the votes on gun show legislation and how it might affect them, and even though the NRA's position carried, Wakefield's Mike Rydeski, an NRA member himself, said he's concerned gun control proponents in Congress are gaining momentum.
MIKE RYDESKI: It might be a domino effect to the point where gun control is really going to be gun control, and I don't know how much of that we can stand.
REP. BART STUPAK: They don't trust government when it comes to guns and I understand that. And I hope that by now they have enough faith in me that they know I'm not going to take their guns.
KWAME HOLMAN: Rydeski and Stupak talked about gun control for several minutes after most had left the town hall meeting. Rydeski said he's now undecided whether he'll vote for Stupak in the next election. Stupak understands his votes on the gun show issue could hurt him.
REP. BART STUPAK: No doubt. I am concerned about it. The NRA is a very powerful organization. It has a very good grassroots lobbying effort, and when you go up against the NRA, you usually end up paying for it politically.
KWAME HOLMAN: For now, the NRA says it hasn't decided whether it will target or support Stupak when he goes hunting for votes next year.