HELENA — Two Montana Democrats who could play a big role in the U.S. Senate's debate on gun control are not immediately closing the door on new restrictions.
But Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester are taking a more cautious approach than some other pro-gun members of Congress who have expressed a willingness to bend on the issue.
Baucus and Tester led a push in 2009 against early Obama administration discussions about reinstating the ban on what it considered assault-style weapons.
Tester, who last month won re-election to a second term, has considerably softened his stance since the Connecticut school shootings. But Baucus, who faces re-election in 2014 and nearly lost a 1996 race after voting for the initial Clinton-era gun control measure, is being far more cautious.
Tester said he is willing to listen to proposals dealing with assault weapons — as long as other issues such as mental health also are addressed.
"As a father and a grandfather and a former teacher, I've prayed for and grieved for the lives lost in Connecticut. As a senator, it is my tremendous responsibility to address the growing issue of violence in America's schools and public places," Tester said. "While we mourn the deaths of innocent children and their educators, we must bring ourselves together for an honest national conversation about every aspect in this terrible attack — from assault weapons to the media's coverage of these events to how we address mental illness."
That is a notable change from a few years ago, when Tester joined Baucus in writing Attorney General Eric Holder and telling the agency "to enforce existing laws before it considers imposing any new restrictions on gun ownership."
Baucus' statement sticks closer to that original message, but softens a bit by not closing the door on a conversation dealing with assault weapons. Baucus also said the focus needs to include other issues.
"This and other recent tragedies have raised serious questions about the culture of violence in our society — questions that deserve careful reflection on everything from access to mental health care to the video games our children play," Baucus said. "As I reflect, I am listening carefully to my bosses in Montana, and it is clear that any national discussion must also take into account the values Montanans expect me to protect."
Baucus' office made it apparent that the senior Democrat supports gun rights and wants to make sure he can hear more on the developing thoughts of Montana constituents before reaching any conclusions.
Montana Republicans also are taking a careful approach in their response to the issue following the most recent mass shooting.
Attorney General-elect Tim Fox on Tuesday declined to directly say whether he thinks a new conversation on gun control is needed. Instead, Fox simply said he will do what he can "to promote the safety of Montana's schools."
Republican Congressman-elect Steve Daines said the debate should wait.
"As a father, I can only begin to imagine the pain that these children's parents are experiencing, and they remain in my prayers," Daines said in a prepared statement. "I support our Second Amendment rights; however, this is not the time for politics or partisanship. This is a time for us to come together and remember those who have been lost, comfort their loved ones, and to work together to support this suffering community."
Only Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a popular Democrat who is leaving office due to term limits, remained strong in his opposition to gun control that he argued wouldn't really solve anything.
"This is evil, and it has everything to do with mental illness and, look, I'm gonna pick on somebody right now," he told the Voices of Montana radio talk show on Tuesday. "How about those video game manufacturers, where an entire generation are glued to a screen for six or eight hours a day while they are poking buttons and blowing other people up and shooting them in the face?"