HELENA (AP) — 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 U.S. 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.
The two Democrats led a push in 2009 against early Obama administration discussions about reinstating the ban on what it considered to be assault-style weapons.
Tester, who last month just 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 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 compared with 2009 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, however, 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 clear 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 are also taking a cautious approach in their response to the issue following the most recent mass shooting.
Attorney General-elect Tim Fox declined Tuesday 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."