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Why one lifelong hunter is leading the charge for stricter gun control

Why one lifelong hunter is leading the charge for stricter gun control
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) speaks to reporters at a House Democratic Caucus press conference. Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) looks on. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s the photo of a 6-year-old smiling broadly in his Little League uniform that sticks with Mike Thompson as he pushes Congress to consider tougher gun control laws.

The Napa Valley Democrat was sitting in a Yolo Pass duck blind in 2012 when he learned of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

"My phone started buzzing and I opened it and read the horrific news that all these little children and these teachers had been murdered," he said. "They kept showing that picture of one little boy in a Little League uniform, you know, and he looks like Little League kids that live down the street from me, and Little League kids that I played Little League with when I was growing up."

The lifelong hunter quickly became the leader of House Democrats' efforts to expand background checks, keep people on the FBI's watch lists from being able to buy guns and a host of other changes to the nation's gun laws.

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Efforts that at first seemed possible failed in the Senate after Newtown, but Democrats haven't given up. And now, after the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history in Orlando, Fla., Thompson and Democrats are renewing the call to action.

Four years after it was broadcast for the first time, the image of Jack Pinto in his Little League uniform and the 19 other children murdered that day flash in the congressman's mind.

"I just couldn't imagine sending one of my kids off to school in the morning and have them not come home because some deranged killer came into the school and murdered them," Thompson said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "I don't want to minimize lives, but it wasn't two hoodlums shooting at each other, it wasn't accidentally a gun went off and hurt someone. This was just one of the cruelest acts that I could possibly imagine."

Thompson came home from hunting that December day, cleaned up, and then called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

"There's nobody in our caucus that knows any more about guns than I do," Thompson said he told her. He asked to be at the table.

"My family hunted, I grew up in a community that hunted, I've always hunted," Thompson says now. "Folks at home know that I know guns, that I respect guns, that I support the 2nd Amendment. They know that I'm not going to throw them under the bus."

Thompson wanted the newly formed new Gun Violence Task Force to reflect the diversity of opinions on guns within the Democratic Party. He also wanted to include members who had had a mass shooting in their district, like Reps. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), or had been shot themselves, like Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

Thompson is a hunter.
Thompson is a hunter. (Mike Thompson)

After a crash course on gun terminology for members and staff, the task force brought in experts from the gun industry and safety groups. They compiled policy principles, a legislative wish list that includes reinstating the national assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, more money for community policing efforts, and increased prosecution of felons and other prohibited buyers when they attempt to buy a gun.

The first piece of legislation, sponsored by Thompson and Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) requires background checks through a licensed dealer on all commercial gun sales, including those at gun shows, over the Internet or through classified ads. It exempts sales between family and friends.

Leaders in the GOP-controlled House referred the measure to two committees more than a year ago, and no hearing has been scheduled.

Thompson and others bring up items from the wish list every few months, or after a mass shooting propels the topic back into the public eye.

Thompson pushed for mental health records to be part of gun background checks through the Promoting Healthy Minds for Safer Communities Act of 2014 after a man killed six people and wounded 14 others in Isla Vista, Calif.

Thompson has been an avid duck hunter since he was a child.
Thompson has been an avid duck hunter since he was a child. (Mike Thompson)

Democrats tried to force a vote on whether people on the FBI's watch list should be able to purchase guns after a man killed three people and injured nine others in a Colorado Springs, Colo., Planned Parenthood location. That floor action happened Dec. 2, just as Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands) first learned of the shooting in his hometown of San Bernardino.

Since then, Democrats have pushed the issue more than a dozen times, including Tuesday.

Thompson said he's optimistic that with public opinion on his side Congress can get something passed, this time.

"The American people are getting fed up," he said. "They want their members of Congress to help keep their communities safe."

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) questioned efforts to pass new gun laws instead of focusing on terrorism given the Orlando shooter pledged allegiance to Islamic State that night.

"The first line of defense against an armed terrorist is an armed American," McClintock said. "Yet the Democrats seek to make it harder for Americans to arm themselves while increasing the threat posed by mass immigration from those countries where Islamist ideology is rampant."

After a 15-hour filibuster by Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and other Democrats on Wednesday night, Senate Republicans scheduled votes on adding the watch list and background check proposals. They are expected to fail on the Senate floor Monday afternoon.

Thompson said he understands that for many Americans, owning and using a gun is a way of life.

He was fixated on guns as a child. He'd gaze, captivated, at the gun rack in his father's office, until one day his father took him shooting in hopes it would break him of the infatuation.

On a dirt road about a mile from the house, Thompson pressed the deer rifle's stock against his tiny shoulder — his father had to help him — and he squeezed the trigger for the first time.

"It made a roar and the report of the rifle was loud and it kicked me good," Thompson recalled with a laugh. "I said, 'Can I do it again?'"

He's been hooked since, spending summers as a child hunting ducks along the river, bringing his shotgun with him to the grocery store or school. He carves his own duck decoys, and in 2013 donated a pair to the Smithsonian Museum.

The National Rifle Assn. in 2010 gave Thompson a C grade, higher than the average for most Democrats, but the Vietnam veteran’s NRA ranking has dropped to a D-minus since he has championed gun control in the years since Newtown.

Thompson points out that California's gun laws are already much stricter than Congress is considering. State lawmakers are poised to pass a dozen new restrictions following the shooting in Orlando.

He said gun owners risk having laws written without their input if they refuse to be part of the conversation.

"It's a way of life in a lot of places, but that doesn't mean you can't be responsible and I don't care where it's a way of life, the people there certainly don't want criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to get guns. People there don't want people on the terrorist watch list to have guns," he said. "We need the responsible gun owners to be with us on this to make good laws."

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Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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UPDATES:

11:12 a.m.: This article was updated to include Thompson's NRA ranking.

This article was originally published at 9 a.m.

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