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Top Dem's push for immediate gun control met with skepticism

PHOENIX — With two mass shootings fresh on people’s minds, the top state House Democrat wants a special session to debate — and presumably enact — a series of gun control measures.

Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, is pulling out all of the proposals that the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to debate, much less consider, in the past five years. These range from universal background checks and bans on military-style assault rifles to limits on high-capacity magazines and making it a crime for adults to leave weapons where children can get them.

She told Capitol Media Services that the mass shootings this past weekend in El Paso and Dayton may finally provide enough impetus for lawmakers to consider these measures.

But the idea of calling all 90 lawmakers back to the Capitol in the wake of the incidents is not picking up any immediate support of Republican legislative leaders.

In fact, House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, lashed out at Fernandez for even bringing up the subject.

“I find it disturbing that she will use a tragedy for political purposes,” he said.

Reaction from other Republicans was more measured.

Senate President Karen Fann said she has not had the opportunity to speak with her members since the incidents.

“When everyone returns from summer obligations, we will be meeting to discuss a number of items for next session,” she said. Finding common ground, Fann said, could be difficult.

“This is a very charged issue,” she said. “I’m sure we will have many ideas with polar opposites on how to fix it.’”

But Fann said that finding a “good bipartisan solution” will depend on first “identifying where the problems actually lie.”

And House Speaker Rusty Bowers saw no purpose in calling in lawmakers, at least at this point.

“Without a clear idea of what we hope to pass, I have doubts that the Legislature can accomplish anything meaningful if we convene a special session,” he said. Instead, Bowers wants to develop what he called “pragmatic policy proposals that will protect our friends and families from violence, including gun violence.”

More to the point, the speaker said these have to be ideas “that can actually receive the support needed to pass out of the Legislature.”

Even Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, who is Fernandez’s counterpart in the Senate, questioned the wisdom of convening a special session before there is a plan that can get the necessary 16 votes in the Senate and 31 in the House, as well as the signature of Gov. Doug Ducey.

“The key would be the governor saying this is the No. 1 priority of his and convening the leadership of both sides to hammer something out,” Bradley said, before a session can be called.

As for the governor, press aide Patrick Ptak said his boss is “willing to work with legislators from both parties” and is “hopeful both sides can come together to advance common-sense policies that will make a meaningful impact.”

But no call for a special session, at least for now. And when Ducey came out with his own school safety plan in 2018 he specifically excluded the universal background checks that the Democrats want, a move they say will close a “loophole” in the law that allows people to buy weapons at gun shows without having to pass the same background investigation required if they bought a weapon from a licensed dealer.

Fernandez, however, said she believes that the state’s demographics have changed since the days when the GOP majority first began rejecting any gun-control legislation out of hand.

That’s not just an ethnic or racial thing, she said.

“I’m talking about women that are coming to the polls,” Fernandez said. “They’re challenging the status quo of the way men have been doing thing at the state Legislature.”

That, she said, is reflected in the fact that Democrats picked up four House seats in the 2018 election, reducing the GOP edge to 31-29. And yet she said that Bowers, fearful of Democrat ideas picking up the occasional Republican vote, has populated the committees that hear the bills — the pathway to a full House vote — by stacking several committees to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The Judiciary Committee, for example, is 6-4 Republican. And there is no requirement for an even number of members on that panel through which most gun legislation would need to pass.

And the Appropriations Committee is stacked even more, at 7-4.

She believes that if the Democrat bills made it to the floor that there is the public sentiment — and the votes — for at least some of them to become law, especially given the headlines.

“If you really want to hear what’s changed, it’s these mass shootings,” Fernandez said.

“I mean, you hear about them every day,” she continued. “We hear about a mass shooting, we go to bed and wake up the next morning and there’s another one.”

And Fernandez said these are not partisan issues.

“This is about our kids, this is about our schools, this is about the places we worship, this is about movie theaters and restaurants,” she said. “This has got to stop.”

Fernandez said she and Democrats are behind the idea of allowing judges to take away weapons from people found to be a danger to themselves or others.

The idea, first proposed by Ducey in 2018, made it through the Senate, but only after lawmakers jettisoned some provisions to make it acceptable to the National Rifle Association. Even at that point it could not get a hearing in the House amid concerns about personal rights.

There was no bill introduced this year.

“We’re not infringing on anybody’s rights,” Fernandez said. “But, by golly, if you own a gun and you’ve already threatened someone, then I think that gun should be turned in.”

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Helping the hungry

SIERRA VISTA — Every first and second Tuesday of the month, people start lining up bright and early at the Salvation Army Community Center of Sierra Vista for a food distribution program.

Teams of volunteers are on hand to help with the distribution, which runs from 8 to 10 a.m.

Designed to help individuals, families and seniors who fall within specific federal poverty guidelines, the local commodities distribution is overseen by the Community Food Bank of Arizona and organized by the Salvation Army, with assistance from community volunteers.

After recognizing a need to reach residents in the Hereford/Palominas area, the Salvation Army started assisting with a distribution out of Country Estates Southern Baptist Church the first Tuesday of the month from 8 to 10 a.m.

“Today, we gave out more than 300 food boxes in two hours between the two locations,” said Salvation Army Captain Carlos Souza. “This would not be possible without the amazing community volunteers who help our distribution run smoothly.”

Mary Mueller, who has been volunteering with the commodities distribution since December, also serves as a Salvation Army bell ringer during the holidays.

“I have also been helping with the Produce on Wheels Without Waste, (POWWOW), for about four years now,” she said. “I find it rewarding to help people in our community who need the food and subsidies that we provide. When I found out about the Salvation Army’s work, I wanted to help with that distribution program as well.”

Through her volunteerism, Mueller said she recognized there is a hidden poor in the community.

“You really see it when you’re out there helping with the bell ringing and food distributions,” she said.

Funding source

The commodities distribution program is made possible through federal USDA funds, in partnership with the Department of Economic Security and Feeding America, said Brandi Smith of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Smith, who is the commodities distribution program manager for five counties, spoke of how the distribution numbers for seniors has increased since forming the partnership with the Salvation Army.

“In November, we distributed to about 125 clients in the senior program, and in July that number climbed to 200 seniors,” she said. “The senior program serves a very vulnerable population, so I’m glad more seniors are applying for assistance and receiving it.”

There is an application process for those who are experiencing an emergency food need, or find themselves needing emergency food assistance. In Sierra Vista, applications can be obtained at the Salvation Army, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Families and individuals who fall below the federal poverty guidelines can apply for assistance and receive food, Smith said.

“When you go to these distributions and see those who are there for assistance and you see how thankful they are, you realize how much need there is for so many people. Many have jobs, but just fall short. The food we provide helps them get through the month, and knowing that these programs are helping so many people is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.”

Souza agrees.

With future goals of expanding food distributions to other underserved areas, Souza said Salvation Army recently ordered a refrigerated truck to help make that a possibility.

“Thanks to the truck, we hope to bring produce and other perishable food items to other areas,” he said. “That’s down the road, though. For now, we’re very happy about the number of people we’ve been able to reach and are grateful to all our volunteers who make these programs possible.”