BISMARCK, N.D. - A level playing field on the state and national level is needed in the country's conversation on gun laws, said a leader of a new group advocating for stricter firearms laws.
Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., visited Bismarck on Wednesday promoting additional regulations to curb gun violence.
"We can make our society safer without infringing on our Second Amendment rights," Kelly said.
Kelly and Giffords launched Americans for Responsible Solutions on Jan. 8 . It was formed on the second anniversary of a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., where Giffords was shot in the head. Six people died and 12 people were injured.
The two were in North Dakota as part of a weeklong tour of several states to organize supporters on a state level. Kelly and Giffords also stopped in Fargo on Wednesday.
Kelly said during a Tribune editorial board meeting that the two had spent the morning meeting with supporters and local law enforcement officials.
The group is pushing for legislative support of bills to expand background checks for firearms purchases. Other regulations the group supports are a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity bullet magazines and reining in gun trafficking.
A poll of 600 North Dakota voters conducted by Americans for Responsible Solutions puts 79 percent in favor of background checks for firearms. When split by political party, 93 percent who identified as Democrats favored background checks compared to 75 percent for both Republicans and Independents.
So why there is there such difficulty in accomplishing legislative results? Kelly was asked. He said gun groups such as the National Rifle Association have driven the national discussion largely without opposition.
"The NRA has done an outstanding job on this issue. They've got quite an influence," Kelly said.
On a state level, despite the 79 percent majority of North Dakotans polled, "that 21 percent is incredibly vocal and will vote on the issue," Kelly said.
Americans for Responsible Solutions has signed up roughly 500,000 members since forming and raised more than $11 million from approximately 80,000 donors, Kelly said.
In the 2012 election cycle, the NRA spent $1.5 million in contributions, $5.9 million in lobbying and $19.8 million in outside expenditures.
"I think there needs to be some long-term balance," Kelly said.
He said the group plans to be involved in the 2014 elections and will support like-minded candidates of all political stripes.
"We will support and oppose candidates in the next election ... to effect the change we're after," Kelly said.
In April, the U.S. Senate killed bills that would have expanded background checks, banned assault weapons and put limits on bullet magazines. Both of North Dakota's senators, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican John Hoeven, voted against the legislation.
Kelly admitted that Heitkamp, who won a very close Senate election in 2012, probably is in a tougher position than Hoeven.
"It's a complicated issue for her," Kelly said. He added that if the issue comes back to Congress before the end of the year as expected, "she's got five years to explain it."
Kelly said he understands the process to impact changes on the state and federal level will be long term. He said a large portion of the public is upset and in favor of change.
Kelly pointed to the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting in July 2012, where 12 died and 70 were injured. He also pointed to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December, which prompted the failed gun legislation.
"You can't have 20 second-graders killed in a classroom in less than five minutes and not do anything about it," Kelly said.