Chuck Raasch, USA TODAY
Legislative debates over gun rights, up significantly since the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., have spurred alleged death threats resulting in two high-profile arrests and causing lawmakers in one state to declare their legislature was under attack.
"I don't think the general public understands the threats" public officials can get over gun debates," said California state Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, who was the recipient of alleged death threats that resulted in the arrest of a Silicon Valley engineer named Everett Basham. The 45-year-old Basham has been charged with 10 felonies and two misdemeanors and has been denied bail.
Yee is sponsor of legislation in California that would outlaw devices that make it easier to reload rifles.
"I wasn't around when the abortion issue came up," said Yee, who is in his 13th year in the California Legislature. "But in terms of my tenure as an elected official, the gun debate has been the toughest, most gut-wrenching issue out there."
In some places, passions over gun legislation have led to alleged threats or allegations of intimidation.
In Denver, authorities have charged Franklin Sain, 42, a former CFO of Englewood-based SofTec Solutions, with felony attempt to influence a public servant and misdemeanor harassment -- ethnic intimidation, stemming from alleged threatening e-mails and a voice mail Sain sent to state Rep. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora. Fields sponsored legislation that would restrict ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and strengthen background checks.
Fields said that impassioned opponents sent her "hundreds and hundreds" of e-mails within the bounds of political debate. But when she also received messages warning of bloodshed and referring to former U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in 2011, Fields says she turned them over to authorities and asked for, and received, increased security from state and local police. The messages also included racial epithets directed at Fields, who is black, and President Obama.
Sain's lawyer, Siddhartha Rathod, said his client's e-mails were "despicable and disgusting" -- but not criminal.
"Free speech is not easy and is often provocative," Rathod said. "While the public is understandably aghast at the words Mr. Sain used, the Constitution allows people to be racist and sexist in their contacts with government officials in an effort to express their displeasure with them."
Fields, whose son was shot and killed before he was to testify in court against drug dealers eight years ago, disagreed. "Your 1st Amendment right does not include threatening people," she said.
In Wyoming, state legislative leaders earlier this month spent their post-legislative press conference decrying what Senate President Tony Ross, a Republican from Wyoming, said were intimidation tactics by special interests, including gun rights advocates.
"This institution is under attack, and I mean that seriously," Ross said, adding that some legislators or their family members received death threats.
State Sen, Leland Christensen, a Republican, received more than 1,500 e-mails from gun rights advocates after he attempted to amend a bill that would have limited any new federal gun restrictions within Wyoming's borders. Some messages had "fairly rough language" and threats, he said.
Christensen said he was trying to fix a bill he thought was unconstitutional and that gun rights activists misinterpreted him as being soft on 2nd Amendment rights. Christensen said he shut off his home telephone because he did not want his family hearing the messages he was receiving.
Democrat State Rep. James Byrd said he received two threatening voice mail messages that he referred to state police. "I was actually threatened by a woman for the first time" in a separate e-mail, Byrd said. He would not detail the threat and did not report that one but said it was "over the gun issue."
Byrd opposed legislation that would have prevented new federal gun restrictions from being enforced in Wyoming. That bill easily passed the Wyoming House but did not come to a vote in the Senate after Senate leaders said some senators had been unduly pressured or influenced.
Anthony Bouchard, executive director of Wyoming Gun Owners Association, whose website declares "the gun rights revolution starts here," said thin-skinned legislators were crying foul only because they are worried that 2nd Amendment advocates will work against them in coming elections.
"I saw a couple of things (on social media) that looked like they said some off-color words," Bourchard said. "I didn't see any threatening (messages). .. All we did was report what these guys were doing."
Byrd said he has been more cautious about safety since Giffords' shooting. "That was the moment that made me re-evaluate what I do from a political security standpoint," he said. "...I'm more aware. Definitely."