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Court Strikes Down Gun Rule

June 27, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Jim Fotis is executive director of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a voluntary organization claiming to represent 50,000 rank and file officers. He’s also a former police officer, himself, in Lindbrook, New York. Hubert Williams is president of the Police Foundation, a private, non-profit research organization. He’s also the former police chief of Newark, New Jersey. Joining them are the chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Republican Bill McCollum of Florida, who opposed enactment of the Brady law, and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, one of the law’s original sponsors.

Jim Fotis, what do you think will be the impact of this bill now? How is local law enforcement going to react–excuse me–of this ruling.

JIM FOTIS, Law Enforcement Alliance: Well, I think many of your small departments and most people don’t realize that police departments throughout the United States are very small, possibly under 20 people in most of the departments, and what’s going to happen is some of them are going to continue doing background checks. But what we have to look at is the future, as–as Mr. Farnsworth said–

MARGARET WARNER: Taylor.

JIM FOTIS: Excuse me, Taylor–that we have to look at the future. And we have to find–there are 28 states that have some kind of background check now. We have to fund the instant check for the other 22 states, so that law enforcement can get online, not use up their reserves of manpower to sit and look through hand records or sometimes have to call throughout the United States. I think it’s great that the law was struck down as it stands right now. Now we have to move forward and force the administration to fund the second part of the Brady law, the instant check.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But just to understand this clearly, how many localities do you think will react as the plaintiff, Sheriff Mack and the other plaintiff have said they would, which is they’re just going to stop doing the background checks, period?

JIM FOTIS: Some of them may. And the fact of the matter is they don’t have to do them, and–

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

JIM FOTIS: –and they are not liable under that. And most of these small departments have people coming in. I was speaking to a chief of police there from Des Moines, Iowa. And what he said is, you know, I have to go out and check farmers that have never had a felony; I know these people, but I have to do these background checks on them. Most of these small localities, they know who their people are, they know who the bad ones are, and they know all the good ones.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think local law enforcement will react, Hubert Williams?

HUBERT WILLIAMS, Police Foundation: Well, there’s an organization called the Law Enforcement Steering Committee in America that fought hard for the Brady bill, hundreds of us marched to Capitol Hill, worked for seven years to get it passed.

We think it’s a mistake. It’s a problem that the Supreme Court eliminated this provision, nevertheless, the law still remains viable, and it still remains a strong law. It provides for a police chief a waiting period, which we fought for, and police chiefs can use that waiting period to check up backgrounds, individuals applying for licenses under the–every licensed federal firearms dealer will still be required to fill out background check forms, will be required under the Brady law to send those forms to the chief of police, and the chief of police has a five-day period to respond. I think that–

MARGARET WARNER: But he’s no longer required to?

HUBERT WILLIAMS: He’s no longer obligated to respond, and–other than in the 27 states that have state laws now.

MARGARET WARNER: And explain that just a little. In 27–you were saying 28 states, Mr. Fotis–there are separate, stronger state laws that already either–they have the instant check, or they require this themselves, is that right?

HUBERT WILLIAMS: Well, the new impact, in effect, of the law will be that people will be able to go into jurisdictions that are not covered by state law, acquire firearms, and move them into states that are covered by it. So you have now a greater potential for transport of firearms from weak gun control states into strong gun control states. With the federal legislation it was a nationwide law. We lose that now.

MARGARET WARNER: How concerned are you, Mr. Fotis, that that might happen; that in localities, for whatever reason, the law enforcement officers say, I just can’t handle it, that you’re going to have just what Mr. Williams described?

JIM FOTIS: The last three years the Brady law cost us somewhere around $200 million. We have had seven prosecutions and three convictions. There’s another statement out that we’ve had twelve prosecutions and four convictions. It’s not going to make any difference. Let’s take that $200 million, give it to law enforcement, give them the ability to do their job. You’re not going to have–

MARGARET WARNER: No, but what I’m asking is, is there going to be now a weak spot in the chain, because there’s going to be a difference in different states? That’s what Mr. Williams was saying.

JIM FOTIS: I don’t believe there will be. I think that we will make up for it, especially if we do the funding of the instant check.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get the Congressman in on this. Congressman McCollum, what impact do you see in this interim period before the nationwide instant check goes in?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM, (R) Florida: I think this is going to be very minimum impact in any way, shape, or form first of all because, as has been stated, the 27 states either have more restrictive provisions that have a longer waiting period and are exempt from the Brady Bill, or they have the instant check, and in the period of time we’re talking about the FBI says to us, and Louie Freeh told us, the director, just three weeks ago in testimony that as of November 1998, just 18 months from now, the instant check system will be fully implemented, they’re ready to do it, everything’s on go, there are no itches or glitches in it, and we’re going to have the gun dealers calling in and doing it without having to worry about this.

I also want to note that back in 1991, 1992, and 1993, in the House bill, there never was a requirement that the sheriffs or local law enforcement actually go out and do this kind of check, even though we had the five-day waiting period in the Brady bill because I think everybody involved, including Mr. Schumer, knew that it was highly improbable that this was constitutional to require this. It was only because the Senate chose to put it in the bill over on that side of the Congress that this ever became part of the law and from the Conference Committee.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask Congressman Schumer to weigh in on this. Now, what impact do you think it’s going to have? Are you as–I won’t characterize your colleague’s reaction–but–

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER, (D) New York: Well, mine is somewhat different. I do agree that the vast majority of law enforcement officials will continue to enforce the Brady law. They realize that it’s good law enforcement. And while Mr. Fotis represents a small group of pro-NRA police, the major police organizations throughout America, much more represented by the police chief, the FOP, the NAPO, all of them have supported the Brady bill and will continue to strongly, but, unfortunately, even if you got 1 percent of the jurisdictions not enforcing the law, as you said before, there is a weak link.

And let’s say some sheriff in South Carolina County refuses to enforce the law. You could have gun runners, go buy hundreds of guns at a time in his jurisdiction, transport them up to New York or Buffalo, or Washington, or Philadelphia, and seldom illegally. And the reason we’ve needed a national law is very simple; it may be that in the sheriff on the show in Arizona they don’t have a huge crime problem, but we’re one nation, and this is where the Supreme Court decision was wrong. And if you don’t have enforcement uniformly across the country, then you’re not going to have any Brady law at all. In my city, New York City, 90 percent–over 90 percent–of the guns used in crimes are sold by dealers out of state, 65 percent from states with weak gun laws like Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and the two Carolinas.

MARGARET WARNER: So Congressman Schumer, what are Brady law supporters like yourself and Congress going to do about that, if anything?

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Well, there are many ways to fix the law. A very simple one would be to say that a federal gun dealer cannot sell a gun to anyone unless a background check is done. That would clearly be constitutional because that’s federal jurisdiction. These federal gun dealers have a federal license, which I don’t even think Justice Scalia would say is unconstitutional.

And if the local sheriff won’t do a background check, the gun dealer would have two choices: one, to find a sheriff in another jurisdiction who would do the background check for him, or go out of business. But that is so important. Two large cities, metropolitan areas, suburbs out in New York City in Nassau and Westchester, places like that, that we’re willing to do that because otherwise the gun runners go to these small little jurisdictions, where the sheriff says he’s overburdened, and cascades of guns come into our large cities from those areas.

MARGARET WARNER: And so briefly, are you saying you are going to introduce legislation to do that?

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: If we find that a significant number of the sheriffs will not enforce the law, the two gentlemen who did the law were sort of NRA puppets, but if you’re finding a lot of shares not due to law, yes, we will have to bring in–we will have to pass new legislation.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman McCollum, yes.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: You have to pass it. In fact, I don’t think we will pass it because you’re talking about 18 months from now all of the Brady bill becomes moot. We do have a national instant check that covers not just 27 states but all 50 states at that point. And if you were to withhold money, for example, from the burn grants to the states unless they did this, or whatever, you have no state legislatures. They’ve already met. There’s no way we could enforce this until September, September of 1998, and that would be two months or sixty days before the Brady bill goes out the window anyway because they have a national instant check system. So it’s a tempest in a teapot check on all four–getting these checks done on those who are convicted felons, but it’s going to happen.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Bill, you know and I know that the insta-check provisions was put in by the NRA as a smokescreen.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: It’s not a smokescreen. It’s going to work.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Well, let me just finish.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: The FBI and everybody says it is.

MARGARET WARNER: Let him finish.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Okay. The bottom line is that to have the insta-check system work, the entire criminal justice records of all 50 states and all the thousands and tens of thousands of localities has to be computerized. Very few states are up to that, and by 19–

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: But we–

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Let me finish, Bill. By 1998, only a few will have all their records computerized, despite the efforts of the federal government, because by this decision, by what the NRA and you think, we can’t force the states to do this. We can give–

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: Well–

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Wait. Let me finish.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: So, here’s what the law requires. The law that was the insta-check provision, which the NRA with Sen. Dole in the lead, pushed into the bill, says even if the insta-check isn’t ready, they get their guns. So, in other words, if the state of Alabama has not gone on insta-check, has not computerized its record, then the felon, or anybody else, can buy the gun in that state.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman–

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: So the system is a smokescreen.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s let Congressman McCollum back in here now. Go ahead, Congressman.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: The FBI has told us that this is all going well and that all the states’ records are going to be up to speed at least as well to check the names, which is all you can check now. You don’t have fingerprints on file to check like this in most instances, but that’s all they’re checking now is the names and the background and the addresses; that’s all going to be up to speed by November of 1998. We’ve had twice–we’ve had hearings this year in which they’ve asserted that fact, and I believe them.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Bill–

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: And that’s what’s happening–

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman, let me get the two police–let me get the two police officers or former officers back in on this. How confident are you, Mr. Williams, that this insta-check system is going to be ready in all the states?

HUBERT WILLIAMS: Not at all. I’m definitely not confident and I don’t think anybody else is either. Congressman McCollum just said that it will not even be fingerprint identification. If the state systems are not computerized, and they provide information upon which the FBI is going to use to determine whether or not an individual has a background that’s prohibited how in the world can we rely on a system of that nature. What all the–

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: There are 27 states, Hubert, that already have the system, or the 11 instant check states that already have them in place, because this is going to comply with those 11 states, and they’re exempt already anyway.

REP. CHARLES SCHUMER: Could I answer that? The problem is–

MARGARET WARNER: Actually gentlemen, I’m afraid–I’m afraid we have to leave it there, and I’m terribly sorry. Thank you all very much.