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As Congress Returns to Tackle Guns, States Around the Nation Work on New Laws

April 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers in Congress and at the state level are grappling with how to approach and pass new gun legislation. For the latest from Capitol Hill and state capitals, Gwen Ifill talks with Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post, Arkansas State Rep. Charles Collins and Vinny DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence.
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GWEN IFILL: In the wake of a rush to action in state capitals around the country, the gun debate could reach critical mass in Washington this week. But it’s still unclear how it will sort itself out.

Stepping up his push for new federal gun legislation, President Obama took his argument today to Hartford, Connecticut, not far from the site of December’s Newtown shootings, where 26 people were killed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And, Newtown, we want you to know that we’re here with you. We will not walk away from the promises we have made.

We are as determined as ever to do what must be done. In fact, I’m here to ask you to help me show that we can get it done.

GWEN IFILL: Congress returned to Washington today facing contentious debate on measures that would include tougher penalties for gun trafficking and more money for school safety — already off the table, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Instead, much of the behind-the-scenes negotiation has focused on whether gun buyers should be subject to background checks and whether those sales must be recorded. But everyone is not on board. At least 13 Republican lawmakers led by Senator Rand Paul are threatening to stop any new law that would diminish citizens’ right to self-defense.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid complained about the filibuster threat today.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: Many Senate Republicans seem afraid to even engage in this debate. Shame on them, Madam President. The least Republicans owe the parents of these 20 little babies who were murdered at Sandy Hook is a thoughtful debate about whether stronger laws could have saved their little girls and boys. The least Republicans owe them is a vote.

GWEN IFILL: Behind the scenes, Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin are working to forge a bipartisan deal on background checks, but that deal has proven elusive.

Yesterday, former Congressman Asa Hutchinson, who authored a school safety proposal for the NRA, repeated a point other lawmakers have made.

ASA HUTCHINSON, Former Undersecretary for Homeland Security: Even if you had all your universal background checks, bad guys are going to get guns. And it’s not going to solve the problem in the schools. And it’s not going to diminish the need for greater security in the schools.

GWEN IFILL: The president’s trip to Connecticut comes four days after the state enacted some of the strictest new gun control measures in the country. Colorado, New York, and Maryland have also recently passed tough new restrictions on gun ownership.

But other states, including Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, have enacted or are considering bills aimed at loosening rules on gun possession. The argument has spilled over on to the airwaves. In Connecticut, one ad featured parents who lost children at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.

WOMAN: Don’t let the memory of Newtown fade without doing something real.

GWEN IFILL: Eleven of those relatives will bring their push for gun control to Capitol Hill tomorrow. They will travel to Washington with President Obama aboard Air Force One tonight.

Now for more on what is happening on Capitol Hill and in state capitals as well, we turn to Ed O’Keefe, who has been following the gun control debate for The Washington Post, Arkansas State Rep. Charles Collins, who sponsored legislation in Little Rock that allows gun owners to carry their weapons to church, and Vinny DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, who helped win passage of that state’s sweeping new gun control law.

Ed O’Keefe, what is the status on the prospect of compromise on federal gun legislation as things stand tonight?

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: Well, as you mentioned, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are, as their aides put it, talking. They’re talking about the possibility of some kind of a compromise that would essentially exempt, let’s say, family members from exchanging weapons or perhaps selling them to each other, and also maybe make some limited exceptions for people who are hunting together.

Let’s say, somebody’s weapon breaks down and they need to borrow one from somebody else. But, beyond that, there would essentially be requirements that all other gun purchases undergo a background check. And the big sticking point at this point remains also whether or not records would be kept of all sales. Democrats want that to happen to help law enforce also in the event that a weapon is used in a crime.

Republicans say that’s the start of a national gun registry or something similar to it, and it would infringe on Second Amendment rights. The bill, the underlying bill of all this was essentially unveiled today by Harry Reid up on Capitol Hill, who, as you noted, complained quite strongly about the Republican objections.

We have learned tonight that his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would also join that filibuster if the current Democratic bill were brought the floor. That’s an important distinction. His aides aren’t saying whether or not he would oppose any new bipartisan language that comes forth, but if the current Democratic bill is brought forth, he would stand in its way and join that big filibuster.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s take a closer look at what’s happening on this — with these arguments outside of the nation’s capital.

Let’s go to Arkansas, where Rep. Charles Collins — tell me about what in your bill would protect the rights either of gun owners or of citizens.

STATE REP. CHARLIE COLLINS, R-Ark.: Well, thank you.

First of all, it’s great to be here.

And, in Arkansas, we have passed a couple major bills. The legislation I sponsored has to do with allowing professors and other staff members at colleges and universities who have a concealed carry permit to carry on the college campus where they work.

There has been another bill, as you mentioned, passed in Arkansas which would allow churches to identify individuals — obviously, they have to have a conceal carry license — would could carry in the church. I will tell you that the key thing about the college campus legislation, Gwen, is the reality in America is we have got a problem.

And that is loved ones being killed in places like college campuses and schoolyards. And I believe one of the reasons is because crazy killers know those are gun-free zones and there’s a concentration of innocent folks.

GWEN IFILL: Has that happened in Arkansas? Are there examples where this has actually happened?

CHARLIE COLLINS: Yes.

We have had an incident at the University of Fayetteville about 10 years ago. We had an incident at UCA two or three years ago. Those are both college incidents. And in Jonesboro many years ago, we had an elementary school with many people killed.

GWEN IFILL: Let me talk to Vinny DeMarco now about what happened in Maryland, because nationally this assault weapons ban seems to be a dead letter, but not in Maryland.

VINNY DEMARCO, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: What has happened? What’s different?

VINNY DEMARCO: Under the leader of Gov. O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Brown, we did ban assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines, which have no place in our society.

But, more importantly, Gwen, we passed a landmark law requiring that handgun purchasers get a fingerprint-based background check and a license from the police before getting a handgun. Experts from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research let the legislature know that states that have those laws have lower gun deaths because those laws deter people from buying guns for criminals.

What happens — and the police call these straw purchases. Someone with a clean background without a criminal background goes into a gun store and buys a gun for a criminal. And that’s a major way guns get into the hands of criminals. States that have these laws don’t have those straw purchasers and have fewer gun deaths. So, we’re going to save lives in Maryland with our new law.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Collins, should there be a federal role in this, or is this something that should be happening only on the state level, this argument?

CHARLIE COLLINS: Well, I think the argument can happen in both places.

Frankly, I’m not in favor of new restrictions on our gun rights, certainly not coming from Washington, D.C. And, frankly, in Arkansas, I think most of us believe there are plenty of laws. We just need to make sure we enforce them. As I said, Gwen, I think helping to solve this problem or making progress against this problem is doing things that deter crazy killers from going to places where we have a got a lot of innocents who can’t defend themselves.

GWEN IFILL: You used the term crazy killers twice now. And you and others like you have said that mental illness is something that needs to be addressed as part of the solution here.

As part of this package of gun legislation in Arkansas, was there anything that spoke to that issue?

CHARLIE COLLINS: Yes.

One of the things that we’re working in passing through the Arkansas legislature is better cross-sharing of data, so that if somebody has a mental issue adjudicated in a court, that when the background checks that are run happen, that information will be part of the check so we can avoid that person being approved for a gun.

GWEN IFILL: Vinny DeMarco, can Maryland be a national model?

VINNY DEMARCO: Maryland is a national model.

Well, first of all, the law that we passed in Maryland did include tighter provisions on making sure people with mental health issues don’t get guns. And that’s very important. But the key reason there are day-to-day shootings in Maryland and across the country is because of guns getting from a gun store to a criminal through a straw purchaser or another way.

And the best tool a state can use is a fingerprint-based licensing. The five states that have that already have lower gun death rates. And in one state, Missouri, they repealed a fingerprint-based licensing law, and their gun deaths went up, while deaths were going down elsewhere.

GWEN IFILL: Did this debate change in Maryland because of what happened in Newtown at all? Did it pick up velocity?

VINNY DEMARCO: Newtown changed the whole country. Newtown changed the debate everywhere and gave momentum to pass laws in Maryland that are going to save lives.

GWEN IFILL: Rep. Collins, how about in Arkansas? Did that come up in the conversation there?

CHARLIE COLLINS: Obviously, the tragedy at Newtown, our hearts continue to go out for all those parents.

But, as you know, several years ago, we had a tragedy in Blacksburg. And there were dozens of people killed there. So, this is a problem that continues to crop up periodically. We get these atrocious situations. And stopping them is certainly something that we want to do here.

GWEN IFILL: Ed O’Keefe, as you look at all of these legislation efforts that are going on in the state level, are there more that are loosening gun restrictions or expanding — or expanding gun restrictions?

ED O’KEEFE: Well, there are certainly — in total, roughly, since Newtown, there’s a group out in San Francisco that’s been tallying this up. We live in a big country, 50 states.

State legislators have introduced 1,300 different proposals to either strengthen or weaken the gun laws. At this point, it looks as if there has been more to strengthen gun laws, but in many states those proposals have been rejected. You talked about Arkansas there. That’s a great example of a state that actually loosened the restrictions a bit.

You go to somewhere like South Dakota, for example. They passed what they call a school sentinel program that now allows qualified school employees, if they go through some training, to carry a weapon with them on a school property.

But then the flip side, of course, is Maryland, Connecticut, New York, and potentially at some point soon California. All of them and — and Colorado, we should include — all of them have proposed restrictions on the size of ammunition clips. California may go so far as to ban any semiautomatic rifle that can take a detachable part, any, so a complete ban on assault weapons.

GWEN IFILL: And …

ED O’KEEFE: And that issue out there is potentially complicating the federal debate for a lot of California lawmakers who want to be able to vote on something like that here in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: Ed, tonight, the president is in Connecticut, not far from Newtown.

These members of these Newtown families will be on Air Force One coming to Washington to lobby here. We heard Senate Majority Leader Reid today say 90 percent of people are favor in background checks. We heard that from the podium at the White House. And obviously the president is playing kind of an outside game, getting public opinion on his side. What is the public opinion here?

ED O’KEEFE: In general, they would like to see something done.

Washington Post, Pew and others have done polling that suggests that, yes, nine in 10 Americans support an expanded background check program. There is support for gun trafficking, making that a federal crime for the first time. And certainly in line to some extent with what the NRA is proposing, there is support to bolster school security programs, either by providing money or just simply having states and cities vote on making security at those areas more — more — well, making it stronger.

What I think remains to be seen, though, is whether or not the Senate really takes that into account. We have the guest from Arkansas. Mark Pryor, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, is a great example of the kind of guy who is really stuck at the moment. His party certainly wants to make changes, but he faces a reelection next year. And he’s one of several conservative Democrats who face a real challenge in trying to find a way to either support this or reject it and explain why they did that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Ed, we will be watching your reporting on that.

Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post, Charles Collins, Republican of Arkansas, and Vinny DeMarco of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, thank you all very much.

VINNY DEMARCO: Thank you very much.

CHARLIE COLLINS: Thank you.

ED O’KEEFE: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You can watch President Obama’s Newtown speech in full on our YouTube page.