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President Obama Declares Gun Control Will Be a ‘Central Issue’ of Second Term

December 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The White House stepped up its response to Sandy Hook by planning to give Congress recommendations on preventing mass shootings, from mental health services to gun control laws. Gwen Ifill talks to Gov. Pat Quinn, D-Ill., who is pushing for statewide bans in Illinois on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines.
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GWEN IFILL: The school shootings that shook the nation sparked a new call to action at the White House today. The president vowed to have proposals ready for the new Congress that convenes next month.

Somber scenes of mourning played out once again today in Newtown, Conn., while, in Washington, President Obama walked into the White House Briefing Room named for James Brady, the press secretary critically wounded in the shooting of President Reagan in 1981, to talk about gun violence.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing.

GWEN IFILL: Instead, in the wake of the massacre at Sandy HookElementary School, Mr. Obama said, this time, the words need to lead to action on gun violence.

BARACK OBAMA: The vast majority of responsible law-abiding gun owners would be some of the first to say that we should be able to keep an irresponsible law-breaking few from buying a weapon of war.

I’m willing to bet that they don’t think that using a gun and using common sense are incompatible ideas.

There is a big chunk of space between what the Second Amendment means and having no rules at all.

GWEN IFILL: To that end, the president announced Vice President Biden and an administration team will craft recommendations on everything from gun laws to mental health to be sent to Congress by January.

BARACK OBAMA: This is not some Washington commission. This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issues for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside. This is a team that has a very specific task, to pull together real reforms right now.

GWEN IFILL: The president bristled at a suggestion that he took little action on gun control during his first term. But he acknowledged the Sandy Hook massacre has been a wakeup call for all Americans.

He said the public could agree to reinstate a ban on assault-style weapons and close a loophole that allows private sales at gun shows without a background check. House Democrats gathered on Capitol Hill also urged a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

California Congressman Mike Thompson:

REP. MIKE THOMPSON, D-Calif.: I have been a hunter all my life, and there’s no reason to have a magazine that holds 30 shells. Why do you need 30 shells in a magazine? It’s an assault magazine. That’s all it can be.

Call it what it is, an assault magazine. And we don’t have any reason to assault anyone in our communities, in our neighborhoods.

GWEN IFILL: Far from the political debate, in Newtown, the day’s six funerals included a service for 27-year-old teacher Victoria Soto, who died trying to shield students from gunfire. And principle Dawn Hochsprung was laid to rest this afternoon.

Services were also held for two 7-year-olds, Daniel Barden and Chase Kowalski, and two 6-year-olds, Charlotte Bacon and Caroline Previdi.

But there were signs that the weight of crushing media coverage is wearing on the town, even as revulsion over the killings reverberates through the business world.

A private equity firm said this week it would sell its stake in the company that makes the semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting. And Wal-Mart removed a Web site listing for a similar model. Dick’s Sporting Goods also suspended sales of all modern sporting rifles indefinitely.

Some reaction now to the president’s remarks at a moment when governors and lawmakers are considering whether to pass new laws on their own.

Pat Quinn is the governor of Illinois and a Democrat. He’s pushing for a statewide ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. The State Senate recently rejected his bill.

We invited several Republican governors as well, but they declined our offer for tonight.

Gov. Quinn, two days before the Connecticut shootings, the court of appeals in Chicago knocked down your effort to make Illinois the one state which doesn’t allow concealed carry, people to privately conceal guns and firearms that they carry. That was a setback for you. Does this change anything?

GOV. PAT QUINN, D-Ill.: Well, number one, what the federal government said that is Illinois’ law, which today doesn’t allow for concealed carry — that means a loaded weapon concealed on a person and allowed to be taken to a public place — we have a law against that now, and the federal appellate court said we have to change our law.

The court did say we can have reasonable limitations on — whether it’s called conceal carry — and we will be debating that over the next six months. That’s the time limit we have.

It’s ironic that decision came only a couple of days before the events in Connecticut, where we saw high-capacity ammunition magazines connected to an assault weapon killing innocent children and their heroic teachers trying to save their lives.

So that’s something that in Illinois we need to abandon any ability of ordinary people to have assault weapons. Those are military weapons, and we want to ban them and ban these high-capacity ammunition magazines.

And I see the president’s call for us to work on this issue as something we in Illinois, his home state, we want to take to heart and show the whole nation that we can do this.

And so we’re planning to work on this pronto and hopefully get action on it as quickly as possible.

GWEN IFILL: The president actually specifically — I know you heard today — made a point about both of those issues, not only assault weapons, but also about high-capacity ammunition clips.

PAT QUINN: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that should be a federal role or a state role to control those kinds of firearms?

PAT QUINN: Ideally, we should have a federal law, similar to what was passed in 1994 by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other members of Congress. That was a federal ban on assault weapons. It expired in 2004. I think that was regrettable. We need to extend it nationwide.

But I think in order to build the momentum — and I can really feel the momentum of everyday people banding together in the best traditions of democracy to have the voice of the people heard.

And I think the people of our country, and definitely of our state, want these assault weapons, these deadly assault weapons, military weapons, banned from any kind of civilian use. And also these high-capacity ammunition magazines that go with those weapons that were used in places like Aurora, Colorado, and in Connecticut, we need to ban those as well.

And they aren’t for hunting or anything like that or sport shooting. They’re really designed to kill people. And we have got to protect the public safety.

GWEN IFILL: You’re governor of a state that has urban areas, that has rural areas. The president today mentioned that, since last Friday, there have been gun incidents in Memphis, in Topeka, in Las Vegas, and in Alabama, other places, widely different.

And there’s been an outcry about what happened in Newtown, a small exurban area. Do you think the argument is different in an urban area than it is in a rural area?

PAT QUINN: When it comes to protecting children, we’re all in this together, Gwen.

Our state is the most diverse state in the union. We best reflect the population of the United States of America right in Illinois. We’re the heart of the heartland. We’re very diverse.

But I think we need to show the nation that a group of people committed to the common good can come together and pass a law that’s necessary for the public safety.

Whether you’re in a rural area, or suburban or urban area, we all have children. We all — those of who are parents understand how precious life is. We had a great poet from Illinois, Carl Sandburg, who once said, “the birth of a baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

So, it’s high time we protect our children, protect our babies from the harm of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

GWEN IFILL: Do you have any sense that public opinion is shifting in your state?

PAT QUINN: Oh, I believe so. I don’t think there’s any question now.

Anecdotally, just visiting with the people on the street — and I was at a day care center today, an early childhood center. And you can tell how committed moms and dads are to getting a law passed to protect their children. No matter where you live in America, children come first.

The great thing about our country is that parents sacrifice some of their present in order to help their kids’ future.

Well, the number one public safety measure for children in America today is to ban assault weapons. They have been used to cause great harm. Never again. And we also have to deal with these high-capacity ammunition magazines that go with them.

We can do this. We’re Americans and it’s high time that the people be heard.

GWEN IFILL: But if the public — if the public opinion is changing, anecdotally, from what you observed, why is it that gun sales have gone up so markedly in the days since this last shooting?

PAT QUINN: Well, I think it’s, obviously, an issue where some people who want to have these particular weapons have run out to buy them.

I think that just should be an alarm bell to all of us that we must prohibit the sale and possession in the future of assault weapons, as well as high-capacity ammunition magazines. This law that was passed in 1994, that unfortunately expired in 2004, here we are in the 21st century.

Let’s get it done in the best traditions of Abraham Lincoln’s democracy. Abraham Lincoln believed in government of the people. I think a strong majority of people in our country, definitely our state, favor this reform law, and it’s time we got to get it done for the people.

GWEN IFILL: But I guess what I’m asking, finally, is why — how do you know there won’t be backlash to this sort of new — these sort of new controls?

PAT QUINN: There’s always going to be some that don’t favor a reform, don’t favor any kind of step forward in public safety, and they maybe make, in my opinion, specious arguments against that.

But I think the overwhelming majority of American citizens, after what we saw last Friday, and I think all of us saw in America the good people coming together to say, enough is enough.

It’s time that we take action, that we be heard, not just an interest group, but, rather, the common good represented by the great majority of Americans.

We have done this before in our country’s history. We have changed laws that were needed to be changed, and it’s high time to do it now.

GWEN IFILL: Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, thanks for joining us.

PAT QUINN: Thank you.