President Obama Begins Campaign to Push for Gun Control

February 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama visited Minneapolis to launch a push for tighter gun control. Gwen Ifill talks to Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey and Bruce Hartman, sheriff of Gilpin County, Colo., about the differences of gun cultures in rural and urban settings and protecting citizens from crime while protecting their rights.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama made another foray outside Washington today, this time with a call to stop gun violence. It was part of a campaign-style effort designed to goad Congress into action.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We don’t have to agree on everything to agree it’s time to do something.

GWEN IFILL: The president took that message to Minneapolis, a city that’s already imposed stricter background checks on gun buyers. The White House plan calls for those checks, a renewed ban on assault-style weapons and limits on high-capacity magazines for ammunition.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it’s important, if you decide it’s important, if parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, hunters and sportsmen, Americans of every background stand up and say, this time, it’s got to be different.

GWEN IFILL: The Obama administration has been working to build on public outrage sparked by the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead.

Echoes of that crime were still in the air last night at the Super Bowl, where the Sandy Hook Elementary School chorus sang “America the Beautiful” before kickoff.

And a Super Bowl ad paid for by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun control group financed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, appealed for background checks for gun buyers. It featured a child narrator and video of National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre from 1999.

WOMAN: The NRA once supported background checks.

WAYNE LAPIERRE, National Rifle Association: We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show, no loopholes anywhere for anyone.

GWEN IFILL: The 30-second spot aired on the CBS affiliate that serves Washington, D.C., but LaPierre repeated yesterday the NRA no longer supports universal checks.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: It’s a fraud to call it universal. It’s never going to be universal. The criminals aren’t going to comply with it. They could care less.

GWEN IFILL: LaPierre also insisted most Americans will not buy the president’s push for new gun laws.

WAYNE LAPIERRE: They don’t want more laws imposed on what is only going to be the law-abiding. And they see that how little all this has to do with keeping our kids safe and how much it has to do with a decade — or two-decade-long agenda to just drug out the same old gun ban proposals they have been trying for 20 or 30 years and piggyback them on to this tragedy.

GWEN IFILL: For his part, President Obama said today his ideas are commonsense reforms, not punitive action aimed at gun owners.

In a recent interview, he even said he shoots skeet at Camp David. After skeptics questioned that claim, the White House released a photo over the weekend of him from last August doing just that. The president is expected to visit other cities in the weeks ahead, pressing Congress to act, and soon.

The gun violence debate shifts depending on where you sit, even if you are in law enforcement. Our guests are one example. Charles Ramsey is police commissioner of Philadelphia, the nation’s fourth largest police department. And Bruce Hartman is sheriff in the rural community of Gilpin County, Colo., the second smallest county in the state.

Welcome to you both.

We heard at the top of that taped piece the president say, We don’t have to agree on everything, but we need to agree that it’s time to do something.

So, let me start with you, Sheriff Hartman. What does doing something mean to you?

SHERIFF BRUCE HARTMAN, Gilpin County, Colo.: Well, my concern is that all the players aren’t invited to the table. We all recognize, these tragedies, we need to do something to try and prevent them. And that is a common goal.

But mental health issues seems to be an underlying problem, and that hasn’t been addressed, to the best of my knowledge.

GWEN IFILL: Commissioner Ramsey, what does doing something mean to you?

CHARLES RAMSEY, Commissioner, Philadelphia Police Department: Well, actually, let me just say that I agree with what the sheriff just said. Mental health is a big part of this issue. It has been discussed, at least at the meetings that I have attended.

But status quo isn’t acceptable. I mean, I certainly support what the president is trying to do as it relates to the assault weapons and magazine clips and universal background checks, which I still don’t understand why anyone would object to universal background checks.

But, you know, we need to also tighten some of these laws or at least start to enforce them. I mean, you know, we have got people now that get caught with guns and very little happens to them. There needs to be very, very stiff sentences for people caught carrying guns illegally. Straw purchasers need to be dealt with very, very harshly.

We need to really, strictly enforce laws that we have, in addition to some of the new initiatives.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk to Sheriff Hartman about that because it’s impossible for us to solve the problem here tonight. But let’s look at the background checks issue, where there seems to be some agreement, at least in Washington.

Out where you are, is that something which is feasible?

BRUCE HARTMAN: Yes, it is.

And we have provisions in our state law for background checks at gun shows. I concur with the chief. I believe the ultimate goal is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, but …

GWEN IFILL: What about — I was just going to ask you, what about things like a 10-round limit on magazines?

BRUCE HARTMAN: I think that’s something that could bear discussion.

But somebody that trains well can change a magazine in a matter of fractions of seconds. I don’t know if that addresses the entire problem.

GWEN IFILL: Commissioner Ramsey, the president talked again today about an assault weapons ban. Is that something that you think is doable? Is that something that the president should be focusing on, or on more minor — minor — minor moves, I suppose?

CHARLES RAMSEY: Well, I mean, is it doable? Certainly, anything is doable, but there are an awful lot of them out there now.

And I think the bill that Sen. Feinstein just recently introduced grandfathers in all the existing assault type of weapons, so it will be a while before you see any impact. And a majority of homicides that we have — at least here in Philadelphia and from chiefs around the country that I have spoken to — predominantly handguns, semiautomatic handguns, .9-millimeter being the one that we recover most often.

So there has to be a combination of things. There is no one thing that can be done that’s going to have an impact. The bottom line is, we need decent laws, reasonable laws in place, maybe inconvenient to some folks that have to, you know, go through background checks, even with private sales, but it’s something that we have to do to make sure that the guns are not falling into the wrong hands, reporting a gun lost or stolen, to me, another reasonable thing that I believe would definitely help us in law enforcement, and then really going after the people that are out here committing crime, using a handgun, using assault weapons.

It doesn’t matter what they use. Once they’re caught and once they’re convicted, they need serious jail time.

GWEN IFILL: Sheriff Hartman, we started this conversation by saying things are very different in rural jurisdictions than they are in urban. What kinds of needs do you have in order — that are different from what Commissioner Ramsey is talking about?

BRUCE HARTMAN: Well, in the rural part of the country, we expect that people may have a firearm in their car if we stop them. That’s part of the culture and the way things are in rural America. That doesn’t make them criminal, by any means.

But that is one of the differences, I suspect, in the major metropolitan areas if you do a traffic contact and there’s a firearm in the car, that that is a significant factor to the officer.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this, Sheriff. Does a federal law or a federal enforcement, does it help make your job easier or harder?

BRUCE HARTMAN: That’s a mixed bag.

There are some restrictions. The Printz Bill, which — or Printz case which went to the United States Supreme Court in relation to the original Brady amendment, found that local law enforcement is not obligated or cannot be compelled to enforce federal law. So there are some legal things that need to be considered all across the board.

GWEN IFILL: Commissioner Ramsey, would you like to see more or less federal involvement?

CHARLES RAMSEY: Well, I mean, I think it has to be a balance. You don’t want to take away too much from the states. At the same time, if you don’t have some federal laws in place, then once they can relatively strict laws, the surrounding states don’t, and so you don’t really accomplish a whole lot.

I think one of the things that the sheriff mentioned earlier — and I agree wholeheartedly with — I mean, you have got to hear from everything. Everybody. It is a big difference between policing in a rural jurisdiction vs. an urban area like I have. And so we need to take all these things into consideration.

There has got to be a solution to this problem that we have. You know, people keep saying more guns, more guns, more guns, but, you know, there’s a young man from Virginia Tech who was shot four times during that particular incident. And he said something the other day that I thought really — it certainly got to me, and that is that if more guns made us safer, we ought to be the safest country on the planet.

But we’re not. So we have got to be able to sit down and figure something out. But all voices need to be heard. Everybody needs to be able to give a little bit, and then let’s see what we can come with up.

GWEN IFILL: Assuming that you both agree that the idea is to get guns out of the hands of the criminals — let me start with you, Sheriff Hartman — what can you — what else can you agree about with the commissioner that you can imagine helping you do your jobs?

BRUCE HARTMAN: Well, there’s a multitude of things.

The concern that I believe a lot of the sheriffs in this country have, in our attempt to take care of this problem we have, the rights of some of the citizens could get trampled on. The vast majority of assault weapons — and I’m not sure what that is — I have never heard a good definition — there’s tens of thousands in the hands of private citizens that aren’t used for crime.

And so I think a sweeping “you can’t own this or possess that” isn’t the answer.

GWEN IFILL: Commissioner Ramsey?

CHARLES RAMSEY: Well, I think you have to talk about things like this.

You know, the president put forth a package. There’s going to be a lot of negotiation to take place in Congress. And everyone voice’s needs to be heard. And there needs to be something reasonable that comes out of this. If it’s background checks, if it’s limiting certain types of, you know, magazines or weapons, which, quite frankly, if you limit one kind of weapon, a manufacturer just figures a way to kind of get around it — The real key is getting the hands — getting guns out of the hands of the wrong people, whether they’re mentally ill, whether they’re just flat-out criminals, whatever the situation might be.

Now, the question is, how do we best do that and still protect the rights of American people to own a gun if they want to own a gun? But I think there’s got to be something here that we can really work on that’s meaningful. But it can’t just be status quo. You can’t — we just can’t say no to everything. We have got to do something, or we’re going to be dealing with the Newtowns and Columbines and Auroras over and over and over again. It’s not going to fix itself.

GWEN IFILL: Commissioner Charles Ramsey of Philadelphia and Sheriff Bruce Hartman of Gilpin County, Colorado, thank you both so much.