October 17, 2018

Guest Column: Guns, commonsense and Vermont’s example

By Sen. Patrick Leahy

Editor’s note: Sen. Leahy delivered this address on the U.S. Senate floor April 12.

Yesterday, Vermont set an example for the Congress. A Democratically controlled Legislature and a Republican governor, in a rural state with a strong gun owning tradition and few gun laws, worked together to debate, forge and enact meaningful, commonsense gun safety laws.

Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed into law three bills that expand background checks, raise the age to purchase guns to 21, create extreme risk protection orders and ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.

Vermont did that, and others states are also acting. Why can’t Congress do its job and follow this example?

In Vermont, this was a debate about what the people of the Green Mountain State could do to keep their communities, schools and citizens safe. Difficult conversations were had, and difficult compromises were made, and these were difficult votes. In our state, as in every other, there are honest differences on this and on many issues. Vermonters made their voices heard, particularly a brave new generation of student activists inspired by their peers in Parkland (Fla.).

In his remarks at yesterday’s bill signing, Gov. Scott spoke about civility in public discourse. In a democracy, civility is more than a virtue, it is foundational for the democratic process to work. Here is some of what he said:

“Today in America, too many of our fellow citizens — on both sides of every issue, not just on guns — have given up on listening, deciding to no longer consider other opinions, viewpoints or perspectives.

“Our national dialogue has been reduced to angry, hateful social media posts that you can either ‘like’ or not, with no room for conversation or respectful disagreement, and where facts and details no longer seem to matter.

“We would be naïve to believe that the way we talk to each other, the way we treat each other, and the rise of violence are exclusive to one another.”

He concluded: “These things are hurting our nation. If we can reduce the polarization we’re seeing across the country, we can diminish some of the anger at the root of these larger challenges. And this must be part of our ongoing pursuit to reduce violence and make our communities safer.”

He is right. Those are Vermont values that draw from time-tested American values.

Three weeks ago, students from schools across this country led millions of fellow Americans of all ages, races and backgrounds in marches against gun violence. On that Saturday morning, hours before the march in Washington, I met hundreds of Vermonters who came to the nation’s capital to lend their voices to what has become a national outcry for commonsense reforms to reduce gun violence.

Thousands more rallied in Montpelier, Rutland and other Vermont towns — for a ban on military-style assault rifles and on high capacity magazines, for universal background checks, for laws that keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and those who seek to do us harm.

I have rarely been more inspired than when I was listening to the eloquence, the clarity and the indignant frustration in the poignant speeches of the students. To hear their stories, to hear of the loss and grief, an unsettling, unyielding fear resulting from not knowing whether your school will be next. To be reminded, again, of the appalling number of school shootings and the other daily tragedies caused by guns, and the lasting physical scars and trauma that gun violence has had on children, families and neighborhoods in cities and towns in every state of this country.

How can one not feel that our generation has failed miserably to deal with the epidemic of gun violence? How can one not feel that the gun lobby and others who reflexively oppose all efforts at reform — no matter how modest or grounded in common sense — have won?

Commonly exploited loopholes in our gun laws allow practically anyone, even those who are criminals or intend to do us harm, to buy one, or 10, or 50 guns, guns that can shoot as many rounds per minute as you can pull the trigger, or even more with the assistance of readily available accessories. What have we done to stop it? Not nearly enough.

Over a period of many years I have introduced, co-sponsored and advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee many pieces of legislation to stop it. This includes legislation to close background check loopholes, ban military-style assault rifles and shut down the black market for firearms by strengthening tools to prosecute straw purchasing and firearms trafficking.

Each time, the gun lobby has prevailed, blocking these efforts just as they have blocked the efforts of others here who have dared to take steps to reduce gun violence.

The students are right. They don’t want just thoughts and prayers. They don’t want their teachers to have guns, and neither do their teachers. They don’t want just a ban on bump stocks. They want real, meaningful change. Enough is enough. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Newtown. Roseburg. Parkland.

These are school shootings that made the front pages. There are hundreds of others. Eighteen school shootings in the first three months of 2018 alone. As horrific as that is, it is only a part of the problem. Every day, an average of 318 people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts. Every day.

This is an epidemic, and we need to treat it like one. The soul of our country is under attack. You could hear it in the students’ voices.

Those who hold up the Second Amendment as somehow justifying their opposition to commonsense gun control laws could not be more wrong. None of the tragedies that those students, our schools, our communities, our country are experiencing today is the price we must pay for the Second Amendment.

None of the proposals in Congress threaten an individual’s right to own a gun. Nor will the bills signed by Gov. Scott. Any such argument is nothing more than baseless fear-mongering.

I have heard the NRA and its defenders ridicule the students for speaking out. When high-priced lobbyists or pundits go on national TV to belittle teenagers who saw their friends gunned down in their classrooms, and who had the courage to speak for those who died, the corrosive power of money in politics is glaringly apparent.

It reminds me of how the first and loudest voices in favor of using military force are rarely those who have experienced combat themselves. I wonder how many of those who represent the gun lobby have experienced what those students went through.

The only solution I have heard offered by those who oppose reform is to put more guns in the hands of “good” people.

We do need well trained, well equipped, community police officers. I strongly support school resource officers. And we should invest more in our police. But police armed with assault rifles in every school, in every movie theater, in every church, on every street corner in America? At every shopping mall? Every museum?

Is that the solution? Is that the country we want? Police across this country support stricter commonsense gun safety laws.

It is Congress’ job to regulate. And we have a responsibility to do so when so many Americans’ lives are at stake. Let’s use the power we have to do what the Constitution requires of us and what the American people overwhelmingly are asking us to do.

The students who organized these marches have challenged us. President Trump, your party controls the Congress. Members of Congress can act, or they can continue to make excuses or remain silent in hopes that this issue goes away. But these students are not going away.

It is time for you, Mr. President, and for this Congress to do right by these students, and by all Americans who are asking their leaders to stop gun violence. Follow Vermont’s example. Support comprehensive, commonsense gun reform legislation, just like you said you would when you met with members of Congress of both parties after the Parkland shooting.

But this time, follow through. Fight for it so it passes, and sign it.

Patrick Leahy represents Vermont the United States Senate.

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