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Guest column: I pray for courage in Congress

Sen. Patrick Leahy delivered this speech on the floor of the United States Senate last Wednesday. It has been edited for brevity.

It is hard really to know where to start … Gun violence is killing our children. 

After Sandy Hook, well over a decade after Columbine shook the nation, the conscience of the country was stirred. Now, we said, now we must look at our gun laws. Now we must think about what simply makes sense, and what does not. The Judiciary Committee acted. I was proud to lead that, but the Senate, did not. 

There were bipartisan proposals — proposals that I believe can muster bipartisan support again today. Support that acknowledges that there is a problem, and acknowledges that we can and must do something about it. The problem is not the Second Amendment. The problem is the view that the Second Amendment is itself absolute.

I was in Vermont last week, and people would say to me, of course we pray for the victims, but we also pray that Congress will finally stand up and do something. I’m with my fellow Vermonters.

There are ways that we can use our common sense to keep our communities safe and keep guns out of the hands of people who are dangerous. Let’s start with background checks. They are a quick and easy way to help accomplish that goal. There is bipartisan support to require background checks for commercial firearms sales. Now, I think we should go further, but we have to start somewhere, and commercial sales background checks are a good start.

How about extreme risk laws, also called “red flag” laws? We should encourage more states to enact these laws to allow loved ones or law enforcement agencies to petition a court for an order that would temporarily prevent an individual in crisis from accessing firearms. People who are in crisis and are a danger to themselves or others should not have ready access to firearms. This, again, is practical, common sense.

We’ve seen where criminal gangs will send people into other states to make straw purchases of weapons that are then sold back to them. There is no criminal statute specifically prohibiting straw purchasing, so prosecutors have to rely on laws that prohibit making false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm — a paperwork offense. There is bipartisan agreement that we should strengthen the penalties for straw purchasers to deter this dangerous conduct — this, again, is practical common sense.

We should also add common sense and consistency to minimum age requirements to purchase guns. You have to be 21 to buy a handgun. You also have to be 21 to purchase alcohol, or even cigarettes. But under our federal laws? Just 18 to buy a shotgun or rifle, including an automatic rifle like those used on battlefields, like the ones used in Buffalo and Uvalde. And if we cannot find enough common ground to ban military-style assault rifles, we should at least raise the age at which they can be purchased from 18 to 21.

All of these proposals are practical common sense. They should be the least that Congress can do to help prevent the next mass shooting. But we have a problem. We have a problem in the United States when the leading cause of childhood death in 2020 was firearms. Think of that. Our children and our grandchildren, and the leading cause of death is firearms. 

We have a problem when we cannot stand up — and together — to respond to the fears of our children. We have a problem when we cannot push aside the interests of the NRA and the gun industry, or of the Gun Owners of America, or other pressure groups that tell us that Democrats are “coming for your guns.” Of course some in the gun industry will say that, because it boosts their sales. 

It boosts their sales, and children die.

I am a Democrat. I am a gun owner. I have been both nearly my entire life … In my home state, we have a long tradition, dating back to our founding, of hunting the land. Ownership of our firearms is part of that. I have also heard from more than 1,000 Vermonters since Uvalde, urgently telling me that something must be done.

When is it enough?  Everywhere Marcelle and I went last week in Vermont, we heard, “when is enough enough?”

I have spent months, or actually years, listening to my friends on the Republican side in Congress talk about protecting children. Who will step up now, and who will step in to say “enough?” 

If we are to protect our children, we must be the adults with the courage to listen to their fears, and to act to alleviate them. We are the adults who must protect our children. If we do nothing, we are not protecting them.

This isn’t about politics. This isn’t about the moneyed interests of pressure groups, lobbying Congress without acknowledging the tragedies in our world today. This isn’t even about you, or me. This is about the thousands of people who are killed through gun violence every year, and the countless family members forced to sorrowfully move on in their absence, saying, “Why our family? Why our loved one? Why my parents? Why my children? Why my brother? Or why my sister?” 

Why? In this, the greatest country on earth, our horrific record of gun violence.

In no way is this about revoking the Second Amendment, but about applying practical common sense safeguards to help mitigate the violence.

Yet again, I ask, as I have since I’ve been in the Senate, and the American people ask: When is it enough? When is it enough? 

I join those who pray for the victims, but I especially join those who pray that Congress will have the courage, Democrats and Republicans alike, to finally do something meaningful.

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