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Special Event

President Clinton Holds News Conference on Gun Legislation Efforts

Aired March 7, 2000 - 12:38 p.m. ET


FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you right over to the White House. We told you the president was expected in the briefing room to discuss gun legislation in his meetings today. That's where we go now.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... it seems fitting that I am speaking to you in the briefing room we have just named for Jim Brady.

Last spring, the brutal shootings at Columbine gave a life-and- death urgency to the call for strengthening our nation's gun laws. The Senate responded to that call in spite of fierce pressures by the gun lobby. With a tie-breaking vote by the vice president, the Senate passed an amendment to close the gun show loophole and passed other common sense provisions that require child safety locks and ban the importation of large-capacity ammunition clips.

Unfortunately, the House narrowly defeated the McCarthy amendment to close the gun show loophole and passed a much weaker bill than the Senate did.

Now, for the past eight months, the leaders in Congress have done virtually nothing to complete a final bill. That's why I called upon Senators Hatch and Leahy and Representatives Hyde and Conyers to come to the White House this morning. I met with them in the Oval Office for nearly an hour. We had a very good discussion.

My message was simple: Congress has kept the American people waiting long enough. I want Congress to finish the gun bill and send it to me for the anniversary of the Columbine tragedy April 20.

In the meeting this morning, I told the leaders the final bill needs to close the loophole that allows criminals to buy firearms at gun shows without opening any new loopholes in the process.

I said I wanted a ban on the implementation of ammunition clips that allow shooters, including those in Littleton, to spray bullets across a wide killing zone in a matter of seconds.

And I said a final bill needs to require child safety locks and should hold adults accountable when they allow young people to get their hands on deadly guns -- two measures that are particularly relevant in a lot of the heart-breaking shooting of Kayla Rolland last week.

I know the gun lobby is cranking up pressure on Congress again, but when first graders shoot first graders, it's time for Congress to do what's right for America's families.

All four members of Congress I met with this morning expressed their desire to work with us in good faith. I'm grateful for their willingness to meet with me today and to continue to working together.

But let's be clear here: Eight months is long enough. There's no more time for delay.

The conference committee should meet and work out their differences and send me a good bill. We owe it to our children and to the victims to get this done by April 20.

When I talk to the parents of victims, they just can't understand why people in Washington are always talking about what we can't do instead of what we can do. I'm not interested in talking about how little we can do. I'm interested in how much we can accomplish to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children.

Thank you.


QUESTION: Mr. President, did you get any kind of commitment from the leaders?

QUESTION: If the congressional leaders and the gun lobby were not swayed after the Columbine shootings, what makes you feel that the time is, so to speak, more right now?

CLINTON: Well, how many more people have to get killed before we do something? I mean, we had, you know, a pretty rough week last week.

And let me say, one of the things that I did in preparation for this -- because as you know, before last week, we were pushing to try to get a conference on the juvenile justice bill. I actually read the proposal made by Mr. Hyde on this subject, and the counterproposal made by Mr. Conyers. And the Conyers proposal, I think, is workable and would keep -- would go a very long way towards in fact closing the gun show loop hole. The Hyde proposal is a substantial movement away from just the total, what you might call the complete NRA position.

So I think that if we could get a conference meeting, and they could start working on the things everybody agrees on, and get these two leaders to work through this, and give us a provision that would actually work. You know, there's more than one way to do this. We need something that will actually work.

I think that it's quite possible that that could occur.

Keep in mind, there's a reason that there's such an effort to keep this conference from meeting.

I think they know, now, that if a bill came out that had a reasonable gun show provision, loophole provision, in it, that actually closed the loophole, that it would pass the House and the Senate, because the American people want it.

So we can't pretend that it's not the same as defeating the bill, just to never have a conference meet. The conference needs to meet.

And what I believe will happen is that you will have more talking and more thinking and less shouting, if the conference committee will meet.

That's what Congress hires on to do, to write laws. And I think it's very important that this be done. And I hope that the conference committee will meet soon.

And I believe that there's a way to work through this that will satisfy some of the practical concerns that people who are interested in the gun shows have and still allow us to have an airtight guarantee that we're going to keep the guns away from the criminals and the other categories of people covered by the Brady law.


QUESTION: Mr. President, did you get any commitment from the Republicans today that they would actually have a meeting? That there would be a conference?


QUESTION: And will you be willing to accept any bill that did not include the gun show background check?

CLINTON: First of all, where we left it was that the -- I think that Leahy, Conyers and Hyde, I believe, were willing to start the conference. I believe that. Now I don't want to speak for Mr. Hyde, but I think that's accurate.

I believe that -- Senator Hatch said that he thought he had to go back and consult with the Republican leadership and members of the caucus and he would try to give us an answer in the next, you know, little bit here.

I think that the -- I think that Senator -- Mr. Conyers said he would work with Mr. Hyde to try to work out the gun show issue, but he didn't want to do that as a way of putting off the conference, and I agree with that.

He said he thought we ought to have a conference, the conference ought to approve everything else, including the child trigger locks, the ammunition-clip ban -- which is a big issue in view of some of the other things that have happened here lately -- and these other issues. And that meanwhile, he would work with Mr. Hyde to try to work through this.

Now all I can tell you is, I think it would be a big mistake for Congress not to close the gun show loophole.

Keep in mind -- everybody remember this: One of the principal arguments used against the Brady bill, when we passed that and I signed it, was that criminals don't buy guns at gun stores, they buy guns at gun shows.

You go back and look at the debate. One the things they said: Oh, the criminals don't buy -- they either get them, you know, on one- on-one sales, they get them at these gun shows or urban flea markets.

Well, it turned out that was wrong. We had almost a half-million gun sales not approved through gun stores.

But the same people who were telling us seven years ago -- six and seven years ago -- that we didn't need the Brady bill because all the criminals were buying their guns at gun shows now tell us we can't stop the criminals from buying guns at guns shows.

And I think it's very important to understand: There are people's lives at stake here. This will save lives.

Now, people that are very solicitous and understanding of all the sort of practical problems for these rural gun shows, I'm telling you, there are ways to work through that.

I've actually been to these rural guns shows. I know they look like, I understand what these people are saying. I've been to them when I was governor, I know what they -- you know, you have something off in the field, out in the country, and you got all the pickups and the cars opened up and 2,000 or 3,000 people come through in a day. I understand that.

We have the technology to do the background checks, and we can do it, and we can it without shutting these things down and all the law- abiding people that are involved in them down.

But if we act like because there are practical problems, we're just not going to save these people's lives and we're going to let all these criminals buy guns, I think that is -- to me, it's unconscionable to walk away from that.

QUESTION: When you meet with the mother of the Michigan child this afternoon, do you think that you can reasonably assure her that there will be a bill this year? And secondly, can you make that kind of commitment knowing that there are as many Democrats as Republicans needed still to get support for something like this?

CLINTON: Well, first of all, I don't think that is true. I think the -- I think that if, among the Democrats that voted for Mr. Dingell's bill, I think if there -- some practical changes were made in the law which would not which would not undermine the ability of the checks to actually keep the guns out of the hands of the criminals and stalkers, I think that most of the Democrats would vote for that bill. And I think a lot of Republicans would and I believe it would pass. So that's what I believe would happen. The only -- what I want to tell her when I see her, first of all, is that a parent, as a parent, my heart goes out to her. And as president, I'm going to do everything I can to see that it doesn't happen to other children. That's all I can do.

I can't -- do I know whether the Republicans will permit a bill to pass this year or whether they will be willing to stand up to the NRA? No, I don't know that. But I think that if we could get a bill out of that committee that was a good bill, this year, I think it would pass.

And I think, you know, that may be what is going on. That may be why there is so much pressure on Senator Hatch not to call a meeting.

But that is no way to do it. They ought to vote, vote up or down, declare themselves. If they don't want this bill to pass, they shouldn't be ashamed to tell America they don't want it to pass. And if they do, they ought to get together and pass it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, regarding your trip to India there are now reports that you will make a brief stop in Pakistan. Are those reports true?

CLINTON: I should have an announcement on that probably within a day. I'm working that and we're about to finalize the arrangements. And as quickly as I know, those I can do. So when I finish the calls I'm making, I'll be glad to release that.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the aid to Colombia is facing problems in the Congress of the United States. There are some people who doubt -- they think it might be another Vietnam. Some people think that the military aid will end up in violation of human rights, and talks of collusion between the military and paramilitary forces.

QUESTION: What are you doing to try to get this aid passed that Colombia has been waiting for a long time and you've been pushing for a long time?

CLINTON: Well, I still believe the package will pass. I think the questions which are being asked are legitimate questions and should be asked.

I mean, if I were a member of Congress and I just heard that the administration were to give this amount of money to Colombia and it was generally going to be used to fight drugs and do some other things, I would ask the same questions.

But all I can tell you is that it's not like Vietnam in the sense that we are not making a commitment to train soldiers in a way that we will then be called upon to come in and replace them or fight with them or work with them. This is to deal with the guerrilla war, which is what happened in Vietnam.

In this case, we will be using some of the funds to train soldiers to support police officers who will be doing antinarcotics work. And the units that will be involved in this will have to be particularly vetted to make sure that they don't have the pattern and abuse that you refer to. So we have worked as hard as we could to do this.

Now, can I tell you that there will never be a dollar of this that would be spent in a way that I wouldn't want? Nobody can say that. But I can say this, I think that we're a lot better off trying to help stabilize Colombia and save democracy there and help them fight narcotics there and keep more drugs out of this country than if we walk away from it.

I think the consequences, if we walk away, are pretty clear. And if we help them, we just might make it and turn the situation around. That's what I think we ought to try to do.


QUESTION: Mr. President...

QUESTION: The argument is made that the bill under consideration -- all the other bills would not have prevented either Columbine or what happened in Flint.

QUESTION: Have you ever considered advocating abolition of handguns, as advocated by the late Senator John Chafee, who spoke of the insanely easy access to guns in this country?

CLINTON: Well, I think, first of all, I'm not sure that's true. I just have a statement here by the young woman who bought the guns used at Columbine. And she said: I wish it had been more difficult. I wouldn't have helped them buy the guns if I had faced a background check.

So first of all, this works. And, you know, I also believe we should license handgun owners. And when they buy guns, I think they ought to have to pass a Brady background check and show they've taken a safety course. I think we should do more than we're doing.

But I believe that it is best for me as president to focus on what we can get done to save lives. And, you know, John Chafee, as you know, was a wonderful man, and an aberration in the present Republican Senate caucus. But I don't think there would be many votes for that in the Congress. And what I should be doing is trying to pass the strongest possible legislation I can pass to save the largest number of lives I can save.

I do believe -- one of the things that we ought to do if we can get this legislation on the books is to be much more aggressive in these gun buy-back programs as well, to try to reduce the total stock out there of the kind of loose guns that are running around.

I mean, when you hear over 200 million guns are held in America, it's truly -- it's a staggering figure. But a lot of them are held by collectors and hunters and others who -- with big supplies -- who are responsible people. But if we had more -- I'm convinced if we had a more aggressive use of gun buy-back programs, we could draw down a lot of these guns that are used in crimes.

Yes, sir?


QUESTION: Page one of the usually reliable Washington Post reports this morning that you regularly advise...

CLINTON: Is that an editorial comment?

QUESTION: ... you regularly advise the campaign...


... you regularly advise the campaign of Vice President Gore. Did you advise Mr. Gore to allow no media questions for the past 17 days, particularly because of the Maria Hsia case, including Gore's appearance in Buffalo on Saturday, where I found that the gymnasium was one-third empty, Mr. President?




QUESTION: Don't you think he ought to answer media questions like you do?

CLINTON: Well, since I didn't advise him privately, I don't think I should advise him publicly.


It looks to me like he's doing a pretty good job with his campaign, but I haven't talked to him about that at all.

QUESTION: Back on guns for just a moment? You said what we need to do is pass the strongest legislation that we can pass. The leaders who came out were not all that specific, other than to say that the gun show loophole was the main thing hanging us up.

In your view, what has to be done to close that loophole? Is it three days? Is it 24 hours? Is it less than 24 hours? What, in your view, needs to be done to close that...

CLINTON: Well, first of all, let's look at the facts here. The answer may be a combination of both. That is, if you have an Instacheck system -- today when we do the background checks, over 90 percent of them are completed within a day.

Over 70 percent of them are completed within an hour, I think. But if -- you have to have some provision for dealing with the leakage. That is, suppose you're meeting over the weekend and you -- and it's -- and the records are in some -- or not in the national crime database. Suppose you're dealing with mental health records, for example, that would have, under the Brady Bill, would disqualify someone from getting a handgun but aren't available. Suppose you're dealing with records that are in a local police department that might be in the database where you have to make a phone call.

So the answer is, if you had -- if you had 24 hours, you'd get most people. But the thing is, the people you don't get, the people you don't get in that last 5 percent, listen to this, are 20 times more likely to be turned down than the population as a whole.

So what you need -- I have no objection to some provision which would say, OK, for everybody that clears, you know, do the 24 hours and let it roll. But you have to have some other provision there to deal with the 5 percent you can't -- or whatever the percentage is, it's less than 10 -- whatever the percentage is you can't get done in 24 hours because a significant percentage of the people that shouldn't be getting the guns are in that percentage.

So that's why I say, you guys would have -- it would be great for you if they would actually have this conference and start debating this and instead of debating the Senate provision or the Dingell bill or the Senate provision or nothing, you could hear this debate between Conyers and Hyde, and we could get down to the facts. And it would be -- you'd really have something to get your teeth into and talk about in terms of what does it take to save lives.

My criteria is, does it work? You know, I don't mind being -- like I said, I've been to these country gun shows, I know what they're like. And I understand what some of the practical questions raised are. But I'm just telling you, with a minimal of effort, we can save lives and we can take care of all these cases that the Brady bill takes care of.

So I'm not giving you an evasive answer, I'm telling you this is a fact question. But you don't want to just -- the problem with the 24 hour thing is, you do over 90 percent of the checks, but of the ones that leak, they are 20 times more likely to be turned down. So therefore, I think we have to have some provision to deal with that.

QUESTION: Mr. President, when do you plan to act on a request by Taiwan for new weapons systems? Do you think that granting such a request could help you with your China trade legislation on the Hill? And do you think the Taiwanese perhaps deserve the weapons, given recent Chinese saber rattling in the area?

CLINTON: I think my answer to the first question will answer the next two. I don't know because I have not sat down and looked at the facts.

Any decision I make has to be made consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act and with our general policy in the area. And I will do what I think the right thing to do is. But I literally have not had a meeting on it. We haven't, like, discussed -- I have had no meetings.

QUESTION: Mr. President, today is Super Tuesday and it's the weeding-out process. What are your hopes for the candidate that are left standing?

And since John McCain has been talking about George Bush's morals and ethics, have you been reminded of that cruel joke that he told about Chelsea a couple of years ago? And what are your thoughts about that?

CLINTON: He asked me to forgive him and I did.

QUESTION: Do you think that he makes a good presidential candidate even though...

CLINTON: He asked me to forgive him and I did.

And since I have asked people to forgive me, I would be in a poor position if I refused the same thing. And I believe him to be a good man, and he asked me to forgive him and I did.


CLINTON: And I think the -- you know, what I think -- I have a slightly different take on this than most people, I guess. But since I'm not a candidate maybe you will believe me when I tell you, since I'm not running.

When people fight with each other over issues that they disagree with and they advertise about it, I don't consider that necessarily negative campaigning. When people say to each other that they're somehow -- that their opponents are morally inferior or that they're morally superior, that can be negative campaigning. It's also very hazardous.

You know, there's lots of verses in the Bible and one of them says you've got to be careful when you're standing to brag about it, otherwise you might find yourself on your knees.

But I think that -- I think the fact that this has been a vigorous campaign fight over differences of opinion on campaign finance, the nature of the tax cut, what kind of education policy we should have in all these primaries, I think that's been good for the American people.

And my only wish today is that there's a real big turnout. I just hope they all go out and vote and I hope they'll continue to vote all the way to November.

QUESTION: Mr. President...


QUESTION: You hope...

CLINTON: What did you say? QUESTION: What's the hope for those who remain standing after this weeding out process?

CLINTON: I think they ought to go before the American people and say this is the millennia election and they ought to say what they say.

You know who I'm for, and what I hope happens in the election.

But the main thing is, I want this election to be fought out over the issues. And if they fight over the issues and criticize each other over the issues, I don't consider that to be negative campaigning. That's debating. That's the way the system works.

I would like to see them -- I would like to see this election be given back to the American people. I'd like to see the fights over things that affect them and not over whether one candidate should have gotten more merit badges than another.

QUESTION: On gas prices, just one last quick question. There are predictions that it could go to $1.80. Today, I paid $1.70 for a gallon of gas. Well, I can afford it. Many Americans can't.


And it's a serious thing for many people around -- who are on tight...

CLINTON: The personal -- let me say. I've told you this before, but and, you know, as time goes on, we'll have more to say about this. I've been working on this issue.

I think what we want are stable oil prices that aren't too high. And I think that's what the oil-producing countries should want. Because what's going to happen is, there'll be all kinds of reactions. We have our options, others have theirs, but some countries will just have their economic growth slowed if you have oil prices that are too high.

And then what's going to happen? One of two things or both will happen. You will either have a big drop in demand for oil prices, which will drive the price back down just because people won't be buying as much any more and it will cut the revenues of the oil- producing countries below where they would have been if they'd maintained stable prices at a lower level. Or you will have a lot of non-OPEC members who aren't subject to their agreement start increasing their production, taking market share away from them. And that will also cut oil prices and lower their revenues, because they'll have less market share.

Now one of those two things is going to happen unless there's more equilibrium in this market. And I think everybody recognizes that they're too high.

There's a reason they're too high now, because we're producing 73 million barrels a day and consuming 75 million. Therefore, the price is going to be -- is continuing to rise because demand exceeds supply. And demand exceeds supply because of, in effect, artificial decisions made by the producers.

So this would be kind of like deregulation in America in telecom, a lot of other areas. Once you get out, you get other producers. Either that, or supply will drop because -- I mean, excuse me, demand will drop, because they won't be able to sustain the price.

So I think -- sure, I want oil prices to go down some. But the producing countries should want them to go down some, too.

Now, on the other hand, Americans should not want them to drop to $12 or $10 a barrel again, because that, you know, puts you in this roller coaster environment, which is very destabilizing to the producing countries and not particularly good for our economy and takes our mind off our business, which should be alternative fuels, energy conservation, reducing the impact of all this global warming.

But we need stable prices at a lower level, and that's what we're working for. And I hope that's what the producing countries will see is clearly in their best interest, because it is.

Thank you very much.

SESNO: Well, if you've just joined us, President Clinton spending some time in the briefing room. He came there initially to talk about guns. He held something of a gun summit earlier today with leaders from the House and Senate, talking about the prospect of gun legislation following the killing of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland in suburban Flint, Michigan. The president demanding safety locks, a ban on import of high -- large-capacity ammunition clips and the required background checks at gun shows.

A House and a Senate deadlocked over the issue specifically of the background check at gun shows. The president calling for the House and Senate conferees to get together and work out their differences and get him a bill by April 20th, the anniversary of the shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Senator Orrin Hatch, who heads the committee on the Senate side, says he's not sure that getting back together would do anything other than deepen the divide at this point. All parties pledge to continue working the issue.


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