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Senate Hearing on Gun Control

Aired January 30, 2013 - 10:30   ET


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: And those constitutional rights are not the source of governmental power to enact legislation, as the president suggested. In fact, just the opposite: They were included in the Bill of Rights because throughout history, governments have wanted to shut up those who would criticize government, to suppress unpopular religions, or to disarm people.

The president's citing of constitutional protections of individual rights is the basis for expanding federal power over the lives of private individuals. This is the same president who exceeded his power under the Constitution to appoint recess appointments. So, no wonder millions of Americans fear that the president might take executive action and Congress may enact legislation that could lead to tyrannical federal government.

So, I cannot accept the president's claim that, quote, "There will be politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of tyrannical all-out assault on liberty, not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear," end of quote. This necessarily and understandably leads many citizens to fear that their individual rights will be violated. And that extends well beyond the Second Amendment. It should be a matter of deep concern to all of us. The Constitution for 225 years has established a government that is the servant of the people, not the master.

So, Mr. Chairman, as we consider and debate legislation arising from these tragedies, I hope that we will proceed with proper understanding of the relationship that the Constitution establishes between government power and individual liberty, and I hope we will pass those bills that would actually be effective in reducing gun violence.

I welcome the witnesses and look forward to this hearing. Thank you very much.


I'd ask that Captain Mark Kelly, Professor David Kopel, Chief James Johnson, Ms. Gayle Trotter and Mr. Wayne LaPierre step forward. Just stand behind your chairs for the moment and I can swear in the panel at one time.

Please raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you're giving us is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

Let the record show that all witnesses have been sworn in. Please take your -- take your seat. What I'm going to suggest we do, I'm going to call on each witness. We're going to try to keep to fairly strict time and call on each one to give their testimony. Then, we'll open it to questions in the usual way, alternating on both sides.

Our first witness is Mark Kelly. He's -- our first witness is Mark Kelly. He's a retired astronaut and U.S. Navy captain. Captain Kelly recently co-founded Americans for Responsible Solutions. This is an advocacy group that promotes solutions to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun ownership. He is with his wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

So Captain Kelly, please go ahead, sir.

KELLY, GABIREL GIFFORDS' HUSBAND: Thank you, Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Grassley for inviting me here today. I look forward to a constructive dialogue with your committee.

I also want to take the opportunity to congratulate Gabby's friend and much-respected former colleague, Jeff Flake, on his new role as Arizona's junior senator.

As you know, our family has been immeasurably affected by gun violence. Gabby's gift for speech is a distant memory. She struggles to walk and she is partially blind. And a year ago, she left a job she loves, serving the people of Arizona.

But in the past two years, we have watched Gabby's determination, spirit and intellect conquer her disabilities. We aren't here as victims. We're speaking to you today as Americans. We're a lot like many of our fellow citizens following this debate about gun violence. We're moderates. Gabby was a Republican long before she was a Democrat.

We're both gun owners and we take that right and the responsibilities that come with it very seriously. And we watch with horror when the news breaks to yet another tragic shooting. After 20 kids and six of their teachers were gunned down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary, we said: "This time must be different; something needs to be done." We are simply two reasonable Americans who have said "enough."

On January 8th of 2011, a young men walked up to Gabby at her constituent event in Tucson, leveled his gun and shot her through the head. He then turned down the line and continued firing. In 15 seconds, he emptied his magazine. It contained 33 bullets and there were 33 wounds.

As the shooter attempted to reload, he fumbled. A woman grabbed the next magazine and others restrained him.

Gabby was the first victim. Christina Taylor Green, nine years old, born on 9/11 of 2001, was shot with the 13th bullet or after. And others followed. The killer in the Tucson shooting suffered from severe mental illness, but even after being -- even after being deemed unqualified for service in the Army and expulsion from Pima (ph) Community College, he was never reported to mental health authorities.

On November 30, 2010, he walked into a sporting goods store, passed the background check, and walked out with a semiautomatic handgun. He had never been legally adjudicated as mentally ill, and even if he had, Arizona, at the time, had over 121,000 records of disqualifying mental illness that it had not submitted into the system.

Looking back, we can't say with certainly -- with certainty, "Only if we had done this, this would never have happened." There is not just one thing that would have prevented the Tucson shooting from being written into the history books. Gabby is one of roughly 100,000 victims of gun violence in America each and every year. Behind every victim lays a matrix of failure and inadequacy in our families, in our communities, in our values, in our society's approach to poverty, violence, and mental illness and yes, also in our politics and in our gun laws.

One of our messages is simple, the breadth and complexity of gun violence is great, but it is not an excuse for inaction. There's another side to our story, Gabby is a gun owner and I am a gun owner. We have our firearms for the same reasons that millions of Americans just like us have guns, to defend ourselves, to defend our families, for hunting, and for target shooting.

We believe wholly and completely in the second amendment and that it confers upon all Americans the right to own a firearm for protection, collection, and recreation. We take that right very seriously and we would never, ever give it up, just like Gabby with never relinquish her gun and I would never relinquish mine. But rights demand responsibility and this right does not extend to terrorists, it does not extend to criminals, and it does not extend to the mentally ill.

When dangerous people get guns, we are all vulnerable at the movies, at church, conducting our everyday business, meeting with a government official. And time after time after time, at school, on our campuses, and in our children's classrooms. When dangerous people get dangerous guns, we are all the more vulnerable. Dangerous people with weapons specifically designed to inflict maximum lethality upon others have turned every single corner of our society into places of carnage and gross human loss. Our rights are paramount, but our responsibilities are serious. And as a nation, we're not take responsibility for the gun rights that our founding fathers have conferred upon us.

Now we have some ideas on how we can take responsibility. First, fixed on background checks. The holes and our laws make a mockery of the background check system. Congress should close the private sales loophole, and the dangers people entered into that system. Second, remove the limitations on collecting data and conducting scientific research on gun violence. Enact -- enact a tough federal gun trafficking statute, this is really important . And finally, let's have a careful and civil conversation about the lethality of fire arms we permit to be legally bought and sold in this country. Gabby and I are pro-gun ownership. We are also anti-gun violence, and we believe that in this debate, Congress should look not toward special interests and ideology, which push us apart, but towards compromise which brings us together. We believe whether you call yourself protest gun, or anti-gun violence, or both, that you can work together to pass laws that save lives.

Thank you.

LEAHY: Thank you.

Next witness, David Kopel is the research director for the Independence Institute as well an associate policy analyst with the Cato Institute, an adjunct professor of advance constitutional law at Denver University's Sturm College of Law. Did I get that all correct?


LEAHY: Thank you. Go ahead, please.

PROF. DAVID KOPEL, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW ADJ. PROF, DENVER UNIV.: Thank you, Chairman Leahy and then Senator Grassley.

I think, to -- to continue the themes that the Captain Kelly so eloquently spoken about, gun rights and gun control don't have to be culture-war enemies. Properly conceived, they can work together and reinforce each other. It's important to recognize that the Second Amendment is not absolute any more than the First Amendment is. It certainly has an absolute core that can't be violated under any circumstances, but that doesn't prohibit all firearms controls.

LEAHY: Excuse me, and this won't come out of your time.


LEAHY: All of the statements will be put in the record in full so we can keep close to the time.

Go ahead.

KOPEL: Thank you, I will keep very close to the time.

And, likewise, gun controls don't violate the Second Amendment if they are constructed so they don't violate the rights of law-abiding citizens, and they actually do something constructive, significant, and effective to protect law-abiding citizens.

Captain Kelly talked about the matrix of failure. 20 years ago, I testified before this committee -- some of the senators are still here -- about one thing that turned out to be part of that matrix of failure. And that was the ban on so-called assault weapons. I warned during that testimony then that it was based, not on the function of guns, or how fast they fired, or how powerful they were, but on superficial, cosmetic characteristics and accessories. As part of the compromise that eventually led to that bill being mistakenly passed by Congress, the bill had a 10-year sunset in it and a requirement that the Department of Justice supervise a study of the effectiveness of that law. That study was -- the people to carry out that study were chosen by Attorney General Reno at the Department of Justice. They did several interim studies, and then a final study. And they concluded that the law had done nothing. It had not save lives. It had did not reduced the number of bullets that were fired in crimes. It had been a failure. It had -- to some minor degree, switched the types of guns that were used in crimes, so you had a gun with one name instead of another name, but it didn't -- it didn't reduce crime overall.

And indeed, it was a dangerous bill in the sense that so much political attention was distracted -


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: We're going to take a break right now from the live testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the first hearing since the Newtown, Connecticut shooting 47 days ago. The Judiciary Committee is taking a looking at the issue of gun violence.

We're going to play for you some sound from former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She was shot in an Arizona parking lot as you may recall just two years and a few days ago. We're going to take a listen to that sound after this break.


TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings on gun violence. You see there the chairman of the committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont himself a gun owner talking to a law Professor David Kopel he's expected to argue against tighter gun control laws. He's with the libertarian Cato Institute.

We are waiting for the testimony of the chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre. And we will join the committee hearing when he is testifying. But I want to play you some of the sound from earlier today when former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who you may recall was shot in an Arizona parking lot slightly over two years ago when she came to testify briefly with her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly and talk about her desire for more gun restrictions.

She and her husband formed on the anniversary of her shooting which also took the lives of six other Arizonians including a 9-year-old girl Christina Taylor Green. They formed just a few weeks ago Americans for Responsible Solutions, which has partnered with the Brady Center to combat gun violence and New York Mayor Bloomberg and others who seek further restrictions on guns.

So here is Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords from earlier this morning.


FMR. REP. GABBY GIFFORDS (D), ARIZONA: This is an important conversation for our children, for our communities, for Democrats and Republicans. Speaking is difficult but I need to say something important. Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying, too many children. We must do something.

It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you.


TAPPER: That was former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords testifying earlier today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Right now the hearing is hearing from Baltimore County Chief of Police James Johnson. He's long called for a ban on weapons that have high- capacity magazines.

Dana Bash is in the hearing room. Dana, one of the big questions going forward is beyond the theatrics of a congressional hearing when you have very forceful spokespeople such as Congresswoman Giffords with her emotional story, such as NRA chief executive officer Wayne LaPierre with his forceful views, what actually can be accomplished? Do you sense that Democrats who have for the last decade or so resisted in significant enough numbers so as to prevent anything from happening on the gun control front.

Do you sense that there actually has been a shift or was it more that some of the Democrats who had blocked and opposed such measures thinking that they were unconstitutional encroachment on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms that their willingness to talk about this after the Newtown shooting 47 days ago actually really was more in the heat of the moment and that when it comes down to it, they will not actually support any of the measures being discussed whether it is background checks for private gun sales or eliminating restrictions on data or the so-called assault weapons, ban further restrictions on semiautomatic rifles. Do you believe there's been a shift among conservative Democrats?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDNET: The answer to that, bluntly is no. When it comes to actually putting their finger in the air and saying I vote for a piece of legislation to curb strictly curb gun rights, the answer is no.

I have not talked to one conservative Democrat and we're talking about eight, maybe even close to a dozen in the Senate alone who have that position or are from states where there is very active gun rights grassroots and so forth. That being said, that is for sure when it comes to an all out ban on the assault weapons in this country maybe even limiting magazines to ten rounds as you just heard Captain Kelly talk about.

But the thing that I think is most likely still to pass is universal background checks but a way to beef up background checks but even that Jake is going to difficult to do. I mean that is the honest truth. I think that the change since Newtown is the fact that this hearing is going on.

I mean Democrats -- forget about voting. They didn't even want to talk about it. That was true even after Gabby Giffords was shot and six people were killed at that event. I remember making calls to her colleagues saying now do you think that you'll discuss gun control? Now do you think that you'll at least bring it up and have the dialogue start and the answer was -- I didn't even get my sentence out. The answer was no. These are from senior Democrats because they were so spooked by the politics of guns and how much it hurt them in southern states and rural states and they feel that over the past decade as they have moved away from talking about gun control, it's helped them gain seats in some of these seats.

And so you have Democratic members from states like Colorado, from New Mexico, and elsewhere who, you know, I talked to many in the hallway who say that they don't see themselves supporting anything except maybe a way to strengthen background checks.

TAPPER: In fact, earlier in President Obama's first term according to a book by Daniel Clydeman (ph) of "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast", the attorney general Eric Holder, was talking about greater gun control measures, gun restrictions with the White House chief of staff. Then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel sending a message to him to shut the heck up on guns. Of course Emanuel being who he is, he did not use the word "heck" but it was a similar sounding word.

The Democrats in 2006 who delivered Nancy Pelosi to the Speaker's chair from these rural districts, from areas in Indiana and North Carolina, the ones she called the majority makers, these were supporters of gun rights. These were individuals who opposed any gun control.

The question I have for you, Dana, is do you think the opposition of many of these conservative Democrats is actually their principled opposition or is this out of concern of if we back these measures, we will lose control of the Senate and we will never regain the House?

BASH: I think the honest answer is it's a combination of both. I have talked to for example the senator from Colorado, Senator Udall, who said that he genuinely is a supporter of gun rights and he represents a state where you have people with large ranches, women with large ranches, and they want to have a gun and maybe even to have something bigger than a pistol and he is worried about not giving them that right.

It's because he genuinely believes it but also because he understands the politics of his state. And I think that's probably fair to say for a number of these other conservative Democrats, the majority makers as you so well put it.

It's a combination of political fear and genuine principles on the gun issue.

TAPPER: If you are joining us right now, we are watching Gail Trotter, she's an attorney and a general counsel for the conservative group, the Independent Women's Forum. We are watching live the senate judiciary committee hearings on gun violence.

We are waiting for the testimony of Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association.

Joe Johns is here with me. Joe, your thoughts on watching the hearing so far? The emotional testimony of former Congresswoman Giffords very quickly if you would. Do you think that emotion actually ends up having an effect on legislation?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: At this stage, it's hard to say. It was a very emotional moment and I have covered Congress for years and I know how those emotional moments go. But these are very deeply held issues and a lot of them are on principle. When you listen to this hearing at least so far, it's interesting not just where they are going but where they are not going. There hasn't been a lot of talk about this assault weapons ban that's been proposed by Senator Feinstein.

They've talked about fixing background checks, the gun show loophole, and also talked a lot about enacting a gun trafficking statute. These sounds like the parameters that the senate thinks it can actually handle. A lot of people don't believe they're going to get an assault weapons ban through the United States House of Representatives. So they are talking about things that perhaps they can agree on and at least that's a big part of it.

Mark Kelly, one of the most interesting things he said was you got to have a serious conversation about gun violence, which is something the country hasn't talked that much about.

TAPPER: Interesting. You do hear even those individuals who support greater restrictions on guns talking about more modest measures than the so-called assault weapons ban that Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has proposed.

CNN's special coverage of the senate judiciary committee's hearing on gun violence will continue. We're expecting the testimony of the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre when we come back after these brief messages.



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