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Who's Playing Politics With Gun Tragedies?

Aired March 15, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, a verbal shoot-out between President Clinton and the National Rifle Association -- is the president really playing politics with gun tragedies, or is the NRA just doing all it can to prevent new gun-control laws?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, member of the Judiciary Committee and board member of the National Rifle Association.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

President Clinton stepped up his assault on the National Rifle Association today, accusing them of political skullduggery. The NRA responded basically, it takes one to know one. The president's gun proposal mandates child safety locks, bans imports of large-capacity ammunition clips, and requires background checks for gun show sales. The president's opponents, which include 60 Democrats, agree on all of his provisions except the length of time allotted for background checks of gun show sales, which amount to at most 5 percent of all checks.

So, why all the histrionics? Is there no compromise available over the remaining issue separating the sides, or is this just campaign 2000? And back to the original debate, do we need more laws, more enforcement, or a deeper look at broader cultural issues? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman Barr, I think many Americans -- maybe not all of our viewers yet -- have seen Wayne LaPierre's comments on "This Week" last Sunday about the president. I would like to listen to them one more time, please, for those who haven't yet heard them.


WAYNE LAPIERRE, EXEC. VICE PRESIDENT, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: I have come to believe he needs a certain level of violence in this country. He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda, and the vice president, too. I mean, how else can you explain this dishonesty we get out of the administration?


PRESS: Now, I thought that went pretty far, Congressman, but just a little while ago on ABC News I heard Mr. LaPierre today referring to the death last July of Ricky Birdsong, who is a Northwest -- former Northwest University basketball coach killed by a man named Ben Smith, and Wayne LaPierre said that Ricky Birdsong's blood is on the hands of President Clinton. Even for you, Bob Barr, doesn't that go over the line?

REP. BOB BARR (R-GA), HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The problem, Bill, is this: Every time there is a gun tragedy in this country, whether it's at a high school or at a private residence or anywhere else, the first person you see on that TV is Bill Clinton pushing a political agenda. There are many, many more times the number of young people killed with other things such as guns, alcohol and so forth, than firearms. Do you see President Clinton talking about helping those kids? No.

It's a political agenda, Bill, and that's what Mr. LaPierre is talking about and the American public know that that's what he is talking about. He's saying that this president could be using the bully pulpit of the White House, be using his position as the chief law enforcement officer of this country, directing ATF and the Department of Justice to use the doubling of resources that we have given them over the last eight years to actually prosecute these people. He won't do it.

PRESS: Bob Barr, gun control may be a political agenda. I think it's also an important issue that the American people want to see.

BARR: Absolutely.

PRESS: But I want to come back to this latest statement, blood on President Clinton's hands. Ben Smith, this guy in Indiana, walked into a gun shop, he's a felon, he was turned down, he went to an unlicensed gun dealer and bought his gun, went out and killed two people and then killed himself. How can the blood of his victims be on the hands of Bill Clinton? How can you make that charge, or your guy make that charge?

BARR: Every year, the president holds a big news conference and touts how many hundred thousand people have been stopped from owning firearms that aren't entitled to. How many of those people do you think are prosecuted? Almost none. That's the problem, Bill. People go in and they try and purchase a firearm. They are legitimately stopped from doing so and they turn right around and walk out on the street and get a gun somewhere else instead of this president, who says he is so strong on keeping firearms out of the hands of people not entitled to possess or own them, and doesn't prosecute the cases, Bill.

PRESS: Wait a minute. Bob Barr, you're smarter than that, don't mislead people. You know that the Brady Bill says if you walk in and you're a felon and you do a background check, you don't get the gun, the Brady Bill that you probably voted against, but the Brady Bill does not require that, that person be arrested. It does not require that he be prosecuted.

BARR: But that -- Bill...

PRESS: It simply says he can't buy the gun. I ask you again...

BARR: Bill...

PRESS: How can that -- Ricky Birdsong's blood be on the hands of Bill Clinton? On behalf of the NRA right here, right now, won't you apologize for that statement?

BARR: Being a pacifist as I know you are and never having gone in and purchased a firearm to protect yourself and your family, when you fill out that form and you put false information on it such as we'll stop you from walking out of the store with that firearm, you have committed a federal felony, you are subject to arrest. Why isn't Bill Clinton stopping these people once he knows that they are felons, Bill?

PRESS: Just very quickly, Mary. The other thing, you know, Bob Barr, which you're not telling people is that, that law is in the hands of state and local prosecutors.

BARR: No, it is not. No, it is not.

PRESS: Yes it is, sir.


PRESS: Yes, it is.

BARR: This is a federal law we're talking about.

PRESS: In this case -- wait a minute. And in this case that Wayne LaPierre talked about today, the state of Illinois didn't even notify them, did nothing and didn't even notify the feds about that attempt to purchase a gun until six days after the man killed himself. Again I ask you, how can you possibly blame Bill Clinton for something the state of Illinois did not do?

BARR: The problem with what the president is doing, Bill, is he is getting these laws passed, he is forcing people to fill out these forms, which is fine, but he is not prosecuting them. Once you fill out that form with wrong information on it -- and John knows this -- you have committed a federal felony.


BARR: Yes, you have.

CONYERS: Not -- but it's not prosecuted.

BARR: John, I believe that you're telling something that's not true now. It is a felony on the form. One thousand and one violation, ever heard of that?

CONYERS: Listen...

PRESS: Let him answer, Congressman.

CONYERS: As an NRA person, of course, you have to take the position you're taking tonight, although there are NRA members quitting now as a result of Wayne LaPierre once again crossing...

BARR: Well, there are many more joining up.

CONYERS: Just a moment -- crossing -- you crossed the line. He's the same person that when he called the ATF agents jack-booted thugs, President Bush quit the NRA.

BARR: You called them something very similar in 1994 hearings in Waco.

CONYERS: I did not call them that at all.

MATALIN: Can we start...

PRESS: One at a time and let the Congressman make his point.

CONYERS: Now, the fact of the matter is, is that what has happened is this has kicked in, in reverse, because people now are really riled up. We are -- we, the Democrats, the administration are trying to do one simple thing, is to get the gun conference off the stalls which hasn't had a meeting since August 5th, 1999.

As a matter of fact, today we just voted -- the Congress voted to instruct the conferees to start back the conference. Now, this is the first time that the conferees have ever been instructed to just start a conference. Usually you tell them to do something substantive. This is saying, please -- will you please start the conference?

BARR: John, you've been working on it, haven't you?

CONYERS: And after all of these deaths...

BARR: You have been working on it.

CONYERS: I have been working on it with Henry Hyde, but we're not the Congress.

BARR: I've been working on it.

MATALIN: Congressman, the leader on your side is Dick Gephardt, who hopes to be the next speaker. Henry Hyde sent him a compromise which totally gives you what you want, which is 72 hours if it's required for a gun sale background check. He sent that over on November 4th. He has not heard word one from Dick Gephardt, because Gephardt, like the president, wants an issue, not resolution of this. They have gotten marching orders from the White House to not meet with Henry Hyde. What is the -- what do you have...

CONYERS: Henry Hyde...

MATALIN: What's your objection to Henry Hyde's compromise that's been sitting over in Gephardt's office since November 4th?

CONYERS: Well, let's start. Let's count the ways. First of all, it defines a gun show as something that is exclusively for sales of guns, when we all know that gun shows sell camping equipment, outdoor materials, knives, artifacts, everything else. That's a loophole.

Number two, we don't -- still don't require unlicensed guns sales persons, which is where Columbine got the guns from an unlicensed dealer at a gun show where there was no Brady check and the woman that acted as the straw purchaser said herself if she had known there would have been a gun check, she wouldn't have bought the guns for them in the first place. Now, it goes on and on.

I have offered a compromise even to Lautenberg, which was passed bipartisanly in the Senate. So, Dick Gephardt is not trying to have a non-issue. He's trying to get the Republicans to put their cards on the table, they're in the majority in the conference. Look, if they want to vote down gun safety and magazine clips...

MATALIN: They don't -- stop, Congressman.

CONYERS: ... all they have to do...

MATALIN: That's more demagoguery. They don't want to vote down gun safety. They're for trigger locks.

CONYERS: Well, why don't we have a meeting?

MATALIN: They're against the clips. They're for everything you want. We're fighting over 24 hours versus 72 hours. Henry Hyde has given it to you. Why aren't we meeting? Because it's an election year and you refuse to meet.

You want to talk about...

CONYERS: The president called Orrin Hatch and me and Senator Leahy into the White House.

MATALIN: He did not even invite Henry Hyde, the guy you...

CONYERS: He invited Henry Hyde and he was there.

MATALIN: Henry Hyde wasn't at -- at this conference today.

CONYERS: Well, there was a fellow that weighed and looked like Henry Hyde, and had white hair and said he was the chairman of Judiciary.

MATALIN: At today's conference?

CONYERS: No, no, I'm talking about...

MATALIN: Well...

PRESS: The White House. CONYERS: ... the White House conference.

PRESS: ... about the White House.

MATALIN: I'm asking about the White House, people...

CONYERS: We were meeting with the leaders of the conference committee. Henry Hyde and myself...

MATALIN: I'm talking about today's demagogic meeting where he pulled a few handful of Republicans in with you Democrats. Henry Hyde, who's leading the charge, who was not invited, was not there today as President Clinton kept escalating his assault.

CONYERS; But that meeting -- that meeting can't start the gun conference. The gun conference can only start when the senator, Orrin Hatch...

BARR: When -- when the president tells you all to do something.

CONYERS: And that's what he did.

BARR: And he won't do it.

CONYERS: He begged us. He begged us.

PRESS: Well, I have to ask one question before we take a break, just one simple question.

BARR: Yes, sir.

PRESS: Zoe Lofgren -- Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren today introduced a resolution saying, let's have the conferees meet on this issue. It passed: 46 Republicans voted for it. The NRA opposed it. Why in heaven's name...

BARR: I opposed it. PRESS: Why would you oppose talking?

BARR: Because it is meaningless demagoguery. And John knows it and he's guilty of it tonight. He has been -- he has been meeting on this for hour after hour after hour since last year. I have been working on it. Henry Hyde has been working on it. This is just shameless demagoguery to say that nothing has been going on.

CONYERS: Well, the National Rifle Association passed this out...

BARR: Yes, they are opposed to it. I'm opposed to it.

CONYERS: ... saying vote against starting up a conference. What are we here for? We get paid to legislate...

BARR: John, you've been doing that.

CONYERS: ... not to bend down. BARR: You have been doing that.

CONYERS: Thank you very much.

PRESS: All right, gentlemen, we're just going to just -- quiet down a little bit, take a break for just a minute. And no surprise, this issue could get political this year. So who's shooting straight on gun control, George Bush or Al Gore? When we come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Who says there's not a dime's worth of difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore? A big difference on gun control. Gore says we need more. Bush says enforce the laws we have. So which one is on the winning side of this issue? And when will Congress get off its duff and vote yes or no on pending laws?

Tonight, we put it to two members of Congress, Republican Bob Barr of Georgia, who is also a board member of the NRA, and Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee -- Mary.

MATALIN; All right, Congressmen, let's broaden this out a little bit, because I think we got heavy into substance. You guys are such experts at it. But people watching this, particularly parents, are frustrated at the broader picture, which I think is eliminated in this ad, not one that people have been talking about as much as this ad that the NRA has put out.


CHARLTON HESTON, PRESIDENT, NRA: When a 6-year-old in a crack house finds a stolen gun and shoots a schoolmate, the president doesn't demand gun theft prosecution or busting drug dealers. He demands safety locks.

Don't get me wrong: Nobody supports safety locks more than the NRA. But his solution is to give crack house drug dealers safety locks.

Mr. Clinton, when what you say is wrong, that's a mistake. When you know it's wrong, that's a lie.


MATALIN: OK, this is why people say the president, not the NRA, is demagogic on this issue. When he came out after that tragic, tragic shooting in your state, he never said parents. He never said drugs. Do you really believe -- and do you believe that the president believes that a kid left abandoned with no parents and a loaded gun would -- that that problem will be solved by a safety lock, even though the NRA is for a safety lock? Don't you consider that demagoguery?

CONYERS: Let's see who is telling the truth and who's lying. Charlton Heston just came out and said that they're for trigger locks. Here's an NRA sheet that says we're against trigger locks, against trigger locks.

BARR: Mandated by federal law trigger locks, John.


BARR: Big difference.

CONYERS: Well, that's -- they're mandated by federal law and that's...

BARR: No, they're not. No, they're not.

CONYERS: And that's what we're trying to get in the bill. That's what we're doing, trying to get the safety locks...

BARR: Have you ever heard -- let me ask you a question. Have you ever heard of a fellow named...

CONYERS: ... into the bill.

BARR: ... A.D. Williams?

CONYERS: Yes, I mean, we don't have to do the touching thing, OK.

BARR: I don't...


BARR: I didn't know you were so sensitive.

CONYERS: Yes, well, I don't want to -- I want to just tell you this: that the NRA cannot have it both ways. And let me tell you that the president is -- can very easily win this debate by letting the Congress do nothing, because it's coming back on our leadership, the Republican leadership. But he's trying to reduce the 13 deaths every day of children, of 50,000...

MATALIN: OK, Congressman, Congressman...

BARR: That's nonsense, that's nonsense.

CONYERS: ... 50,000 deaths a year.

MATALIN: Can we talk about -- can I please give you some other statistics? This is not the NRA. This is the Department of Justice statistics under the Clinton/Gore administration, all right? There are over 20,000 gun laws on the books. There are -- 41 of those laws were violated at Columbine. Under Clinton/Gore and the Brady law, eight prosecutions, eight prosecutions of the 200,000 direct violations of Brady have taken place.

On these symbolic laws, ban on possession of guns near schools, eight, eight were prosecuted. Transfer of weapons to juveniles, six. This is -- the Clinton/Gore administration likes to talk but won't do what it is that will -- will stop violent crime, and that's prosecute and enforce the laws that are on the books.

CONYERS: May I respond to that?

The fact of the matter is, is that 20,000 gun laws, if you have 20,000 loopholes, is not going to solve the problem. And that's what we're trying to resolve in the committee, because creating gun laws with loopholes is precisely what we're trying to stop from happening.

Now, the -- the whole idea of this entire episode is to bring some sanity to the gun laws. In -- in the state of Georgia, there are more people killed by guns every year than in Germany, Britain, Canada and Japan combined -- combined.

BARR: Now there's a relevant statistic.

CONYERS: Combined.

BARR: Why don't you go run for office over there there?

CONYERS: It's pretty -- pretty relevant.

PRESS: Congressman Barr, let me ask you this, first of all. As a board member of the NRA, as Congressman Conyers pointed out, this isn't the first time that these attacks -- that the NRA's gone after federal officials.

BARR: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) attacks them all the time.

PRESS: President Bush resigned in 1995 because of those comments about jack-booted thugs. And as "The Washington Times" reported this morning, every time the NRA attacks the president, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican, membership soars.

Let's be honest: These ads -- these phony Charlton Heston ads, these lies and attacks by Wayne LaPierre, it's all part of a well- orchestrated campaign.

BARR: I'd like to see you sitting next to Charlton Heston and call him phony.

PRESS: I will call him, right alongside. But it's part of a well-orchestrated campaign to get the membership up and to raise money for the NRA, isn't it? That's...

BARR: The people, the people...

PRESS: That's just what you guys are doing.

BARR: And it irritates the hell out of you, because the people of this country...

PRESS But you admit it.

BARR: ... they respond to the truth... PRESS: You admit it.

CONYERS: And let's be honest about it.

BARR: ... and they respond to an organization that stands up for what they believe in. That may be democracy. and you don't like it, but that is the way...


PRESS: I agree with Congressman Conyers, at least you're honest about what you're doing.

Now let's talk about enforcement, which you've mentioned. In the state of Texas under Governor Bush since 1996, there have been 600 felons that went in to buy a gun and were turned down. That's according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Do you know how many the Texas Department of Public Safety. Do you know how many the Texas Department of Public Safety has referred for prosecution, to federal or to state or to local.

BARR: No, but you're going to tell me.

PRESS: Zero, Congressman, zero.

BARR: One reason, you want why? Because if they referred it to the federal government, they wouldn't do anything.

PRESS: No, no, not to state nor to locals.

Why isn't George Bush...

BARR: It would be a violation of federal law also...

PRESS: May I ask my question?

BARR: ... In that regard.

PRESS: Why isn't George Bush doing something about enforcing the laws in the state of Texas?

BARR: Well, get George Bush in here and ask him. He's your candidate.

PRESS: All right. I'll ask you this question about Governor Bush. He signed a law in 1995 bringing concealed weapons back to Texas for the first time in 125 years. In 1997, he signed an amendment to it saying you can even take a concealed weapon into a church, synagogue, a sports stadium, a hospital or an amusement park unless there's a signpost that says "No Guns."

Can you tell me, Congressman Barr, why it's good public policy to allow a person to carry a concealed weapon into a church or a synagogue?

BARR: I don't know why you think that it's proper in a country that has a second amendment that reflects a guaranteed right to keep and bear arms to protect yourself that we should have to defend where you can't protect yourself.

CONYERS: In a church?

BARR: Why is that so irritating to you and those who beat up on the NRA?

PRESS: Why do you need a gun in a church, Congressman?

BARR: Why -- why -- the argument should be the other way.

PRESS: No, no, no.

BARR: Under what authority are you saying that my constitutional right extends only to areas where you want me to have it, see? The fellow that I was asking John about before -- before he got so sensitive was there...

PRESS: Your idea of a church is a lot different than mine.

MATALIN: You know what, congresspeople? We have to go. We are out of time.

Thank you, Congressman Conyers.

CONYERS: Always a pleasure, Mary.

MATALIN: Thank you, Congressman Barr.

BARR: Thank you, Mary. Thank you, sir. Great to have you back on the same side.

MATALIN: Never has so much demagoguery passed for substance. When we come back, I'll tell you why Bill is totally wrong and more demagogic than usual.


MATALIN: No touching.

Pat's back, for one night anyway, tomorrow in the CROSSFIRE. Bill and I take on reform presidential candidate -- almost -- Pat Buchanan, don't miss it.

You know what? You are the biggest demagogue, but this is out of control. Governor Bush in Texas has prosecuted those who illegally sell guns, illegally carry guns, illegally commit crimes with guns and the record in Texas is violent crime is down 20 percent, and overall crime is down 13 percent. That's how you stop gun crime, by prosecuting and jailing swift and certainly people who commit crimes with guns.

PRESS: Mary, you can defend your man all you want. You can call me any names you want. The fact is, according to the Department of Public Safety in Texas, zero prosecutions out of 600 people turned down. And then this concealed weapons law.

Mary, you know, if this guy ever became president, God forbid...

MATALIN: By law-abiding people...

PRESS: Wait a minute. He'd say to everybody in this country, that's it, if you want -- there's your message: If you want a concealed weapon in the part of every church and every synagogue in this country, vote for George W. Bush.

Why? Does that make sense?

MATALIN: I've got news for you. Who cares where you carry it? There's a second amendment.

PRESS: Who cares?

MATALIN: If you're a law-abiding citizen, you have the right to have the Constitution applied to you.

PRESS: If I'm in a church or a synagogue, I don't want people packing alongside me. George Bush, get out of here.

MATALIN: Oh, jive. Oh, jive.

PRESS: From the left, I am Bill Press.

Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right -- and the truth-telling side -- I am Mary Matalin, join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: Don't touch.



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