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Crossfire

Will Gun Control Be a Major Issue in the Presidential Election?

Aired April 20, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the lessons of Columbine is that we have to stand up to the NRA and the gun industry, and get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's important for the next administration to do something a little differently, and that is to enforce laws on the books.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, on this anniversary of the tragic shootings at Columbine, the politics of gun control. Will it be a major issue, and which candidate has the best plan?

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, in Atlanta, Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, a member of the Judiciary Committee and board member of the National Rifle Association, and in New York, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. Marking the first anniversary of the massacre at Columbine, both presidential candidates appeared at nonpartisan school events to address their respective plans to curb school violence, while including their differing views on gun control.

At a Temple, Texas elementary school, Governor George W. Bush emphasized public school character education programs and promised federal funding for them. He also reiterated his call for better enforcement of existing gun laws and greater accountability by schools for student safety.

Vice President Al Gore at a Fort Lee, New Jersey high school acknowledged the complexity of the school violence problem, and while complimenting Bush for his emphasis on character and spirituality blasted him for supporting NRA-backed measures. Gore renewed his call for more and tighter gun control legislation.

So tonight, what are the pros and cons of each man's plans, and in the wake of school tragedies, will gun control be a major campaign 2000 issue? And finally, does the issue present opportunity or danger for the candidates? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman Barr, thank you again for joining us. It was, as Mary pointed out, an unusual day today in that George Bush and Al Gore actually agreed on several things. They agreed, No. 1, that teaching values, a better effort to teach values to our kids in school is very important. They agreed that we've got to do a lot better job of curbing violence on TV and in the movies. They agreed that gun control isn't the only answer to school violence, maybe not even the main answer, and they also agreed they've got to enforce the existing laws.

Here's where they differed, Congressman Barr, that Al Gore says we need a couple of more steps, one of which is a three business-day background check at gun shows where an instant check isn't available: for example, over a weekend.

Sounds like a reasonable measure, Congressman Barr. Why shouldn't gun shows be treated the same as gun shops?

REP. BOB BARR (R-GA), BOARD MEMBER, NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION: Well, as a matter of fact, treating them the same is exactly what we've been trying to do for quite some time, and which incidentally, Bill, a majority of Democrats agreed with last year.

The problem is that if you say it's OK or you allow for up to six days -- that is a three-day weekend and three business days -- in order to conduct what should be an instant background check, and for which, by the way, you and the rest of the American people have already paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the FBI to get its act together and get a computer system that works, you're essentially putting gun shows out of business, because citizens go to gun shows. And President Clinton professes to know what goes on at gun shows. But if people go to a gun show on a weekend, they go with the intent of perhaps buying a, lawfully buying a handgun. And if they have to wait until after that weekend and then an additional three days, it's going to effectively put gun shows out of business, Bill.

PRESS: Well, I don't believe that for a second, Congressman. Here's the problem: There are other people that go to those gun shows knowing that they can get guns in those gun shows without any background and maybe use them illegally.

You know for a fact that all four guns used in that horrible Columbine shooting a year ago today were purchased at gun shows. No name required. No signature required. No background check required.

Congressman, if those four guns were not purchased at a gun show, very possibly 12 kids and one brave teacher would be alive today.

BARR: That's a red herring and you know it, Bill.

PRESS: It is not.

BARR: That's a -- yes, it is, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. The fact of the matter is that those guns were transferred illegally to those two student. Every single thing, Bill, that those two students was already illegal.

The questions really, Bill, that we ought to be asking in the wake of this terrible tragedy, to try and do something for the memory of those kids and those families, is to ask ourselves, why weren't the danger signs heeded? What can we do to better identify the danger signs? And why, in fact, weren't all of those laws that were broken enforced at some point along that chain, Bill? Those are the questions that I wish you would ask.

PRESS: And the first question is why could the people who purchased those guns purchase them at a gun show without a background check.

Let me show you our latest ABC/"Washington Post" poll on this issue, Congressman Barr. I think you may be swimming upstream on this issue.

BARR: Wouldn't be the first -- wouldn't be the first time The Washington Post and I disagree.

PRESS: You're right. It's also not the first time you're swimming upstream.

But asked if they would support a three business-day waiting period for gun shows, the American people support 88 percent; opposing, 9 percent.

By taking this extreme position, Bob Barr, aren't you leading your party to political ruin?

BARR: This is not an extreme position, Bill. And I would think that as somebody who professes to care about efficiency and integrity in government you would join with us in saying to the FBI: The American people have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to you; you've had six years now, going on seven years, to get a computer system in place. Why haven't you done it? Those are legitimate questions.

You don't need six days. It should be done instantaneously. It can be. That's what the NRA supports and that's what I support.

MATALIN: OK, Congressman Weiner, Bill just gave an excellent segue into why many Republicans think Al Gore and your party, but specifically Al Gore is using this issue as a political one, not one to find solutions over.

Bill ticks through all the things that the governor and the vice president agree on. Yet here's what the vice president has been leading with. Let me just quote you.

He says: "We should ban guns from churches and school events, something that is shamefully legal in George Bush's Texas and 20 other states."

What he doesn't say, Congressman, is that of course concealed gun laws were passed in Tennessee, the vice president's home state, about which he says nothing. He also doesn't say that in Texas, it's the ministers who wanted concealed gun laws, because those who live on church grounds were concerned about the security of their families.

He's just...

(LAUGHTER)

That just happens to be the truth. You can roll your eyes, but that's the truth.

He doesn't -- what he doesn't want to talk about is Bush's record. Crime is down, juvenile violent crime is down. And this Texas exile program, which is enforcing specifically gun prosecutions, just since September, when it was initiated, has garnered over 200 prosecutions. He doesn't want to talk about his record, so he's exaggerating, as Bill has, some red herring issues.

REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D-NY), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, let me just tell you: first of all, it's interesting you point out Project Exile. That is a Clinton administration policy started by a Clinton administration U.S. attorney.

Look, what George W. Bush has said is that he believes that people should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. As a result, there's been over 2,000 arrests of people who have committed crime with those concealed weapons. And when it was time to clarify the law to say at least they shouldn't be in churches, George Bush said the opposite. He said, no, I want to have concealed weapons in churches.

The fact of the matter is it's a philosophical question. Bob Barr and George W. Bush don't believe that when you go to an instant background check at a gun show and it comes up with a red flag, something that only happens in about 10 percent of those cases -- we should give the person the gun, because we can't check it over three days, like you would be able at a shop. It's a philosophical difference. Al Gore believes the government's role should not be just to sit on the sidelines and hopes something like this doesn't happen again.

MATALIN: Congressman Weiner, I just have to correct you and go back to concealed weapons, because again you Democrats just keep "emotionalizing" this issue. There is nowhere you will have ever found George W. Bush say, no, I want guns in churches. He never said that. He signed legislation where ministers -- that ministers wanted those concealed weapons.

And let me just challenge some of your statistics. In studies done by the University of Chicago, in those counties across the United States, for 15 years that were measured, where concealed gun laws were in place -- let me just give you the numbers -- the murder rate was reduced by 8.5 percent, rapes by 5 percent, severe assault by 7 percent. That's a lot of people not assaulted, not raped and not murdered by law-abiding citizens being able to carry weapons to secure themselves.

WEINER: You know, I'm not surprised that you find it hard to believe that George W. Bush would support having concealed weapons in churches, but let me read you a quote. "Churches are being held hostage by a 30.6." That is section 30.6 of the penal code. That was the provision that prohibited people from carrying guns into church.

George Bush -- George W. Bush went so far as to say churches are held hostage to this provision that keeps guns out of places of worship. One of our problems...

MATALIN: Ministers are held hostage and not allowed to secure themselves. And if a church doesn't want concealed weapons carried into its services, all it has to do is post a sign. You're acting like he's carrying guns, that people are encouraged to pack pistols at mass. That's just not true.

WEINER: Mary, what this points out...

BARR: Well done, Mary.

WEINER: ... is -- it's so far out of touch that George W. is.

By the way, if he wants to campaign, that is his focus, on having people have more guns in churches, bring it on. That's a campaign I want to see our candidate run.

PRESS: Congressman Bob Barr, I heard you chuckling, and I think you're probably chucking at the unbelievable statement, that a governor signs a bill allowing people to carry guns into churches and then he blames it, or a supporter does, on the ministers. The governor is blaming it on the ministers.

Let me ask you, Bob Barr, can you give me one good reason why anybody needs to carry a gun into a church or a synagogue for god's sake?

BARR: Bill, this is like deja vu. We were on another program -- as always, it was a pleasure being with you -- you dredged this up also.

PRESS: I'm not dredging it up.

BARR: I really have hoped, Bill, that on the anniversary of Columbine, we could be focusing on real issues and not a bogus, red herring issue. Ask some of the questions that the parents of the students killed at Columbine have been asking, and as I have heard from them, and that is, why can't we get the youth violence legislation out of conference committee and to the floor and stop having it being held hostage to gun control? There are things, Bill, in that legislation that schools really need and we want to give to them and we can't get it to the floor. PRESS: Let me tell you something, congressman, you've done this show a lot. And we all appreciate the fact that you've come on here, and you know that we ask the questions. The guests don't ask you the questions. So I want to ask you my question again and ask you to please answer it: Give me, please, one good reason why anybody has to carry a gun into a church, or a synagogue, into a sacred place?

BARR: Bill, nobody has to carry a gun into a church.

PRESS: Then why should they be allowed to?

BARR: Well, because we live in a free country for one thing, Bill. And as Mary said, if any church wants to exercise its absolute right to prohibit anybody from bringing a weapon in, all they have to do is do so.

PRESS: Why should to post it? What is the threat? Shouldn't there be one place where people can be happy that there's not somebody alongside of them with a gun? Can't they pray without knowing there's a gun pointed at them?

BARR: This is not a major problem. This is not a major problem in any community in America. The real issues are those that I believe both the vice president and the U.S. -- and Governor Bush today are doing a far better job of than you are, and that is talking about values. You started the program talking about it, and then you go off on this silly tangent.

WEINER: Yes, but young people getting access to guns is a problem.

BARR: Certainly it is.

WEINER: Columbine showed us that. That is why one of the provisions in the Juvenile Justice Bill that should be included is allowing background checks to make sure violent juveniles don't get guns. Any reason not to do that?

BARR: Listen, we agree on probably 90 percent of what's in that bill.

WEINER: Do you agree with that, Bob?

BARR: Why don't you urge colleagues to let us bring those provisions to the floor that we can agree on and get them passed, get them to the president to sign, and let's leave the issues of gun control, on which we have to still work out differences, leave those for another day, but at least get some things to our teachers that they need.

WEINER: Is there any reason to allow juveniles to have assault rifles? These are the things that Al Gore...

BARR: Now wait a minute, assault rifles have been illegal since the 1930s. Don't try and confuse the issue.

WEINER: Not to have possession of them.

BARR: Yes, they have been.

WEINER: There's no penalties for an adult to hand it off to a juvenile.

PRESS: What you need to do, is you need to restudy your definition of assault weapon. You're making one up.

PRESS: Congressmen, we're going to have to take a break. Not surprising, no agreements so far. Maybe when we come back there will be more agreement on this question: Will gun control be a big issue in this presidential election year? And if so, who comes out ahead?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Here's a switch: On this first anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, Al Gore and George Bush actually agreed on something, agreed that more gun control is not the only answer to school violence, maybe not even the main answer. But here's where they differ. More laws are part of the answer, says Gore, no more laws just more enforcement, says Bush. Will that be a deciding issue in this year's contest? Debating the politics of gun control tonight: Congressman Bob Barr, Republican from Georgia and a board member of the NRA; and Congressman Anthony Weiner, Democrat from New York, member of the House Judiciary Committee -- Mary.

MATALIN: OK, Congressman Weiner, once again, let me say I think your candidate is not about solutions, he's about making an issue. In addition to that irrational church red herring, here's another thing he said today: One of the lessons of Columbine is that we have to stand up to the NRA and the gun industry and get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. That is an irrational non sequitur. The solution is right, but it's not the NRA and the gun industry putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens. What you've got to do is enforce laws on the books to get the guns out of the criminals' hands. And under the Clinton-Gore administration, gun prosecutions have plummeted 46 percent. Six-thousand juvenile gun cases occurred in the Clinton/Gore administration, and 13 were prosecuted.

Why is he attacking the NRA and the gun industry for what his administration hasn't done?

WEINER: Well, that's absolutely not true. In fact, overall gun prosecutions, like Project Exile, which is a cooperation from the state and federal authorities are up 35 percent. More people in prison for gun laws now than at any time in our nation's history. The average penalty that people are serving is two years longer than it was in the Bush administration. This is the classic red herring.

Look, Mary, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. I believe that both candidates are right, that this is not just about gun laws, but this is something the president and Congress can do. Simple thing: Require trigger locks to be sold with handguns. That is something Al Gore wants. And whatever morning I wake up and read the paper, George Bush has a different position. I mean, I think Americans believe that there is a role for the federal government to play in making sure the people who should not have guns, particularly juveniles, don't get them. Why George W. is such a captive to the NRA that he won't accept that basic premise is mysterious to me, and he's going to find that the voters are going to hold it against him.

MATALIN: Congressman, let me help you on Bush's position. He is for voluntary trigger locks, and if there was legislation passed, he would sign it. See, we're not into making legislation that you cannot enforce. Now, let me remind you that...

WEINER: What is a voluntary trigger lock law?

MATALIN: If you pass a law that has trigger locks, he'll sign it. You can't enforce a law right now that says -- but let me point out, if you are confused about his position, that Senator Gore had a 75 percent NRA approval rating. Let me talk about the politics you're so concerned about president Bush. In a recent survey, when respondents were asked "What's the best way to reduce school gun violence, which is why we're talking about gun violence?" By a huge margin, greater involvement by parents, 84 percent; more gun control, 14 percent. They don't want more laws. They want more enforcement?

WEINER: Actually that same exact survey did say people wanted reasonable gun control laws.

Let me just go back to your explanation of George W.'s position on trigger locks. What does it mean to require voluntary use of trigger locks? That exists today. That is a nonissue. Right now, Smith & Wesson can voluntarily provide trigger locks. In fact, it is to be against mandatory trigger locks, which overwhelmingly, Americans support, because it prevents accidental handgun deaths among children, which is the number one accidental death of young people in this country.

MATALIN: And so does parents leaving guns laying around.

BARR: That's absolute hogwash, Mary. Don't let him get away with it. That is absolute hogwash...

MATALIN: Well, go get him.

BARR: ... that gun violence or accidental gun shootings is such a great cause. The number of young people, children, who have been killed or seriously injured in gun accidents has dropped precipitously. That is absolutely bogus, and he ought not to be let get away with making such outrageous statements.

PRESS: Congressman Barr, I want to ask you -- I've noticed today in one article, the top four contributors in soft money in the year 2000 to the Republican Party Committee so far, and here they are: Philip Morris, a little over a million; AT&T, almost $700,000; UPS -- I don't know why; I'm going to get a new delivery service -- $618,000; and the National Rifle Association is in fourth place, $553,000. I want to asks as a NRA board member, why are you giving all that money to the Republican Party and how much are you giving to the Democratic Party?

BARR: Well, some of the strongest supporters of the issues that are important to the many millions of Americans that belong to and support the NRA are Democrats. John Dingell, for example, the senior Democrat in the House and the author of an amendment that would have done what you say you want done, and that is to ensure that everybody who purchases a gun at a gun show has a background check, he receives money from the NRA.

PRESS: But I'm asking you, how much money are you -- why are you giving all that money to the Republican Party, six times more than you gave in 1996? Why?

BARR: It just might be, Bill, put your thinking cap on, it just might be that the NRA, like any organization which receives money from its membership to give to members of Congress and candidates who happen to support their position. Maybe that has something to do with it.

PRESS: So the Republican Party is the party of the NRA. George Bush is the candidate of the NRA?

BARR: Bill, neither party is the party of anyone particular industry or interest group. It simply reflects the flack that, in a Democracy, that if you have an organization that can voluntarily donate money, they are going to donate it to members and candidates who support what their grassroots wants them to support. That's a civic lesson that apparently you missed.

PRESS: Well, I got it. I got it. So did everybody listening.

MATALIN: Thank you, Congressman Barr, thank you, Congressman Weiner, out there practicing real civics on your Easter break. Go forth and do Democracy. Thanks for joining us. And when Bill and I come back, we'll do our own version of Democracy right here on CROSSFIRE.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Mary, blame it on the ministers? Come on, I can't wait to see George Bush go around this country and defend enabling people for the first time in 125 years, even in Texas, to take a gun into a church or a synagogue.

MATALIN: This is so evident of your wanting an issue not a solution. No one is forcing people to take guns into church. The ministers have asked to be able to have weapons on their property to secure their families.

PRESS: Name one minister. Name one minister who wants guns in his church. MATALIN: I'll bring you a list tomorrow. This is a total red herring. All you want is more laws, and you want an issue; you don't want solution, or you wouldn't be raising this ridiculous issue that is not a problem.

PRESS: It's not a ridiculous issue; for people to carry guns into churches is a serious issue. It's outrageous.

MATALIN: Oh, for Pete's sakes. Where is it a problem? Name me one place it's been a problem.

PRESS: It's a problem in every church in Texas.

From the left, I'm Bill Press.

(CROSSTALK)

Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: Have a wonderful holiday.

From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. See you next week for more editions of CROSSFIRE.

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