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Are Some Lawmakers Playing Politics With Gun Violence?

Aired April 25, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A 12-year-old is gravely injured. Two others seriously injured, and it goes on. What does it take?


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, another tragic shooting and more calls for gun control. Are some lawmakers playing politics with gun violence?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Senator Tim Hutchinson from Arkansas.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Once again, it was kids firing guns at kids. This time at the Washington Zoo during an African-American family celebration when tension between two groups of teenagers erupted into gunfire late yesterday afternoon leaving seven children wounded. A 16-year-old suspect was arrested late this afternoon.

But police had barely arrived on the scene before some politicians started pointing fingers. Washington's Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said the fact that children have guns -- quote -- "is the fault of the Congress of the United States in not passing gun-control laws." Even Vice President Al Gore jumped in to take a shot at George Bush.


GORE: The other party is hosting a dinner like this one that's co-chaired by the National Rifle Association and they are opposing meaningful gun-control legislation. The leader of the other party just -- Governor Bush just overturned in his state a 125-year-old ban on concealed weapons.


PRESS: But is it that simple? That's our CROSSFIRE tonight. Who's to blame for gun violence? Is Congress doing enough, and are some people just playing politics with guns -- Bob.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Senator Dick Durbin, the district -- the delegate for the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who has taken over the years calling herself a congresswoman -- she really isn't of course -- ran to the place where these poor children had been shot and said that it was the fault of the Congress that they had been shot. Do you concur in that demagoguery?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I think we all bear some burden here, and there's a lot that can be done to reduce gun violence in this country. We can have gun-safety legislation like the bill that passed the Senate with the tie-breaking vote of Al Gore. We can have better enforcement of existing laws and we can go to some of the root causes as well -- how to reach these children and move them away from a culture of violence, move them toward some values so that they don't turn to this kind of violence.

NOVAK: I take it from your answer you don't fully concur in Mrs. Norton's demagoguery then. But let me say something that you would never guess if you tuned in here listening to Bill's introduction, or to these -- Mrs. Norton and Vice President Gore, the toughest gun- control law in the world is in the District of Columbia, no guns, period -- in violation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, by the way. But anyway, nobody's going to court on that.

How -- explain to me, because I don't quite understand it how more gun control will help in a city where there's absolute prohibition of all weapons?

DURBIN: Well, of course, Bob, you know that to go over to Virginia or cross the line into Maryland is a very easy thing for any resident of the District of Columbia. A recent survey of the guns used in crimes in the District of Columbia found 55 percent of them were purchased either in Virginia or Maryland, or fewer -- lower percentages in the surrounding states, Southern states and like.

So despite what D.C. does, the fact is that those would-be criminals can move to gun salesmen in Virginia, Maryland, purchase the guns, come back and commit the crimes in the District of Columbia.

NOVAK: But, Senator, this gun from all we know was probably an illegal gun, period. That broke the law. That broke one law. The fact that they shot people, that is really against the law. I don't quite understand how passing more laws is going to improve the situation when goodness knows how many laws were broken yesterday afternoon at the National Zoo.

DURBIN: We did a GAO study recently. It was requested by a Republican senator, one who is -- usually favors the NRA position on most issues. And we asked them to analyze these gun dealers across America that were responsible for selling guns used in crimes. It turned out, out of 100,000 of the gun dealers in America, about 1,000 of them are responsible for over 50 percent of the guns sold in crime.

It also turns out that the background checks are very effective for 95 percent of the people who go to buy guns. We can find out within two hours if they should be disqualified. It really tells us with a nation of over 200 million guns we're not going to eliminate gun violence, but we can reduce it by enforcing the existing laws.

NOVAK: OK, let me ask you one more thing, and you weren't quite responsive to me, Senator, but I don't always expect you to be responsive to me. But I'd like you to listen to what Senate majority leader Trent Lott said today.


SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MAJORITY LEADER: What we need is to have strict enforcement of the laws, we should have very strong punishments for people that commit crimes with guns.


NOVAK: Now, what is very interesting is the Luntz Research Poll taken on April 6th and 9th asked for the best approach for solving gun related crime: tougher enforcement of existing laws, 64 percent -- this is a national poll -- creating new gun-control laws, 29 percent.

People agree with Trent Lott and not Dick Durbin, don't they?

DURBIN: Well, frankly, I agree with Trent Lott to an extent. I think we need both. We need gun-safety legislation such as closing the gun show loophole, putting trigger locks on guns that are for sale and making sure we don't support high-capacity ammo clips, but we need better enforcement.

And two weeks ago, when I offered an amendment on the Senate floor on the budget resolution to increase the enforcement of the ATF, an amendment that had been suggested by the administration, it was voted down by the same Republicans, including Senator Lott, who just said we need more enforcement. You can't have it both ways. I offered the amendment for more enforcement. They voted it down.

PRESS: Senator Hutchinson, I'm not surprised that the mayor of Washington, D.C., Mayor Tony Williams understands the situation here and the reality a lot better than my colleague, Bob Novak. The mayor was on ABC's "Good Morning America" this morning, had something to say about yesterday's tragedy. Please listen up.


MAYOR ANTHONY WILLIAMS, WASHINGTON, D.C.: We have very, very strict gun-control laws, but we are a little 70-square-mile city surrounded by two states, and what I'm seeing is this city, our surrounding states and our country all have to work together, because these guns know no borders.


PRESS: Isn't that the issue, Senator, that an incident like this is the best, strongest possible argument why you need regional and federal gun control laws, that a city or even a state can't do it alone? SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: I don't agree at all. I think that where you have strong enforcement of existing laws, you see crime go down. And if a criminal is intent on getting a weapon, using a weapon in a violent act, he's going to do that. If strict gun- control laws insured reduction in crime and greater safety, then Washington, D.C. should be the safest city in America. It's not.

Richmond, Virginia, on the other hand, has seen through the Project Exile program an strict enforcement of existing gun laws, a 40 percent reduction in murders committed with guns over the last three years since the program began. That, I think, is what we need. I'm pleased to hear Dick saying that greater enforcement is what is necessary.

PRESS: I don't think anybody is going to disagree with you on greater enforcement. I think the Richmond program is a great program. But to come back to it, Senator, how you can expect D.C. to enforce anything as long as you have all these bridges across the Potomac and as long as Virginia is gun heaven and anybody can buy any gun there and bring it in here and use it?

HUTCHINSON: Well, let me give you an example. In February, a young man by the name of Marco Moore (ph) was arrested for a gun violation in the District of Columbia. That's in a jurisdiction that we have authority over in the United States -- we want to take responsibility.

This young man was arrested with a gun violation, had a record, had drug paraphernalia, spent the night in jail and was released the next morning, because the United States attorney with jurisdiction of the District of Columbia decided they weren't going to prosecute. Within a week, that young man is alleged to have shot a 17-year-old young lady. I wrote the attorney general of this country over a month ago asking why, what is the criteria for prosecuting and not prosecuting?

But, Bill, that's what I say. You say, well, what can the district do surrounded by states that have more liberal gun-control laws? I say they can enforce the existing laws. When there are gun violations, prosecute to the hilt and you will see a reduction in crime.

PRESS: But aren't -- don't you also have to admit that you enforce all the laws that exist, there are still some enforcements you can't do because there is nothing there to enforce. For example, gun shows, no background check at a gun show.

Why shouldn't, Senator, a gun show -- that's one of the proposals that is part of the gun-safety legislation in Congress now -- why shouldn't a gun show have the same requirements for checks that a gun shop has, three-day background if necessary because the one day is not available? What's wrong with that? Common sense.

HUTCHINSON: Dick just said that we could do a background check in three or four hours. We offered a 24-hour background check and it was rejected, and I'll tell you why it was rejected, because it's politics over what's good policy. Henry Hyde, who is an advocate of stricter gun control, offered a good-faith offer to the Democrats and it was rejected out of hand.

PRESS: Senator...


HUTCHINSON: We could have a law this year.

DURBIN: Let's go back to what I said -- 95 percent of those that are run through the computers are checked within two hours and cleared. The five percent that take longer, up to three days, turn out to be 20 times more likely to be felons, fugitives, wife beaters, stalkers, people with a history of violent mental illness. And to protect that 5 percent, Tim, you are saying, frankly, we're not going to check anybody. That doesn't make any sense.

NOVAK: I fail to see how gun checks or safety locks have anything to do with what happened at the National Zoo.

But I want to ask you a question. Let's say that Virginia, which is gun heaven, according to Mr. Press, that suddenly the left-wingers took over in Richmond, threw out the good governor they have there, and passed a duplicate of the District of Columbia gun law. Now most of these gun offenses in the District of Columbia are gang-related. This thing at the zoo might well have been gang related. Many of them are drug related. Those are national drug laws. Do you have any doubt that the kind of young people, like this 16-year-old who's been arrested, would be able to get a gun if Virginia had exactly the same law as the District of Columbia.

DURBIN: Bob, there isn't a law we can pass that can take 200 million guns out of circulation and keep them away from the hands of criminals. Does that mean we don't give up? Don't that mean we don't try? Does that mean we don't pass a common sense gun safety law to do background check if you buy a gun at a gun show.

NOVAK: But that gets down to exactly what we're talking about. Grover Norquist -- do you know Grover Norquist?

HUTCHINSON: I know the name.

NOVAK: Grover Norquist is a friend of Senator Hutchinson. He's a Republican strategist. Isn't he a friend of yours?

HUTCHINSON: I'll claim him as a friend.

NOVAK: And he said that "Every American gun owner should know there rights will be lost if Al Gore and a Democratic Congress are elected."

And isn't that what we're talking about, that you can't control the criminals from getting those 200 million weapons, but you're going to take the guns out of the hands of the law-abiding Americans?

DURBIN: Bob, you like to make predictions -- I'll make a predictions: Before the election in November, Governor George W. Bush is going to call on Congress to pass this gun safety law that Vice President Gore's vote brought out of the Senate. He understands and the American people understand that gun safety is part of the answer here, that gun show checks, to keeps the trigger locks on guns and to stop these high-capacity clips from being imported into this country.

NOVAK: Senator Durbin, you're a great television person. You have made the segue into the next segment, when we're going to talk about the politics of gun control.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

When seven youths were wounded in shootout at the Washington Zoo yesterday, the surest result was renewal of the gun-control debate. But who gets the political gain in election 2000? Democrats advocating gun control? Or Republicans advocating gun ownership? We're seeking answers from Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Senator Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas -- Bill.

PRESS: Senator Hutchinson, the ABC "Washington Post" did a little survey last week asking Americans whether gun control was going to be an important issue in issue 2000. Very important: 62 percent of Americans; somewhat: 21 percent. That's a total of 83 percent. Not too important: 8 percent; not at all 9 percent -- 83-17, senator.

Which leaves me to wonder why the Republicans in Congress haven't done something about this issue. And I want to suggest maybe why. The "Post" also reported a couple of days, the top four soft money donors to the Republican committees: Philip Morris, No. 1; AT&T, No. 2; UPS, No. 3 -- I'm going to start using FedEx, by the way -- and No. 4, the NRA. Is your party for sale to the NRA, Senator?

HUTCHINSON: No, our party is not for sale, and that's a terrible thing to say, to allege or to suggest. We would have what Dick called a gun safety bill. We would have that bill already were Democrats not playing politics with the whole issue, and they'd rather have an issue as to have a bill. I'm offended -- your offended by supporters of the Republican Party; I'm offended by a vice president who treads on tragedies and trivializes those tragedies by turning them into political events in an occasion to promote his agenda. Well, I think that's wrong, and I the think Democrats today who are holding up a good faith offer made by Henry Hyde shouldn't claim somehow that we don't support good gun safety legislation, juvenile justice legislation.

PRESS: Senator, I'm sorry to shock you, but this is Washington -- follow the money. Why do you think the NRA is giving that much money to the party?

HUTCHINSON: You asked if we were for sale, and I'm saying we're not for sale.

PRESS: Don't you think the NRA is expecting to get something in return? Namely, no gun control legislation? HUTCHINSON: Maybe, just maybe, they look at those who believe in individual rights, believe in enforcement of the law and say we kind of prefer that party as opposed to the party that's saying let's take away those rights, and let's restrict them and let's pass the kind of gun-control legislation that's not going to make this country safer, but is going to keep law abiding citizens from being able to protect themselves.

NOVAK: Senator Dick Durbin, I've numbers that are going to take the top of your head off.


NOVAK: Not literally. But it's a CNN and "USA TODAY"/Gallup poll. Who would do a better job with the gun issue? Al Gore: 44 percent. George W. Bush: 42 percent. Margin of error, 5 percent -- dead heat. So the American people see no difference. He has all these numbers about 83 percent think it's a big issue, but it's a wash, isn't it?

DURBIN: It may be a wash today. It won't be in November, because I think it will be a clearly defined issue when they understand that Governor George Bush in Texas rolled back 125-year tradition to have a concealed carry law so you can take a gun into a church or synagogue in the state of Texas; I don't think the American people are going to warm up to that position.

And as I said earlier, I predict before November that George W. Bush will get religion on the gun issue. He'll understand what Bill Press said: Americans, Democrats, Republicans and independents want sensible gun-safety laws passed.

NOVAK: Senator, what you're saying is that the smear machine of Al Gore, which works almost every day, is going to be throwing the paint out now and then?

DURBIN: Only the facts.

NOVAK: Let me suggest how difficult that is. There was a -- I don't know -- we're both Illinoisans. I don't know if you pay attention to these things in Illinois, but In 1999, there were two elections. They were in Jersey and Virginia, and do you know what the big issue in both those elections were?

DURBIN: Tell me.

NOVAK: Gun control. It was gun control. And in New Jersey, they kept control of the legislature, and in Virginia, the Old Dominion, the home of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic Party, for the first time the Republicans took control of the legislature.

Isn't it a fact that the people who like gun ownership vote more than the people who like gun control?

DURBIN: Bob, I sure hope the Republican National Committee is listening to you tonight and taking your advice and sticking with this bad position that they have, opposing any kind of gun safety legislation. We're going to win in November on this issue.

This has transcended the ordinary political issues into a moral issue. People across this country are sick of the gun violence, sick of 12 kids in America every day dying because of guns. And they can't understand why the NRA has a lock on this Republican Congress.

NOVAK: Just -- just quickly, Dick, so you would think then, based on that, you think it's going to be such a good issue...

DURBIN: Absolutely.

NOVAK: ... that Al Gore -- Al Gore should pick you as his running mate?


DURBIN: That's quite a leap, Bob.

PRESS: Senator Hutchinson, I want to ask you quickly a couple of things. One is one of the other measures that have been talked about -- and Al Gore actually proposed it -- is a license for all new handguns.

Now, I want to quote to you the president to my knowledge that has been the most hunting, the most gun-happy president, at least in my lifetime that I know, is Lyndon Johnson.

Here's what Lyndon Johnson had to say. Quote: "Our citizens must get licenses to fish, to hunt and to drive. Certainly no less should be required for possession of lethal weapons that have caused so much horror and heartbreak in this country."

You've got to agree with that, don't you, senator?

HUTCHINSON: You know, Bill, what I was thinking...

PRESS: Simple measure.

HUTCHINSON: ... about this tragic shooting that took place at the Washington Zoo, do you think that young man would have gone down and got a photo ID?

This is not -- the reason Republicans are going to win the politics of the gun debate is because we are supporting enforcement of existing laws. In Columbine, there were 15 federal laws, 15 federal laws broken, and if we had 20 of them, and if we'd had passed -- and I notice Dick no longer says gun control. It's always gun safety.

DURBIN: It is gun safety bill.

HUTCHINSON: It's a gun control bill.




HUTCHINSON: He changed his terminology. But if we'd had 20 federal laws in Columbine, they'd have broken 20 laws. What we have to have is stricter enforcement and addressing the cultural issues. But you're absolutely right, Dick. You've got to look at the underlying causes.

PRESS: I want to repeat again: Enforcement would have done nothing in Columbine against the gun shows. All four guns came from gun shows, where there was no law. Now back to this...

HUTCHINSON: And trigger locks...

PRESS: ... license, don't you have to agree that if you've got to go down and you have to apply for a license and you have to show identification and you have to give a photo, it's going to make it more difficult to get a gun, therefore more people who shouldn't have them are not going to get them, right?

HUTCHINSON: I think the way to keep people who shouldn't have them from having them is to do the background check. And I support the background check, and I think you keep those who ought not have the guns from getting the guns by doing the background check. And that's what we should be enforcing. We don't need -- we don't need to be passing more federal laws.

PRESS: All right. Thank you. Senators, we are -- we are out of time. Sorry. Senator Hutchinson, good to have you back. Senator Durbin, good to be here. Good debate, gentlemen.

Bob Novak and I will wrap it up with our closing comments, coming up.


PRESS: OK. You think you can take me on better than Bob Novak can, no way. But here's your chance. Join me right after tonight's show in the crossfire chat room. The address,

Bob, I'm not surprised tonight you're trying to shoot the messenger. The messenger doesn't count, Bob. It's the message. The message is the more guns that are out there, the more kids that are going to get killed by guns and the people that won't take the guns away are partly responsible.

NOVAK: Well, as Dick Durbin said, there are millions of guns out there and you're not going to stop them no matter what you do.

But I'll tell you, Bill, you did succeed in offending me today when you said the Republican Party was for sale to the gun lobby because it takes contributions from the NRA. Is the Democratic Party for sale to organized labor? Is it for sale to the environmental crazies? Is it for sale to the trial lawyers?

That's demagoguery when you say...

PRESS: Let me tell you something, Bob...

NOVAK: ... when you say that a party that takes money from people that agree with it is putting itself up for sale. And you know that as a former politician.

PRESS: No, no, no. You give the money, you expect the quid pro quo. The NRA expects a quid pro quo.

NOVAK: That's really bad stuff.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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