Kaine: Why do we have to be bystanders to gun violence?

tim kaineLast night, during a more than fifteen-hour filibuster on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine added his voice to the renewed push for legislative action to combat gun violence.

Kaine reflected on how Virginia has been affected by gun violence, including the horrific shooting of WDBJ’s Alison Parker and Adam Ward last year, as well as his own personal experience – from witnessing the scenes of brutal homicides in Richmond as a city council member and Mayor, to serving as Governor during the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.

“We’ve got scar tissue in my Commonwealth, we’ve got scar tissue in this country and we’ve got scar tissue personally. And after every one of these instances, we resolve to be better, we resolve to do more. Yet why do we continue to be passive?” Kaine asked. “In this body we don’t have to be heroes, we just have to not be bystanders. That is all we have to do, stop being bystanders and cast a vote.”

As a result of the filibuster, an agreement was reached with Senate Republicans to vote on commonsense gun reform amendments to the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The amendments would close the terrorist watch list loophole and implement universal background checks.

Kaine has long-supported a comprehensive approach to curbing gun violence, including the expansion of mental health services, background record checks prior to gun purchases and responsible limits on combat-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. This month, he announced his support for two pieces of legislation to address gun violence – one that would lift a de facto twenty-year ban on firearms safety and gun violence prevention research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and another that would dramatically strengthen background record checks on all private and online firearm sales.

In January 2016, Kaine introduced legislation to end the gun industry’s liability shield. Last year, Kaine introduced the Responsible Transfer of Firearms Actto hold people responsible if they sell or transfer a firearm to someone who is barred by federal law from possessing one, as well as called for closing a loophole that allows a gun purchase to be carried out even if the background check is not completed.

 

A full transcript of Kaine and Senator Chris Murphy’s remarks:

Mr. KAINE. Mr. President, thank you for the opportunity to appear tonight, and I share my praise for my colleague, the Senator from Connecticut. We came to the Senate together. His leadership on this issue is something I admire, but more than leadership on the issue, I admire his heart and his compassion. He has suffered because his citizens have suffered. And if you suffer and you don’t try to change things–if you don’t try to do things differently–then you are not fully alive. I honor that in the Senator, that he is willing to be vulnerable and in his suffering is trying to find help for others.

I have a little scar tissue on this issue. I would love to describe the Virginia experience and my own personal experience on this and then ask a series of questions to my colleague from Connecticut.

I was elected to office for the first time in May of 1994 to the Richmond City Council. At the time I was elected, Richmond had the second highest homicide rate per capita in the United States. I was sworn in on July 1, 1994. On October 14, 1994–I will never forget that day–in my city council district, in a public housing community, which is the largest between Washington and Atlanta, Gilpin Court, a 35-year-old guy walked into an apartment and gunned down a family of six, from a 35-year old woman, to her younger sister, to tiny little babies and children. I got a call as a city council member. I raced to the scene, and it was chaos. That has begun a 22-year experience of being too intimate with this problem. That funeral of the family in the Arthur Ashe Center in Richmond with 3,000 people and six little white coffins at the front of the room is something that I will never, ever forget.

A number of years later I was Governor of Virginia. I had just taken a trade mission to Japan and had landed, had checked into the hotel, and had fallen asleep. Someone knocked on my door. It was April 16, 2007, and my security detail said: You have to call home. Something horrible has happened in Virginia, and it is still underway. I called to find that a shooting was still taking place at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg that eventually killed 32 people and injured dozens of others.

At that point–at that point, it was the worst shooting incident in the history of the United States, but no longer. That was the worst day of my life, and it will always be the worst day of my life–comforting the families of the victims, talking to the first responders who went into a classroom where bodies littered the floor and who heard in the pockets of deceased students and professors cell phones ringing as parents who had seen it on the news were calling their kids, just knowing they were at Virginia Tech to ask them if they were all right–calls that would never be answered. This traumatized some of the most hardened first responders whom I know. I knew priests and ministers in that community who had seen a lot and were traumatized in the days to follow.

The Senator from Connecticut has a reasonable proposal on the floor with respect to background record checks. The deranged young man who had committed that crime and then killed himself was not supposed to get a weapon. He was federally prohibited from getting a weapon because he had been adjudicated to be mentally ill and dangerous, but the weaknesses of a background check system–gaps in the background check system–had created the ability for him to buy this weapon and create this unspeakable carnage.

We learned everything we could learn from that tragedy; we fixed what we could fix. To my everlasting regret, I could fix part of the background record check system, but I went to the legislature and said: Let’s have universal background checks so this will not happen again. Even in the aftermath of the worst shooting tragedy in the United States, I couldn’t get my legislature to do the simple thing that the voters, that gun owners, and that NRA members said they should do.

Then, a year ago–it was in August of 2015–in the same community, the Blacksburg-Roanoke community in Virginia, a young woman I know who was the TV reporter at WDBJ television, Alison Parker, who covered Senator Warner and me–we know her parents–was shooting a live piece in the morning about the anniversary of a local chamber of commerce, and a mentally ill former employee of the station came up, live on television, and videoing himself, killed Alison and Adam Ward, her cameraman, and ultimately took his own life later that day.

We have scar tissue in my town. We have scar tissue in my Commonwealth. We have scar tissue in this country. We have scar tissue personally. And after every one of these instances, we resolved to be better, and we resolved to do more.

Why do we need to be passive?

Why do we need to do nothing?

We resolved to do better and do more.

Yet here in this body, we can’t.

We were together here, my colleague from Connecticut and I. I talked about the worst day of my life at Blacksburg, but the worst day in the Senate was standing here on the floor in April of 2013 and having a debate about this very piece of legislation about background record checks, and we were surrounded in the gallery by the victims and the families from Newtown, and they were watching us.

There is a line in the Letter to the Hebrews that talks about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. With them were Virginia Tech families, and they were together, and they were watching us, and they were praying, I know, for us to do the right thing. Yet, even with the family members who had suffered from the State of Senator Murphy and Senator Blumenthal, even with those family members hoping we would do the right thing, we couldn’t get there.

As surely as night follows day, there have been other tragedies. And now–something I hoped would never happen–a shooting tragedy has eclipsed even the horrific tragedy in Blacksburg in 2007. So the question that has to be asked is, What will it take and when will we act?

So I would ask the Senator a series of questions because I am not just grappling with this as a legislator; I am grappling with this as a person, as a parent, as a friend, as somebody who has scar tissue. I have an organization, the National Rifle Association, that is headquartered in my State and that says we can’t do anything because of the Second Amendment.

Let me ask a couple of questions of my colleague. The Senator would agree with me, would he not, that the Second Amendment is in the Constitution, so of course it is important. It is important, as the First Amendment is important, wouldn’t the Senator agree with me on that?

Mr. MURPHY. It is in there for a reason.

Mr. KAINE. It is in there for a reason. And it has been in there since 1787, and Virginians were the drafters. So it is in there for a reason, and it is important, just like the First Amendment.

Let me ask the Senator about the First Amendment. The First Amendment says there is a right to free speech and a right to freedom of the press. Does that mean that constitutionally I can go out and slander and libel anyone, and there is no consequence for that? Is that what the First Amendment means?

Mr. MURPHY. The First Amendment is as important as the Second Amendment, but it comes with conditions and responsibilities. One of them is that you can’t slander your fellow citizens. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. There have been important limitations since the beginning of the Republic built around the First Amendment which, frankly, are as sacred as any of the individual rights that are encompassed in the Bill of Rights.

Mr. KAINE. There is another part of the First Amendment that says you have a right to assemble. My understanding–and the Senator is a lawyer, so he can tell me if I am wrong about the right to assemble. You have a right to assemble, but a government can condition that. It can say you have to get a permit or you can assemble here, not there. It cannot discriminate among points of view, but the common constitutional provision is that there can be reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of assembly under the First Amendment, and that is completely constitutional. Is that the Senator’s understanding of the clause?

Mr. MURPHY. Another qualified right of the Bill of Rights.

Mr. KAINE. I can do the same thing on the Third Amendment, and I can do the same thing on the Fourth Amendment, and I can do the same thing on the Sixth Amendment and the Seventh amendment, the right to trial by jury in civil matters. And each of these rights are important just as the Second Amendment is important, and in each of these rights we commonly accept–actually, we demand, not just accept–that consistent with constitutional rights there be reasonable limits so that we can live together in peaceable harmony as citizens.

Would the Senator agree with me that there is nothing about those reasonable restrictions in the First or the Second or the Third or the Fourth or the Sixth or the Seventh Amendments that is at all inconsistent with the constitutional framework that we take an oath to uphold when we come into this body?

Mr. MURPHY. I haven’t memorized portions of the Constitution as well as Senator King has, but he very eloquently stated for us the preamble of the Constitution, which commits us first and foremost to preserve domestic tranquility and to protect the common defense.

So at the very beginning of the Constitution is this obligation to take the issue of public safety as a sacred duty upon inheriting the mantle of preserving and defending the Constitution.

So, as he has stated, all of those rights in the Bill of Rights come with conditions and responsibilities demanded by the American people, and when we talk about the Second Amendment, it is educated by that very important preamble which commands all of us to do whatever is necessary to protect the safety of our citizens.

Mr. KAINE. Am I not right that the Second Amendment even has the phrase “well regulated” in it and even acknowledges the notion that this particular right is one where regulation is contemplated?

Mr. MURPHY. Whereas the First Amendment doesn’t place the condition into the text–they are read into it–the Second Amendment has conditions in the literal text.

Mr. KAINE. So the organization in Virginia that makes this argument about the Second Amendment–I think we can clearly demonstrate it is specious. The Second Amendment is critically important. We all take an oath to uphold it, and we do uphold it, but there is nothing inconsistent with the Second Amendment in terms of the provisions you are talking about on the floor.

Let me ask you this. Here is an argument they make, and I hear them make this all the time: What these guys who are advocating these propositions want to do is they want to take away all of your guns. You were in the House a while before I got here. To your recollection, has there ever been, in your time here, a proposal that has been put in place in Congress to take away the guns of American citizens?

Mr. MURPHY. It is a wonderful subtext to all of the rhetoric that comes from the gun lobby and the NRA that there is this secret agenda to essentially get the camel’s nose under the tent through an expansion of background checks or a restriction on individuals who are on the terrorist watch list as far as buying guns, because the ultimate goal is to eventually parachute into people’s homes and take away all of their weapons–gun confiscation. Of course, that is a mythology that has been created by the gun lobby in order to sell more weapons and in order to make people scared of their government so they have to arm themselves.

There is no logic to it. As you state in reference to your question, there has never been a proposal before the U.S. Congress to engage in any of the widespread confiscation efforts that have been imagined out of thin air by these advocacy organizations.

Mr. KAINE. I thought that was the case. I am a gun owner, I am a supporter of the Second Amendment, and I have been unaware of this body or any State legislature putting in a proposal to take away folks’ guns, as advocates would suggest.

Let me ask the Senator this one. Here is a position this organization used to advocate all the time: We don’t want to have things that restrict law-abiding citizens; we just want to keep guns out of the hands of the bad guys. For a very long time, that was the NRA’s position–don’t restrict law-abiding citizens; keep guns out of the hands of bad guys.

As far as you know, is there any way to enforce the existing laws and keep the guns out of the hands of the bad guys pursuant to the Federal laws that have been in place for a very long time and that prohibit nine categories of people from owning weapons?

Is there any way to do that job and keep the guns out of the hands of the bad guys without a comprehensive background record check so that somebody who is selling can determine whether somebody who is buying is a bad guy?

Mr. MURPHY. When we passed the background checks law initially, I say to Senator Kaine, it was pretty good at keeping guns out of the hands of bad guys because at that time the vast majority of gun sales occurred in brick-and-mortar gun stores. But what has happened, as you know, is that sales of guns have transferred from brick-and-mortar stores to online sales and to sales in gun shows. Because the law has not caught up, there are quite literally thousands of criminals and convicts and felons who are now walking into gun stores are just typing in armslist.com online and buying guns with no background check because the law has not kept up.

So if you are truly sincere about stopping the bad guys from getting the guns, then by definition you have to expand the number of sales that are subject to background checks to those that are happening in 40 percent of the sales, which occur now online and in gun shows–never mind the fact that the baddest of the guys are probably the ones who have had known connections and communications with terrorist groups and who are not on that list today of those who are prohibited from buying guns.

Mr. KAINE. May I ask the Senator this since we have started to talk about this question. Has anybody come up to you and said: Hey, people on the terrorist watch list–we just shouldn’t be worried about them.

Why would we worry about people on the terrorist watch list? Have they tried to argue that those are good guys?

Mr. MURPHY. Quite the opposite. They would rise to the highest level of concern for most of our constituents.

Mr. KAINE. Here is where I am puzzled. For an organization that says that they are about the Second Amendment, they advocate a position that has no support in the Second Amendment.

An organization that shakes their fists and says we are trying to take their guns away–that has no basis because there are no such provisions that are on the floor and that have been introduced. An organization that says they want to keep guns out of the hands of bad guys–the only way to do that is to have a background record check. So doesn’t it seem like the organization’s principles are really–well, let’s start with this: It seems to me they are at odds with the point of view of not only most Americans but also most gun owners. Most gun owners support the commonsense provisions that you are describing on the Senate floor.

Mr. MURPHY. I assume you have gun clubs in Virginia, just as we have them in Connecticut.

Mr. KAINE. Absolutely.

Mr. MURPHY. If you walk into a gun club in Connecticut, there is going to be pretty solid consensus that criminals shouldn’t buy guns. And those law-abiding gun owners who sit in those gun clubs on Saturdays and Sundays have absolutely no problem with sales online or sales at gun shows being subject to background checks because they have gone through background check. They know that on average a background check takes less than 10 minutes. They know that it is nothing more than a 9-minute, on average, inconvenience for someone who is buying a gun, and they support it further.

Frankly, those guys in the gun clubs are amongst the loudest in their concern that terrorists have the ability today to buy dangerous weapons and commit mass murder like we saw in Orlando. So this consensus that exists out there in the American public is not a consensus amongst progressive Democrats; it is a consensus amongst gun owners, non-gun owners, Democrats, Republicans, moms, dads, conservatives, liberals, Georgia, Connecticut, California.

There isn’t a cross-section of the American public that doesn’t support keeping bad guys from getting guns and thus the two reforms we are asking for here today–a law that prohibits people on the terrorist watch list from getting guns and a law that expands background checks to all of the forms in which guns are sold today.

Mr. KAINE. I would go one further. Not only is it consistent with what the American public wants in virtually any ZIP Code in this country, I think the notion of keeping guns out of the hands of bad guys, which for a long time has been the stated principle of the National Rifle Association–I think that is in accord with the opinions of the members of the National Rifle Association. As I have seen polling by NRA members, the members of the organization overwhelmingly support background record checks because they want to keep guns out of the hands of bad guys.

Mr. MURPHY. Senator Kaine, they support it. NRA members support it at the exact same rate that non-gun owners and non-NRA members support it. In fact, NRA members, frankly, have been historically those who have been most supportive of provisions that would prevent guns from getting into the hands of criminals because by and large NRA members are law-abiding gun owners. Historically, they have had some of the greatest concern about this, which is why it is so hard to understand this disconnect between where their members are, where gun owners are, and where the advocacy organization is.

Mr. KAINE. That is talking about outside this building. How about the disconnect between what our citizens, gun owners, and NRA members want and expect us to do and the complete lack of action and, frankly, counterproductive action. Let’s talk about that.

Congress has given gun manufacturers a unique form of liability protection that virtually nobody else in this country gets. We have put a number of restrictions in place to stop research into causes of gun violence, to stop the ability to trace weapons in gun violence. These are not only not doing the right thing but doing the wrong thing in the sense of the thing that seems completely contrary to the wishes of the constituents who send us here to represent them.

Mr. MURPHY. When you present these issues to the American public, they scratch their heads, or they scratch their heads because they assume already that individuals on the terrorist watch list cannot buy guns. They think it is absurd that we passed a law that subjects toy guns to a greater standard of negligence than real guns. I mean, that is what that law effectively did. That law said that if you sell a toy gun, then you are going to be subject to a higher standard of negligence if that gun misperforms than a gun company is going to be held to if its gun–its real gun–misfires.

When you explain that to somebody in your State, whether you are in a red State or a blue State, they scratch their heads. It doesn’t make sense to them.

Mr. KAINE. Finally, Senator, if I could do this, I know as part of standing on this floor, you are not standing here over words in draft legislation, you are standing here because of people. I sat with you, and we talked about people in your community who had been affected. I would love to tell you the story about just one Virginian, if I could, and then I would love to have you comment on the story I am going to tell you. I could tell a lot of stories about a lot of different people, but one just epitomizes to me so plainly this challenge, and it is a story of a man named Liviu Lebrescu.

Liviu Lebrescu was one of the people who were killed at Virginia Tech. He was a professor of aerospace engineering. He was an amazing professor. On April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho came into Norris Hall and started shooting people, he stood in front of the door and told his engineering students to try to get out of the window so that they would be safe.

He blocked the door, and Seung-Hui Cho was shooting bullets through the door. He kept saying: Hurry, hurry, hurry. Until the last breath he took, he told students to hurry. Everyone in his class got out the window except one other student, Minal Panchal, who stayed behind and encouraged others to go ahead of them. Professor Lebrescu was one of the 32 killed that day. Here is the amazing thing about Liviu Lebrescu that I just find myself continuing to contemplate.

Liviu Lebrescu was 76 years old. He was born in the 1930s as a Jew in Romania. When Hitler and the Nazis started to sweep across Europe, he and his family were put into labor camps and concentration camps. But this amazing survivor, who was a young boy and a teenager, survived the Holocaust. Most of his family was killed. He survived the Holocaust, and he was a teenager with a lot of his family gone. A lot of people who had been through that experience in Romania decided to leave, they were so shattered, but he said: This is my home. My family is gone. This is my home. I am going to stay in Romania.

Then the Soviet Union took over Romania, and they asked that he renounce his Judaism, and he wouldn’t do it. Then they asked that he pledge allegiance to the Communist Party, and he wouldn’t do it. He had gotten a Ph.D., and he was a well-recognized engineer, but suddenly, first, he couldn’t travel to go to academic conferences, and then second, he was going to lose his job.

This Holocaust survivor had to live under Soviet communism and be persecuted, but he wouldn’t give up his faith, and he wouldn’t give up his moral integrity. He kept trying for a better life.

Finally, in 1977, when he was past 40, he was allowed to immigrate to Israel, and he moved to Israel. That had been his dream. And he was a teacher in Israel.

In 1985, he got a 1-year teaching fellowship at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg to teach engineering. He came in 1985 for a 1-year fellowship, and he kept renewing it year after year after year because he found in Virginia, he found in America, he found in Blacksburg a community that he loved and a community that he cared about.

So somebody who survived a holocaust of the Nazis and who survived the Soviet oppression of his native land couldn’t survive the holocaust of gun violence in this country. There is one more thing about Liviu Lebrescu. It is about the day he was killed because it was a very different day for him than it was for his students.

It was a Monday. It was April 16, 2007. That day was a special day in the Jewish faith for somebody who was Jewish. It was Yom HaShoah from sundown on April 15, 2007, until sundown on April 16. It is the day to remember the Holocaust. For Jews worldwide and people who care about Judaism worldwide, it is a day to remember the Holocaust. When you remember the Holocaust, well, it is one thing to reflect upon it, but it is another thing to reflect upon it as a Holocaust survivor.

What you reflect upon is the perpetrators and the gravity of the tragedy that they perpetrated. You reflect upon the victims who lost their lives, and you reflect upon the survivors. You reflect upon the heroes, and you also reflect upon the bystanders. So while the students who went into that class on the morning of April 16 weren’t thinking about Yom HaShoah, Liviu Lebrescu was. I have to believe that when that shooting started on that day where he was thinking about what he had been through, then he was faced with an existential–am I going to be perpetrator? Am I going to be a victim? Am I going to be a survivor? Am I going to be a bystander? Am I going to be a hero?

He chose to be a hero, and he lost his life.

He chose to be a hero, and he lost his life.

Would I do that?

Would I stand in front of a door, block it, take bullets, and tell my students to get out the window?

Would I do that?

I cannot honestly stand here and say that I would.

I can’t say that I would have the courage of Liviu Lebrescu. He was a hero.

I can’t say I would be a hero. But in this body, we don’t have to be heroes; we just have to not be bystanders.

We have been bystanders in this body. We have been bystanders in this Nation as this carnage of gun violence has gone from one tragedy to the next. To cast a vote, that is not heroic. To stand up and say, “We can be safer tomorrow. We can protect people’s lives,” that is not heroic.

That is just saying I will not be a bystander.

And that is all we have to do–stop being bystanders.

Mr. President, I would just ask my colleague from Connecticut if he has any close on that, and I appreciate the chance to engage in this dialogue with him.

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