Guns, Commonsense, And Vermont's Example

I am a proud Vermonter.  My family has lived there for over 150 years.

  Yesterday, Vermont set an example for the Congress, and for the Nation. A Democratically controlled legislature and a Republican Governor, in a rural State with a strong gun-owning tradition and very few gun laws, worked together to debate, forge, and enact meaningful, commonsense gun safety laws.

  Yesterday, Governor Phil Scott, who is a Republican, signed three bills into law. They expand background checks, require those under 21 to complete training before purchasing a firearm, create extreme risk protection orders, and ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.

Vermont did that, and other States are also acting. It makes me wonder why Congress can't do its job and follow that example.

  In Vermont, this was a debate about what the people of the Green Mountain State could do to keep their communities, schools, and citizens safe. We had some difficult conversations in my home State.

Difficult compromises were made. And for the Republicans and Democrats in our legislature, these were difficult votes. In our State, as in every other, there are honest differences on this and many other issues. Vermonters made their voices heard, particularly a brave new generation of student activists inspired by their peers in Parkland, Florida.

  This isn't the first time that our small but brave State has stepped in and stepped up to tackle difficult but significant issues. On July 1, 2000, Vermont became the first State to offer same-sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities of traditional marriage.

  David Moats, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor of the Rutland Herald, wrote a book about this debate entitled ``Civil Wars: A Battle for Gay Marriage.'' Ted Widmer, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said this in his review of the book:

Near the end of `Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' the  Vermonter played by Gary Cooper dishes out a series of homespun metaphors for how government is supposed to treat people, from helping to push a car up a hill to saving a swimmer who's drowning. Obviously, life isn't quite that simple. This will take time. But in the long run, the question will be answered in the vast middle where most Americans live, and where they privately decide what is right and wrong.

  In his remarks at yesterday's bill signing--and I note that the Governor signed the bill sitting at a table outdoors in front of the statehouse, where people who were opposed and people who supported it could watch what he was doing--at that bill signing, Governor Scott spoke as well about civility and public discourse. In a democracy, civility is more than a virtue; it is foundational for the democratic process to work. That is something all of us--all of us in both parties in the Congress and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue--should remember.

  Here is some of what the Vermont Governor said:

Today in America, too many of our fellow citizens--on both sides of every issue, not just on guns--have given up on listening, deciding to no longer consider other opinions, viewpoints or perspectives.   Our national dialogue has been reduced to angry, hateful social media posts that you can either `like' or not, with no room for conversation or respectful disagreement, and where facts and details no longer seem to matter.   We would be naive to believe that the way we talk to each other, the way we treat each other, and the rise of violence are exclusive to one another.

  The Governor concluded:

  These things are hurting our nation. If we can reduce the polarization we're seeing across the country, we can diminish some of the anger at the root of these larger challenges. And this must be part of our ongoing pursuit to reduce violence and make our communities safer.

  He is right. Those are Vermont values that draw from time-tested American values.

  Three weeks ago, students from schools across this country led millions of fellow Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds in marches against gun violence. On that Saturday morning, hours before the march on Washington, I met hundreds of Vermonters who came to the Nation's Capital. My wife Marcelle and I hosted a gathering with them. They were here to lend their voices to what has become a national outcry for commonsense reforms to reduce gun violence.

  Thousands more rallied in our capital city of Montpelier, in Rutland, and in other Vermont towns for a ban on military-style assault rifles and on high-capacity magazines; for universal background checks, so that if you have a felony record you are not going to be able to buy a gun; and for laws that keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and those who seek to do us harm.

  I have rarely been more inspired than when I was listening to the eloquence, the clarity, and the indignant frustration in the poignant speeches of those students. To hear their stories, to hear of the loss and grief and the unsettling and unyielding fear resulting from not knowing whether your school will be next.

  I am reminded again of the appalling number of school shootings and the other daily tragedies caused by guns and the lasting and physical scars and trauma that gun violence has had on children, families, and neighborhoods, in cities and towns in every State of this country. How can one not feel that our generation has failed miserably to deal with the epidemic of gun violence? How can one not feel that the gun lobby and others who reflexively oppose all efforts at reform, no matter how modest or grounded in common sense, have won?

  Commonly exploited loopholes in our gun laws allow practically anyone--even those who are criminals or those who openly intend to do us harm--to buy 1 or 10 or 50 guns, guns that can shoot as many rounds per minute as you can pull the trigger or even more with the assistance of readily available accessories, like bump stocks. What have we done to stop it? Not nearly enough.

  Over a period of many years, I have introduced or cosponsored and advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee many pieces of legislation to stop it. This includes legislation to close background check loopholes--loopholes that allow criminals with records of violent crime to buy weapons--to ban military-style assault rifles, and to shut down the black market for firearms by strengthening tools to prosecute straw purchasing and firearms trafficking. We have gotten some of them through committee. Sometimes we have passed them on the Senate floor.

But each time, the gun lobby has prevailed in blocking these efforts, just as they have blocked the efforts of others who have dared to take steps to reduce gun violence.

  The students are right. They don't just want our thoughts and prayers. They don't want us to stand up and piously say: What a tragedy. They don't want their teachers to have guns, and neither do their teachers. They don't just want a ban on bump stocks. They want real, meaningful change. They are saying enough is enough.

  Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Roseburg, Parkland--these are school shootings that made the front pages, but there are hundreds of others. There were 18 school shootings in the first 3 months of 2018 alone. As horrific as that is, it is only a part of the problem. Every day, an average of 318 people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides, and suicide attempts--every day, 318. That is an epidemic, and we need to treat it like one. You can hear the outrage, and the fear, in the students' voices.

  I am probably the only Member of this body who has gone to murder scenes, who has been there in the middle of the night and seen a child who has been shot to death, knowing that I would be the one who would have to order the autopsy and have investigators from my office, when I was a prosecutor, notify the parents that their child was not coming back. I have seen so many people shot to death, I still have nightmares about them.

  Those who hold up the Second Amendment as somehow justifying their opposition to commonsense gun control laws could not be more wrong. None of the tragedies those students, our schools, our communities, our country are experiencing today are the price we must pay for the Second Amendment. None of the proposals in Congress threaten an individual's right to own a gun, nor would the bills signed by Governor Phil Scott. Any such argument is nothing more than baseless fearmongering.

  I have heard the NRA and some of its defenders ridicule the students for speaking out about seeing their fellow students shot. If you have seen somebody who has been shot to death, as I have on many occasions, you do not forget that. It was over 40 years ago that I was a prosecutor. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don't remember some of those scenes. When high-priced lobbyists or pundits go on national TV to belittle teenagers who saw their friends gunned down in their classrooms and who had the courage to speak for those who died, then the corrosive power of money and politics is glaringly apparent. Those children will never forget what they saw. I know. I know they will not.

  It reminds me of how the first and loudest voices in favor of using military force are rarely those who have actually experienced combat themselves. I wonder how many of those who represent the gun lobby have experienced what those students went through or have seen people who have been shot to death as I have and--worse yet--as those children did, seeing it when it happened and when it was friends of theirs. As much as I shudder to remember what I saw, it was nothing compared to what they saw.

  The only solution I have heard offered by those who oppose reform is to put more guns in the hands of good people. Well, I am a gun owner. We do need well-trained, well-equipped community police officers. I strongly support school resource officers, and we should invest more in our police. But police armed with assault rifles at every school, at every movie theater, in every church, on every street corner in America, at every shopping mall, at every museum--is that the solution? Is that the United States of America we want?

  We should talk to the police. We would find that police across this country support stricter, commonsense gun safety laws. It is Congress's job to regulate when regulations are needed, and we have a responsibility to do so when so many Americans' lives are at stake. Let's use the power we have to do what the Constitution requires of us and what the American people overwhelmingly are asking us to do.

  The students who organized these marches have challenged us.

President Trump, your party controls the Congress. Members of Congress can act or they can continue to make excuses or remain silent in hopes that this issue goes away. But, I can tell you, these students aren't going away--not the students I have met, not the students whose determination is in their eyes and in their voices.

  It is time for you, President Trump, and for this Congress to do right by these students and by all Americans who are asking their leaders to stop gun violence. Follow Vermont's example. Support comprehensive, commonsense gun reform legislation, just as you said you would when you met with Members of Congress of both parties after the Parkland shooting. Keep your word. Do what you said you would do, but this time follow through. Fight for it so that it passes, and sign it.

  Listen to the words we heard yesterday in Montpelier, VT. Stop the shouting on either side. Have people sit down and talk about what the American people really want and what the American people really need, and listen to each other. But then let's do it. Let's do it.

  I think it can be done. I know any killing is terrible, but as a parent and a grandparent, I wonder how anyone can think of a child or grandchild having to witness such a horrible thing. It should stop.


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David Carle: 202-224-3693