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    Live Discussion
    New Gun Measures

    Tuesday, April 27, 1999

    A week after the massacre at a Colorado high school, President Clinton is sending Congress a series of gun control measures. Jose Cerda, special assistant to the president for domestic policy, joined us live today from his White House office to discuss the administration's proposals.

    Read the transcript below.

    Alexandria, Va.: With the millions and millions of handguns that are scattered over the United States, wouldn't it make more sense to rigidly control the ammunition supplies rather than attempt to control the firearms?

    Jose Cerda: I think it makes sense to control both. We have focused on assault weapons, keeping weapons out of the hands of kids and criminals and limiting large capacity clips. In limiting the supply of these clips, we were hoping to dry up the supply of this particularly deadly ammunition.

    Fairfax, Va.: Despite the fact that President Clinton passed a number of gun control laws, school shootings, like the one in Denver, still happen. Is it not time to start pursuing a path other than more gun control as a preventative solution to these incidents?

    Jose Cerda: From our perspective, the answer is dealing with the problem on all fronts, and gun control is an important part of that. We know from passing the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban that fewer criminals have access to firearms, and that gun-related crime is down more than 25%. But you're right; we need to deal with this issue on all fronts -- connecting schools to our larger communities, making sure schools work with law enforcement and supporting preventative and after-school programs and other such efforts that give kids positive alternatives and exposure to responsible adults in their lives.

    And one more note: Despite the recent school shootings in the past year, school crime is down since 1993, and school shootings are generally down since 1993.

    Washington, D.C.: Why is the U.S. the only first world country with such lax gun control laws? When a school shooting occurred in Great Britain about a year ago, strict gun control legislation was promptly passed in response.

    Jose Cerda: I think it's important to acknowledge, and the president did so today, that we have a long history of hunting and use of firearms in our country. In taking on the gun issue, we need to recognize that we're not only dealing with a broader culture of violence, but a different cultural perspective on firearms ownership. When we can make the case to rural Americans and others who grew up with firearms that a small inconvenience on their part, in the interest of the broader American community and in the interest of the safety of our children, is a sacrifice worth making, we'll begin to be able (perhaps) to approach gun laws like some of our Western industrial neighbors.

    Richmond, Ky.: How is controlling the purchase of guns from stores going to stop people from buying or selling on the black market? Information is available on how to make guns and there are people who will put that to use.

    Jose Cerda: First of all, we know that under the Brady law, over a five-year period, simply by conducting a background check, we were able to stop over a quarter of a million illegal handgun sales. And since our national instant-check system went into place this past November, we've stopped another 36,000 illegal gun sales. So, while we certainly will never stop every illegal or black-market sale, we know that simple instant background checks can make a big difference.

    That's why the president has proposed requiring that background checks be conducted for all sales at gun shows. Currently we estimate that between 25 and 50 percent of the sellers at these shows are unlicensed sellers who are exempt from the background-check requirement. And that's why we've proposed the same simple instant check for explosives. It shouldn't be easier for a criminal or other prohibited person from buying explosives than it is for them to buy guns.

    Garner, N.C.: Can you explain how a trigger lock bill, such as that proposed by President Clinton, could have prevented the Littleton, Colo., slaughter?

    Jose Cerda: First, the president's bill doesn't simply include trigger locks, but all child safety locking devices, such as gun safes and other safe storage devices. And I think if parents and all gun-owning adults do a better job at keeping their guns locked, some accidents and injuries can be avoided. The Department of Justice has estimated that about a third of all firearms in this country are kept unlocked and loaded. So starting to lock up these weapons can make a difference.

    Singapore: Why can't the country ban normal citizens from carrying guns? Why listen to the NRA?

    Jose Cerda: Unfortunately, the decision is not that simple. Americans do have the ability in our country to own guns for sport and for self-defense. So a complete ban on guns is very unlikely. However, short of accepting the NRA's position to do nothing, there is much we can do to promote responsible gun ownership, to keep guns out of the hands of youth and to keep them from criminals.

    Our hope, with the president's new package, is to build on the existing gun laws we have that are working and to strengthen them even more.

    Hyattsville, Md.: The First Lady briefly condemned the entertainment industry for violent content (specifically "video games"). But there is nothing in the president's package except for gun control. Why isn't the White House doing anything about the larger issues?

    Jose Cerda: Actually, I think we are, and we have been for the past six years. The vice president and Mrs. Gore have been outspoken on the music our kids hear and on making certain controls on the Internet available to parents so they can help monitor the games their children play and the information they have access to on the Internet. Additionally, this administration has supported the V-chip, which gives parents one more tool to help take responsibility for the shows their children watch. And the V-chip will soon be available.

    On top of these efforts, this administration has pushed for one of the most comprehensive crime and violence agendas in many years, supporting local law enforcement, funding after-school programs, building more prisons and pushing for tougher punishments. And yes, taking on the issue of gun violence and fighting for tough gun laws. That has to be a part of what we do too.

    Pipersville, Pa.: Are you prepared to require universal gun registration – much like automobile registration?

    Jose Cerda: No, the president's proposal does not require the registration of firearms. However, it takes several steps to build on and strengthen our national instant-check system. The instant-check system is one of the most important tools we have to stop illegal handgun sales. And under today's initiative, we will strengthen this system by:

    1. Extending background checks for the purchase of explosives;
    2. Making sure that background checks are conducted for guns sold at gun shows, flea markets, etc.;
    3. Mandating a minimum three-day waiting period for all handgun purchases and allowing law enforcement up to five days if necessary to conduct background checks for all gun buyers;
    4. Using Brady checks to keep violent juveniles from buying handguns when they turn 21; and
    5. Using the national instant-check system to make sure handgun purchases are limited to no more than one per month per person.

    Denver, Colo.: Why can't we restrict access to machine guns, pistols and other weapons that can be easily converted to automatic weapons with multi-round clips?

    Jose Cerda: We currently do, and the president's proposal will do even more. Machine guns and guns that are readily convertible into machine guns are already prohibited by the National Firearms Act that passed in the 1930s. By further restricting youth access to semi-automatic assault rifles manufactured before the assault weapons ban passed, as well as by banning the importation of ammunition clips that take more than 10 rounds, we are building on these efforts.

    Norfolk, Va.: Why should 18- to 21-year-olds be allowed to own guns, if they are not allowed to drink alcohol?

    Jose Cerda: That's an interesting point. You should know that the president's proposal bans the possession of handguns, assault rifles and clips by people under the age of 21. One of the reasons for this is that our trace data show that 18- and 19-year-olds are more likely than any other age group to possess a crime gun, and more than 20% of murder arrests involve young persons in this same age group.

    Laurel, Md.: I'm not sure I understand the proposal to raise the legal age of gun ownership from 18 to 21. You can become a police officer, join the military, or even drive a car at 18. These activities require significant maturity. Does owning a gun require more responsibility?

    Jose Cerda: Owning a gun is as serious a responsibility as anything. That's why the president's proposal will hold adults who recklessly allow access to weapons criminally liable for their actions. And that's why for handguns, not most rifles and shotguns, the president's proposal would raise the legal age of ownership to 21. You should know, however, that the juvenile handgun ban provides exceptions for law enforcement, the military and others who require firearms for their employment.

    Ashburn, Va.: In Virginia, a person can still buy more than one handgun per month if they obtain from the State Police a multiple purchase permit. I'm sorry to see that the president believes that people should only be allowed to by one handgun per month. Will there be a provision for allowing people in certain circumstances to buy more than one per month, like in Virginia?

    Jose Cerda: I'm not familiar with the exceptions in Virginia's law, but most of the proposals in Congress also include some exceptions. Although the president's proposal is likely to include some of these, we expect it to be very narrowly tailored.

    Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Republican party will suffer in the 2000 elections for its close relationship with the NRA?

    Jose Cerda: I hope that instead of suffering in the next election, they'll work with us before then to pass the president's proposal. It's reasonable, it's fair, its provisions have been proven to work over the past five years. So there's no need for this to be an election issue.

    Leesburg, Va.: I am perplexed by your statement that limiting magazine capacity will dry up a "particularly deadly ammunition." Can you explain this concept and what do you consider deadly ammunition?

    Jose Cerda: By deadly ammunition," I mean magazines that include, in some cases, more than 30 rounds. As Rep. [Carolyn] McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who attended today's event, said, banning these clips can make a difference and might have made a difference in saving the life of her husband. Her husband was killed by a gunman who could not be apprehended until he had fired all of the rounds in his large clip. I would also add that when Congress first passed the assault weapons ban, law enforcement was one of the biggest proponents of the large-clip ban. And the reason for this was that they were encountering criminals who were better armed – having more rounds of ammunition before reloading – than they.

    Chicago, Ill.: Can the federal government really do anything to prevent these massacres, or is the only real solution to get parents to be better parents?

    Jose Cerda: First, Chicago, how's the weather? I'm a Chicagoan myself.

    First and foremost, parents must be better parents. Government can never do what parents do to influence the lives of their kids. But the federal government has its own responsibilities, and certainly none is more important than ensuring the safety and security of its citizens. To that end, we can do a better job of enforcing our gun laws, and making sure we do everything to keep guns out of the hands of youth, criminals and any other prohibited purchaser.

    In designing and implementing the Brady background check system, we've shown that we can do a lot to prevent gun violence. And knowing that, how could we not step up and fulfill our own responsibilities?

    Fairfax, Va.: Until a solution is found why not place an armed security guard in each public school to make our kids feel safer and make kids think twice before bringing a gun to school?

    Jose Cerda: Some schools have put in armed security guards and metal detectors, and they have made a difference. But the president believes it's even more important to bring our successful community policing methods into our schools. That's why, through his community policing initiative, he has supported hiring more school resource officers to work with school officials to better understand their public safety problems, to better plan for incidents of violence, and to work to prevent crime and violence from ever happening in the first place.

    So while armed guards and other security measures can make a difference, it's even more important to apply the law enforcement lessons we've learned, which have helped us cut crime rates for more than six years now, with respect to school safety problems.

    Kansas City, Mo.: Is the president in favor of eventually banning all firearms not related to hunting? Many guns are designed to kill people, but would you agree that ownership of a self-defense weapon is legitimate?

    Jose Cerda: It's legitimate to own certain weapons for hunting, sporting and self-defense. Yes, I agree. However, it's also legitimate to ask those gun owners to consider the broader safety concerns of the community, and to ask them to support reasonable measures such as background checks.

    Ashburn, Va.: Let's suppose the mandatory child-safety locks for all guns sold is made law. How is this law going to be enforced to make sure that the locks are being used by the buyers?

    Jose Cerda: I think your question speaks to two separate provisions of the president's gun legislation. First, our safety-lock proposal requires gun dealers to provide these locks with every gun they sell. This includes handguns, rifles and all used guns. Second, the president's proposal would hold adults who recklessly allow access to their weapons criminally liable for their actions if their gun is later used to cause injury or death. One of the ways adults can avoid this penalty is to make sure their weapons are safely stored and locked.

    So the answer to your question is: (1) we propose making the locks available, and (2) we propose tougher penalties for at least some of the persons who decide not to use them and leave their guns easily available to youth.

    Richmond, Va.: Are there any examples of relatively moderate but effective gun control measures in Europe or elsewhere that the U.S. could use as a model? Working examples might help sway some people who oppose all gun control laws.

    Jose Cerda: That's an interesting point. I'm not too familiar with some of the European models. However, just over the last five years, we here in the States have learned a lot more about how to make our own laws work better. It's one of the reasons crime, violence and particularly gun homicides are down dramatically in most parts of the country. And one of the president's goals is to apply the successes we've learned at all levels of our government throughout the country. That was our last question this evening. Thank you for your questions. And thank you, Jose Cerda, for your time.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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