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Public Statements

Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. LEAHY. Madam President, my home State of Vermont does not require its citizens to obtain a permit to carry a firearm in a concealed manner, and the people of Vermont have exercised these privileges carefully and respectfully. Citizens respect the wishes of private property owners and restrictions in government buildings, and this is a regulatory framework that has worked in Vermont, and it is a set of rules that have been considered and adopted by the people and elected officials of Vermont, without interference from those who do not know Vermont or its citizens.

These are judgments made by State elected officials with the advice of State law enforcement leaders. These are not judgments made for the States by Federal legislators who think they know better and want to second guess the best judgments of State and local officials.

In matters of State police power, the Congress has traditionally not meddled in State affairs. That is how it has always been and that is how it should remain. That is what the 10th Amendment provides. What might work in Vermont might not work in Chicago. And it is not up to me as a Senator from Vermont to tell the elected and law enforcement officials in Illinois what their public safety laws should be.

The amendment we now consider would nullify the laws of all 50 States that govern who from out of State may or may not carry a concealed weapon in that State. In fact, this amendment would permit a citizen of a rural Western State to bring his guns to the District of Columbia or Boston or other urban cities and override their public safety determinations. This is not a well-considered approach, and it is an immense imposition on law enforcement officials in a host State who will be commandeered by the Federal Government to police the concealed carry laws of 49 other States. I voted against an early version of the Brady bill because it imposed unconstitutional burdens on State and local law enforcement. The Supreme Court agreed with my view and ruled that unconstitutional.

In addition, this amendment would force a jurisdiction that is located within a State that may issue concealed carry permits but which does not allow citizens to carry concealed firearms in that political jurisdiction to favor out-of-state residents by requiring that they be allowed to carry a gun even though the instate resident is prohibited from doing so. This amendment should offend everyone's sense of State sovereignty and self-government.

This amendment is not about correcting some existing restriction of the Second Amendment right. That right is secure. Nor can it be about acting where the States have refused to act. The States are doing an exceptional job of entering reciprocity agreements with each other, based upon discussions and agreements between State officials and without meddling by the Federal Government. Thirty-seven States have reciprocity agreements with at least one other State; some have agreements with many other States. This amendment would unnecessarily trample on the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. It places an ideology over the rights reserved to the sovereign States.

I would hope that those who claim to believe in the principles of federalism would recognize the dangers associated with legislating a one-size-fits-all approach in matters of public safety and local concern. And what of the practical concerns, which Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey laid out in testimony in the House Judiciary Committee in September of 2011?

The Federal preemption of State laws represents a serious encroachment on State sovereignty. It is a subject we have examined thoroughly in the Judiciary Committee during the years of the previous administration and in relation to efforts then to strip the citizens of Vermont and other States of their rights to seek justice in the courts.

In a case called Wyeth v. Levine, the Supreme Court rejected efforts by a pharmaceutical company to shield itself from accountability under State law with Federal bureaucratic regulations when it grievously harmed a Vermonter. The Federal preemption of State laws is a very serious matter and one that the Congress should not consider lightly.

Yet, despite the fact that the Judiciary Committee held three hearings and four executive business meetings to debate and consider legislative proposals, not once did the measure we now debate come up for discussion. Now, without having any regular order, the proponents demand that this amendment be made law.

This amendment, which would federalize the concealed carry laws of every State, is a slippery slope. If we vote to enact such precedent, then a future Congress with different views for a different era would have firm ground to preempt the laws of all 50 States to restrict or condition the ability of citizens to carry a concealed firearm.

We, as Senators, ought to be very careful about the path we are asked to take with this amendment.

This is not a measured approach. It is blanket preemption. It is not like the measured approach I took with the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, which permits highly qualified active and retired law enforcement officials to carry firearms across State lines. In that law, we have rigorous requirements. We have law enforcement officials who have training, who are sworn to uphold the law, and who have dedicated their careers to protecting the public. That is a measured approach, and it is far different from the amendment we debate now.

Many in this Chamber talk reverently about the importance of State sovereignty and the 10th Amendment. Many in this Chamber decry the presence of "big government'' in the lives of Americans. Well, nothing reeks of big government like trampling the judgment of 50 State legislatures that are in a far better position than we are to set local public safety policy.

This amendment comes at the behest of special interests. As I have said repeatedly, we should not be taking orders from special interests. We are the Senators elected to represent the best interests of 314 million Americans.

I urge Senators to have the courage to oppose this amendment. It is unwise and unnecessary. For those who appreciate the ability of citizens to carry concealed firearms, opposing this amendment will help preserve those abilities.

Let's respect the virtues of federalism and let the States act in their own best judgment about who may or may not carry a concealed firearm in their State. Let's be cautious in our approach in matters of State police power and respect the values enshrined in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.

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Mr. LEAHY. Madam President, today the Senate is scheduled to vote on an amendment proposed as a partisan Republican alternative to the bipartisan legislation that was reported by the Judiciary Committee and that has been the business before the Senate for the last 2 weeks. The committee held three hearings and four markups starting in January and concluding in the middle of March. Republican members of the Committee participated but did not offer this substitute at any juncture. When Majority Leader Reid introduced the Safe Communities, Safe Schools bill on March 21 and then was forced to end a filibuster to proceed to it last week, the sponsors of this measure were among those filibustering. They justified their filibuster on the fiction that the bill before the Senate somehow violated the Second Amendment. Of course it does not. If further proof were needed, the fact that they have now reversed themselves to offer a substitute that steals large portions of the bipartisan underlying bill provisions would be it.

The amendment the Senate is now being forced to vote on contains 81 pages of legislative text, and was filed just this morning, so I am not even sure of the amendment number. This last-minute alternative is apparently being offered so that Republicans who fear crossing the Washington gun lobby can go home and say that they voted for something. I invited all members of the Judiciary Committee to work with us and to bring forward their best ideas to reduce gun violence in our society and to have them be fully heard in the Judiciary Committee, in regular order. When Senator Grassley and others came forward, we worked with them to incorporate changes in the Leahy-Collins gun trafficking bill and the Boxer school safety bill to accommodate them. This is our reward. No good deed goes unpunished apparently. I am disappointed that after the tremendous effort so many Senators on the Judiciary Committee made to carefully consider and debate legislation, to reach across the aisle to build consensus, and to work with a seriousness of purpose that would honor the victims of Newtown, Connecticut and all of those whose lives have been affected by gun violence, that this is their response.

The Republican amendment was never proposed during the months of Judiciary Committee consideration. It has not been the subject of hearings. No Senator who supports this effort will have any standing to demand regular order on any other matter, least of all on consideration of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that will next be considered by the Judiciary Committee.

I oppose the Republican alternative and encourage other Senators who are serious about making progress in the effort to reduce gun violence to do the same. This amendment is not a serious effort to fulfill the extraordinarily important obligation we took on as Senators after the tragedy in Connecticut.

The Senators from Connecticut have spoken eloquently over hours and days on the Senate floor. Senators Kaine and Warner from Virginia gave moving remarks on the anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. They have helped to celebrate the memory of those who lost their lives in Connecticut, in Virginia, and in other terrible events. They have carried to the Senate the voices of millions of Americans who are demanding that we take meaningful action. I commend them for their work. There are measures on which we will vote today that will carry out our responsibility. The alternative that Republicans put forward for a cover vote is, in my view, not one of them.

I am especially disappointed that after working so closely with the Ranking Member on the legislation to combat straw purchasing and firearms trafficking that Senator Collins, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Kirk and I introduced, and after earning his support on that measure in the Judiciary Committee, that his amendment contains a proposal that will take us backward, not forward, when it comes to dealing with these serious problems. Anyone serious about the problems on the Southwest border involving straw purchasing and gun trafficking should be determined to give law enforcement the tools they desperately need. The Leahy-Collins bill does that. The watered-down version shoehorned into this Republican alternative does not.

The legislation that Senator Collins and I introduced was drafted with input from law enforcement. It provides the tools law enforcement needs to combat straw purchasing and gun trafficking, and it has the support of numerous major law enforcement organizations. We did not just work with law enforcement, however. We consulted with other Senators from both sides of the aisle, including Senator Grassley, and incorporated their suggestions. We even worked with the National Rifle Association to address all of its substantive concerns.

In contrast, the junior Senator from Texas, a self-proclaimed leader of the filibuster against considering any gun violence legislation, introduced his watered-down version of our bill on straw purchasing and gun trafficking just this week. He did not offer amendments when the Judiciary Committee, a Committee on which he is a member, met to consider and report the Leahy-Collins-Gillibrand bill. His bill takes the serious proposal Senator Collins, Senator Gillibrand and I developed and strips out almost all of the important tools that law enforcement requested and needs. As far as I can tell, his bill has not been endorsed by any law enforcement groups. Ours is endorsed by the National Fraternal Order of Police, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the FBI Agents Association, the National District Attorney's Association, and all nine of the members of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the Police Executive Research Forum, and others.

There is no wonder as to why. The trafficking provisions suggested by the Republican alternative essentially give straw purchasers a road map to avoid prosecution. As long as straw purchasers ask no questions and bury their heads in the sand, they cannot be held accountable. The Republican substitute requires prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a straw purchaser knew for certain that he was buying for a prohibited person. A straw purchaser could have every suspicion in the world that the actual buyer is a dangerous criminal, but as long as he deliberately shields himself from getting confirmation of that fact, he is untouchable. Willful ignorance will be their shield.

The substitute also gives gun traffickers the same road map. The bill Senator Collins and I have proposed prohibits an individual from buying a gun and giving it to someone you know will then give it to a criminal. The Republican proposal inexplicably removes this provision. So as long as the organizer of a firearms trafficking ring uses a middle-man between the straw purchaser and the ultimate recipient, it is simple to avoid prosecution for providing guns to dangerous criminals.

The proposal from the junior Senator from Texas also takes out the provision in the Leahy-Collins bill that allows law enforcement to use wire taps to investigate straw purchasers and gun traffickers. And it also takes away the ability to prosecute gun traffickers for money laundering and racketeering and to seize their ill-gotten proceeds. How does this make us safer? What is the rationale for weakening these law enforcement tools?

Not content to undermine the straw purchasing and gun trafficking measures Senator Collins and I have proposed, the Republican substitute aids the Mexican drug cartels by eliminating an existing tool that the Justice Department needs to combat violence on the Southwest border. The ability of cartels to purchase firearms in the Southwest has led to terrible violence. In order to investigate and stem the flow of dangerous weapons to the cartels, the Justice Department requires licensed gun dealers in that area to report sales of multiple long guns such as assault rifles to the ATF. This practice has provided law enforcement with major investigative leads, yet the Republican proposal prohibits it.

The Republican substitute also interferes with state prosecutions of gun crimes. Under existing law, a person who is traveling through a state with a gun he is not allowed to possess in that state can assert as a defense that he was merely traveling between two states in which his possession would be legal. This is fair. But the Republican proposal takes this defense and places the burden on the state prosecutor to disprove the defendant's claim beyond a reasonable doubt in all cases, even if the defendant has offered no evidence at all to support his claim. If the state prosecutor fails to meet this high burden, the Republican proposal requires the state to pay the defendant's attorney's fees. This is a clear intrusion on the longstanding police powers of states.

I previously have spoken about the amendment proposed by Senators Manchin and Toomey. That amendment contains a number of important provisions. One aspect of the amendment that has not received enough attention is the additional due process it affords to veterans who have been deemed mentally incompetent by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The amendment provides that before veterans who have been adjudicated mentally incompetent lose their right to a firearm, they can go before a board or a court to evaluate whether they can safely use a firearm. The amendment requires that veterans be notified of this opportunity. This adds to existing law that allows veterans who are no longer mentally incompetent to regain their right to a firearm. These laws are important and I support them.

I cannot support the Republican proposal, however, because it rolls back the existing laws that prohibit mentally ill people from possessing and using guns. It rolls back these laws not only for veterans, but for many civilians deemed mentally incompetent. It would force the FBI to purge existing records from the background check system for those mentally incompetent people. This is dangerous. It is unwise, and it makes us less safe.

What this Republican alternative proposes is weak and unworkable and will be of little use to law enforcement. I urge all Senators to reject this proposal. We have heard much criticism and blame directed at the Justice Department for not adequately enforcing existing laws. But when Congress passes toothless laws it is Congress and not law enforcement that is to blame. The Republican alternative is not a serious solution to the plague of gun violence.

I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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