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Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 -- Continued

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, this amendment makes some minor changes to the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act. Our act is designed to give law enforcement the necessary tools to combat the practices of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking in firearms. An example of that is when somebody legally buys a handgun for $500 and then turns around and sells it for $1,500 to a drug cartel or somebody who could not buy it themselves. Usually they buy a lot more than one weapon; they buy a whole lot. They will buy them legally and then sell them to people who could never legally buy them. We have seen what that has done in Mexico with its drug cartels. We have seen what it has done with the drug cartels and gangs in some of our major cities.

I commend Senator Collins for her work in developing this amendment and for her strong support of the law enforcement officials who requested this legislation to help them keep our communities safe.

Straw purchasers circumvent the purposes of the background check system. Straw purchasers put guns into the hands of someone who is legally prohibited from having one. And it was an ATF whistleblower who testified last Congress that the existing firearms laws are ``toothless.'' We can create better law enforcement tools and that is what we are doing with the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act. We need to close this dangerous loophole in the law that Mexican drug cartels, gangs and other criminals have exploited for too long.

We know that many guns used in criminal activities are acquired through straw purchases. It was a straw purchaser who enabled the brutal murders of two brave firefighters in Webster, New York, this past Christmas Eve, and it was a straw purchaser who provided firearms to an individual who murdered a police officer in Plymouth Township, Pennsylvania, last September.

We need a meaningful solution to this serious problem. We also include suggestions from Senator Gillibrand to go after those who traffic in firearms by wrongfully obtaining two or more firearms. We worked hard to develop effective, targeted legislation that will help combat a serious problem and that will do no harm to the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.

This Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act--originally introduced as S. 54--will make important changes and better equip law enforcement officials to investigate and prosecute the all-too-common practices of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking of firearms. As I said, these are people who are not prohibited by Federal law from purchasing a gun. They purchase a firearm on behalf of a person or at the direction of a drug trafficker, criminal, or organization, and that is how these large criminal organizations are supported. That is how these illegally obtained guns are often sold and resold across State lines. Of course, this results in the proliferation of illegal firearms and gun violence in our communities.

Gun trafficking and straw purchasing make our communities less safe. We recently saw a case where a woman was arrested as a straw purchaser after she bought a weapon for a man who then, it appears from the evidence, used that weapon to kill the head of the Colorado prison system. That man was blocked from buying a weapon. Somebody else bought it for him.

Under current law, there is no specific statute that makes it illegal to act as a straw purchaser of firearms. Nor is there a law directly on point to address the illegal trafficking of firearms. As a result, prosecutors must cobble together charges against a straw purchaser using so-called "paperwork'' violations such as misrepresentations on a Federal form. These laws are imperfect, and do not give prosecutors the leverage needed to encourage straw buyers, often the lowest rungs on a ladder in a criminal enterprise, to provide the information needed for investigators and prosecutors to go after those directing and profiting from such activity.

Our bill and this amendment would change that. They will add two new provisions to our Federal criminal code to specifically prohibit serving as

a straw purchaser of firearms and trafficking in firearms. The bill establishes tough penalties for these offenses in an effort to punish and, importantly, deter this conduct. I was accused at the Committee markup on this bill of being too tough on these crimes. I believe we need a meaningful solution to these serious problems.

Another key provision of our bipartisan bill is that it complements existing law that makes it a crime to smuggle firearms into the United States by specifically prohibiting the smuggling of firearms out of the United States. In light of what we know is occurring, particularly on our Southwest border, this is an important improvement to current law and another tool that was needed but missing over the last few years.

The provisions in our legislation are focused, commonsense remedies to the very real problems of firearms trafficking and straw purchasing. Our bill does not affect lawful purchases from Federal firearms licensees, and in no way alters their rights and responsibilities as sellers of a lawful commodity. We listened to concerns about family members who give firearms as gifts and other transfers that are not designed to get around the existing background check system. As a result, the bill contains important exemptions for the innocent transfer of a firearm as a gift, or in relation to a legitimate raffle, auction or contest.

In an effort to encourage even broader support for our bill, Senator Collins and I have made changes to our bipartisan bill to emphasize that this legislation will have no adverse effect that would impact law-abiding gun owners. We have consulted a lot of people on this matter, including law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victims, and the National Rifle Association. We have consulted gun owners and others. We have brought together some very diverse views, which is what that legislation is supposed to do. We want to combat the destructive practices of straw purchasing and firearms trafficking. I am pleased that our discussions with all of these groups resulted in legislation that reflects diverse views yet is a focused approach to combat the destructive practices of straw purchasing and firearms trafficking, while protecting the Second Amendment rights of Americans.

The amendment has all of the important provisions of the measure that was debated and voted on by the Judiciary Committee and passed with a bipartisan majority. These include two new Federal criminal statutes that will help law enforcement go after straw purchasers and firearms traffickers.

After the bill was reported out of Committee, a Committee report was filed in relation to it that made our intent plain in the meaning of the bill. The clarifying language likewise ensures that lawful gun purchasers can buy firearms from licensed dealers as bona fide gifts or raffles or as contest prizes and so on. This amendment should also eliminate any concern about imposing potential liability on the original purchaser of a firearm for the criminal acts of the ultimate recipient of the firearm after it is conveyed by that purchaser and reconveyed a number of times. The amendment also includes other technical changes to conform the bill to existing law regarding the forfeiture of firearms and ammunition.

Throughout our committee process and discussions, no one was questioning the constitutionality of these provisions, and they have all accepted the fact that they will help law enforcement. In fact, the required nexus to interstate commerce in the bill is identical to that already in existing law. Our bill does not create a national firearms registry, nor does it place any additional burdens on law-abiding gun owners or purchasers.

I worked with Senator Collins, Senator Durbin, Senator Gillibrand, and others to provide a real world, common sense solution to the problem of gun trafficking and straw purchasing. There is wide agreement that straw purchasing and illegal gun trafficking have to be stopped, and that is why law enforcement so strongly supports our amendment. In fact, this measure was introduced at the request of law enforcement officials who have said for years that they lack the legal tools necessary to combat illegal straw purchasing and firearms trafficking. It will provide needed tools to fight against the drug cartels and other criminals who threaten our communities.

Like our original bill, the amendment we now offer has the support of numerous law enforcement organizations, including the National Fraternal Order of Police; the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association; the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association; the FBI Agents Association, the National District Attorneys Association--an organization on which I was privileged to serve as vice president; and all nine member organizations of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.

I mention all these things because we took months doing this. We met with everybody. We worked. We listened to opposing views and supporting views. Then we had hearings and then we had a markup. But all of a sudden, late this morning, with no hearings, no markup, no chance to debate it, we have a partisan alternative led by some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In contrast to the broad law enforcement support we have earned for our attempt to combat gun trafficking and strawpurchasing, there is suddenly a Republican alternative which would gut the protections and tools that our law enforcement community needs. That partisan alternative was released late this morning and surprisingly the effort is led by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. None of their provisions was considered through regular order or even offered and debated in committee.

People always speak about regular order, but none of these provisions were considered through regular order. None of them were offered or debated in committee. All of a sudden, wait, wait. We can't have this thing that law enforcement wants. We can't have this thing that might actually stop drug cartels and organized crime from getting these guns. We have suddenly come up with a new idea this morning. Sorry we don't have time to talk about it. Sorry we don't have time to have hearings. Sorry we can't go through the committee. Sorry we can't have votes. Trust us.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I took my responsibility seriously when the committee considered gun violence legislation. We held three hearings. We had four lengthy markups. There were many amendments circulated and we debated them. The distinguished Presiding Officer is a member of that committee. He was there for all those hearings. He was there for all that debate. They went on sometimes for a long time, but we voted up or down, and we worked to broker bipartisan compromises.

The results: Some of those same members who serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee circulated this lengthy substitute--just hours before the scheduled vote on their half-baked alternative. It is a weak and counterproductive alternative. The substitute is a weak and counterproductive alternative, and this weak and counterproductive alternative, this partisan substitute, has not been the subject of one single hearing or any committee debate or vote.

The lengthy partisan substitute does several things to make our communities less safe. One of its provisions directly undermines what Senator Collins and I wish to accomplish. We want to stop trafficking. We want to stop drug cartels and organized crime and bank robbers and those who would murder government officials. We want to stop them from being able to get these guns through straw purchases. 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.

What this alternative Republican amendment does--the one that was suddenly sprung on us with no hearings, no votes late today--is it actually has a roadmap of how to avoid prosecution, how to do the things the drug cartels want and organized crime wants, and to make sure they will never be prosecuted. As long as straw purchasers ask no questions, bury their heads in the sand, they can't be held accountable. They can buy these guns. They can meet somebody in a back alley who is trying to hide his face and say: I could have bought this legally. Give it to me. Here is your money. Besides that, I will pay a 300-percent profit and then get away with it.

The Republican substitute will help the Mexican drug cartels by eliminating an existing tool that the Justice Department needs to combat violence on the Southwest border. 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 urge everyone who cares about helping law enforcement and keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals to oppose the Republican substitute, number 725, and to support the bipartisan, Leahy-Collins amendment, number 713.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families of yesterday's cowardly attack. I appreciate the updates I have received from the FBI about the matter and await the outcome of their investigation. The President is right to emphasize that Americans will not be terrorized.

In the aftermath of the explosions in Boston we were reminded once again how Americans come to each other's aid in a crisis. We witnessed citizens and first responders selflessly helping others. Just as first responders in Newtown responded in minutes and went headlong into a situation without knowing what they would encounter, in Boston we saw similar heroism.

First responders risk their lives to protect the public. That is what they do over and over again across the country. I believe that as a result of the bravery and speedy response of first responders in Connecticut, lives may have been saved on December 14. And we remember today that 6 years ago the Nation was stunned by the rampage at Virginia Tech.

Our law enforcement officials deserve our respect and support. Law enforcement officers and first responders risk their lives to protect the public. That is why I find it so disappointing to hear some blame law enforcement for not preventing these tragedies.

The legislation before the Senate today to improve the Nation's background checks system and prosecute gun trafficking would significantly assist law enforcement in their efforts to keep the public safe. I spoke yesterday about the pending amendment, the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment to close the gun show and other loopholes in the background check system while respecting and protecting the Second Amendment rights of responsible gun owners. The Senate has had this amendment before it since last Thursday. I trust the Senate will vote on it today, and I hope the Senate will adopt it.

We have had background checks for decades. These checks are an accepted part of the process of buying a gun. Like millions of other responsible gun owners, I understand that this check is necessary to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are dangerous to themselves and others due to mental illness.

Since 1998, more than 2 million sales to prohibited people have been prevented thanks to background checks. That is 2 million times a potentially dangerous person trying to get a gun was denied a gun. Is that a good thing, a positive thing, in the interest of safer communities? Of course it is. Who can credibly argue otherwise?

What we are now trying to do is improve the background check system. We all know there is a huge loophole in our background check system. Criminals and others prohibited from buying guns at gun stores can get around the background check requirement by going to gun shows. I know gun store owners in Vermont. They follow the law and conduct background checks. They wonder why others who sell guns do not have to follow these same rules. I agree with these responsible business owners. This loophole needs to be closed.

The Manchin-Toomey bipartisan amendment closes the loophole in a way that does not infringe upon Second Amendment rights. Sales at gun shows and sales using online or print advertising will now be governed by the same requirements as gun stores in Vermont and elsewhere. This will make us safer. It is focused on gun shows and commercial sales, not family gifts or transfers between friends and neighbors. The bill does not require background checks for temporary transfers of guns for hunting or target shooting. Instead, the bill requires background checks for the kind of sales that can be easily exploited by people who intend to do harm.

Why would we not try to plug the loopholes in the law that allow dangerous criminals to buy guns without background checks? This is a simple matter of common sense. The NRA testified in 1999 in favor of mandatory criminal background checks for ``every sale at every gun show.''

This is about plugging loopholes in background checks. No court has held that background checks, which have been with us for decades, violate the Second Amendment. Indeed, when the U.S. Supreme Court expressly held that the Second Amendment provide an individual right in the Heller case, it also said that ``longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill'' do not violate the Second Amendment. No one should oppose this amendment on Second Amendments grounds because it does not undermine the Second Amendment.

Some have expressed frustration about the level of prosecutions under existing gun laws, and some have suggested that instead of making sensible changes to our public safety laws to prevent gun violence, Federal law enforcement officials should focus exclusively on existing laws. I share some of that frustration, but I do not agree it is a valid excuse for Congress to do nothing. Improvements in the enforcement of existing laws and efforts to give law enforcement officials better tools to do their jobs are not mutually exclusive, those efforts complement each other.

I have noted that Americans are looking to us for solutions and for action, not filibustering or sloganeering. This is something we can come together to accomplish. No one can or will take our Second Amendment rights or our guns away. They are not at risk. But lives are at risk when responsible people fail to stand up for laws that will keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to commit crimes of violence. This is something we can come together and do to make America safer and more secure.

I have also been encouraging the Senator from West Virginia in his efforts. He has shown great leadership, sensitivity, and perseverance. I commend Senator Toomey for his willingness to join in this legislative effort. Together, they have done the Senate and the country a great service.

Improving the background check system is a matter of common sense. Senators MANCHIN and TOOMEY have shown that it can be accomplished in a way that better protects our communities and fully respects our Second Amendment rights. I am pleased to support this bipartisan solution.

AMENDMENT NO. 714

Several opponents to the gun violence measure pending have tried to justify their opposition to legislation designed to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by claiming that these measures would not have prevented the tragedy in Newtown or any other mass killings. I think that argument makes no sense.

We should be responding to protect our communities with a broad approach to help law enforcement go after gun traffickers and straw purchasers who arm drug cartels and plug loopholes in our background check system.

In addition to those important steps, the pending amendment to limit ammunition clip size directly addresses some of our most recent gun violence tragedies. It is clear that several victims of gun violence would be alive today if the gunman had been required to pause momentarily to change his ammunition clip. When I decided to call for hearings on gun violence before the first Judiciary Committee several months ago, I wanted the public to hear directly from victims of gun violence. We began our first of three hearings with former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. She called on us to act in the wake of too many American tragedies and her battle to recover from gun violence is an inspiration to all of us fighting for legislation today.

At that same hearing, her husband, CAPT Mark Kelly, testified about the day his wife was gunned down. He said:

The shooter in Tucson showed up with two 33-round magazines, one of which was in his 9 millimeter. He unloaded the contents of that magazine in 15 seconds. Very quickly. It all happened very, very fast. The first bullet went into Gabby's head. Bullet number 13 went into a 9-year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green, who was very interested in democracy and our Government and really deserved a full life committed to advancing those ideas. If he had a 10-round magazine--well, let me back up. When he tried to reload one 33-round magazine with another 33-round magazine, he dropped it. And a woman named Patricia Maisch grabbed it, and it gave bystanders a time to tackle him. I contend if that same thing happened when he was trying to reload one 10-round magazine with another 10-round magazine, meaning he did not have access to a high-capacity magazine, and the same thing happened, Christina-Taylor Green would be alive today.

That was a direct quote from CAPT Mark Kelly's testimony. It is chilling to think that something we could pass today could save the next Christina-Taylor Green.

The Judiciary Committee also heard from Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook. He testified in support of limiting high-capacity magazines. We cannot forget his son Jesse or the 19 other precious children who were gunned down in December or the brave educators who sacrificed their lives trying to protect children.

A reasonable limit on the size of ammunition clips is a modest step going forward. This amendment would not apply retroactively. No lawful gun owner will have to turn over anything.

It is a cruel irony that in some States we are more protective of the deer being hunted than our children. In Vermont, we have very few laws affecting the right to bear arms, but we do limit the ammunition clips used in hunting. It is not a threat to the Second Amendment to limit clip size in hunting, so why is it a threat to limit them when the potential targets are people? The reality is that the Second Amendment is not under threat, but our children are.

I am a responsible gun owner. I have owned and shot weapons with many different styles of ammunition clips, so I understand the issue we are considering. Requiring a gun owner to change clips more often is not too much to ask when we see the human costs of high-capacity magazines in mass shootings. The law enforcement organizations that work on the frontlines in our cities and towns support this amendment. The grieving families are right to raise this issue because even if we save one or two lives with this change, it is worth it.

Just as I said in 1993 when I voted for the Feinstein-DeConcini bill, this amendment is not going to solve all violent crime, but it will make people safer. I believe that limiting the size of ammunition clips going forward could save lives in the next mass shooting. I do not want to wonder if we could have done more when another son or daughter is killed. I will support this amendment. It is the right thing to do for public safety and to honor the young lives lost in Newtown, in Aurora, and in Tucson.

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Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, the argument we just heard is absolutely upside-down of what that amendment is. This amendment guts the bill, it guts the straw purchasing provisions, it guts the gun trafficking provisions. It totally undermines law enforcement.

Law enforcement strongly supports the next amendment we have--the Leahy-Collins--but all this does, this substitute amendment, is aid Mexican drug cartels, eliminates the tools being used to get law enforcement investigatory leads. It undermines rather than strengthens the current background check.

We talk about do we enforce our laws. If you want to gut our laws, which this one does, don't argue they are not being enforced.

This handcuffs law enforcement, helps drug cartels, helps drug syndicates. It is a bad amendment.

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Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, Senator Collins and I, as well as other Senators in both parties, worked with law enforcement, worked with the NRA, worked with a whole lot of others to craft this amendment. It gives law enforcement officials the tools they need to stop the all-too-common practices of straw purchasing and illegal trafficking of firearms. This gives us the tools to go after drug cartels that use straw purchasers to get their guns and gangs in big cities that use straw purchasers to get their guns.

It is an important law enforcement measure. Across the political spectrum, law enforcement supports it. Let's stand with law enforcement and vote aye.

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