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Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 -- Continued

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, given the importance of this debate, I believe it is important for me to explain why I am supporting amendment No. 715, offered by Senators MANCHIN and TOOMEY, to S. 649, the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013.

Like all Americans, my heart goes out to the people of Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona, and all other cities and towns impacted by senseless gun violence. These tragic events are impossible to fully comprehend unless you were there and extremely difficult to relate to unless you experience the effects personally. The rest of us are left with more questions than answers, and differing--albeit well-intentioned--solutions designed to preserve our way of life while doing our best to ensure these horrible events are less likely tomorrow.

As everyone is aware, in January of 2011, the citizens of my home State--as well as people around the country and world--were shocked and horrified by the senseless violence of a severely disturbed young man with a gun. Six people were killed and 13 injured. One of those victims was a bright young Congressional staffer named Gabe Zimmerman, who was highly regarded by his colleagues and had a future filled only with promise. Yesterday, here in the Capitol at a room dedication for Gabe Zimmerman, we were provided with a very real portrait of a man who was doing what he loved, serving the people of Arizona, when his life was tragically cut short. I think his father's comments are worth repeating today. Ross Zimmerman, Gabe's father, said:

An echo of Gabriel will persist, perhaps for centuries. It isn't worth the loss, but the echo is good and true. ..... I ask that you and our descendents take inspiration from my son's echo as you conduct the affairs of this Congress and the affairs of this nation.

Another life impacted by those tragic events is that of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Her life, while still filled with great promise, was unalterably changed that fateful day. Congresswoman Giffords, and her loving husband Captain Mark Kelly--who are both with us here in Washington today to witness this debate--reflect the determination of the American spirit and are beautiful examples of how good really does triumph over evil.

Gabby, Mark and the countless other examples of heroism and resilience that America witnessed in Tucson, Aurora, Newtown and elsewhere around the Nation, are clear reminders of why we are all here serving, and the gravity of the issues we are asked to address. Their presence here today further reminds us that we are here to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest. There is nothing like looking in the eyes of a still-grieving parent who has just lost a young son or daughter to remind you of that fact.

For over three decades in Congress, I have built as strong a record as anyone in this body in defending the Second Amendment. I have consistently opposed the efforts of anti-gun activists to ban guns and ammunition, staunchly defending the Constitutional rights that Arizonans hold dear. I have voted against assault weapons bans because I believed they would not work and opposed efforts to cripple firearms manufacturers by making them liable for the acts of violent criminals. I have proudly lent my signature to Supreme Court briefs defending an individual's right to bear arms. In my view, the wisdom of our Framers' inclusion of the right to bear arms is self-evident. And as an Arizonan, I understand the significance of gun ownership to the people of the West, whether for self-defense, sport, or simple ownership.

Just as I have long defended the Second Amendment to the Constitution, I have also long believed that it is perfectly reasonable to use available tools to conduct limited background checks, as this amendment prescribes, to help ensure that felons and the mentally-ill do not obtain guns they should not possess. In my view, such background checks are not overly burdensome or unconstitutional.

Is this a perfect solution? No. Would it prevent all future acts of gun violence? Of course not. Would it have prevented the most recent acts of gun violence? In all likelihood, no. But, it is reasonable and it is constitutional.

I approach the issue of gun rights with profound respect for our Constitution, and the freedoms and rights that it bestows on each and every one of us. I am also guided by a firm commitment that we should do everything we can, within the bounds of the Constitution and the principles of individual rights and federalism on which it is based, to stem the rising tide of gun violence in this country. In this instance, neither the United States Supreme Court nor the lower Federal courts have held that restrictions on possession for certain classes of individuals violate the Second Amendment. In Heller v. District of Columbia, the Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to a well-armed militia. In his Majority opinion, Justice Scalia observed:

Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

In this instance, I agree with Justice Scalia that a background check system is not a restriction of the Second Amendment right to keep arms. The issue is plain to me because a background check system only seeks to ensure that sellers of firearms do not transfer guns to a prohibited class of owners. Restrictions on ownership by certain classes of people have existed in federal law for 45 years and have not been constitutionally invalidated by the courts.

In addition to Constitutional concerns, many have expressed concerns about the establishment of a national gun registry. If this amendment would establish such a registry, I would oppose it. But, it does not. In fact, the amendment reinforces the existing Federal ban of a national firearms registry. The amendment explicitly states, ``Nothing in this title, or any amendment made by this title, shall be construed to allow the establishment, directly or indirectly, of a Federal firearms registry.'' But, the amendment does not stop there. It would also provide for a harsh penalty of 15 years for any person who attempts to create a registry and re-affirms that any regulations issued by the Department of Justice to ensure criminals and the mentally ill do not obtain firearms cannot create a firearms registry.

Mr. President, every once in a while I have seen some acts of political courage and quite often we praise each other and ourselves, directly or indirectly, for the positions we take and the votes we pass. I wish to take a moment and express my appreciation to the two sponsors of this amendment, Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey. Both come from States where there are avid and dedicated and legitimate gun rights advocates. It would have been easier for both Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey to ignore this situation and not reach across the aisle to each other to see if we could come up with what I think most Americans--in fact, I have seen polls indicating that 80 percent of the American people--support, reasonable background checks that do not infringe on the constitutional rights of our citizens. I congratulate both Senator Manchin and Senator Toomey for taking this position.

You may not win today, I say to my two colleagues, but I will say that you did the right thing. You did the right thing. It has been my experience, as a Senator in this body for some years who has not always done the right thing, that doing the right thing is always a reward in itself.

Sooner or later this country will take up this issue and it will take up the mentally ill issue, and I hope it will take up Hollywood violence, and I hope it will take up those programs that may incite young people to go out and want to acquire a weapon and use it. But what they have tried to do today I think is an act that should be appreciated by those of us who, many times, avoid taking the tough decisions. I think they are an example to all of us.

I yield.

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