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Press Conference Re: Terrorist Firearms Detection Act of 2003

Location: Washington, DC

Federal News Service




SEN. KENNEDY: Good morning. I welcome the opportunity to be here with my colleagues and friends, Senator Lautenberg; we expect Senator Schumer in a moment. And it is a privilege to join them in introducing the Terrorist Firearms Detection Act of 2003.

Since the atrocities of September 11th, Congress has acted with strong bipartisan support to win the war on terrorism and protect the country from future attacks. We've improved the security of our airports and our borders, strengthened our defenses against bioterrorism, and given law enforcement new powers to investigate terrorist threats and prevent terrorism.

But Congress has not yet acted to renew one of the nation's most essential protections against terrorism-the Undetectable Firearms Act, also known as the plastic gun law. It makes it illegal to make or own a firearm that is not detectable by walk-through metal detectors or airport x-ray machines.

This law was first enacted in 1988, long before the attacks on 9/11. And it is more important than ever now. It's now scheduled to expire on December 10th. Unless Congress and the president act soon, Americans will find themselves needlessly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and other gun violence at airlines, airports, schools and office buildings.

The gun industry clearly has the technology to manufacture undetectable firearms, and terrorists clearly have the desire to use such weapons. We know that terrorists are exploiting the weaknesses and loopholes in the U.S. guns laws. In November, 2001, American soldiers found a terrorist training manual in a house in Afghanistan, and this manual explained how to obtain assault weapons in the United States and train for their use in terrorist attacks. arrest of attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid showed just how committed terrorists are to smuggling undetected plastic explosives onto airplanes.

Just last week, Admiral James Loy of the Transportation Security Administration testified that terrorists are more likely to try to hijack a commercial airliner than attempt to shoot down an aircraft with a shoulder-fired missile. The need for action is urgent. The Terrorist Firearms Detection Act will renew the act and make it permanent. The danger to security from plastic firearms will not sunset, and the law that bans them shouldn't sunset either.

The bill we are introducing today is only one of several steps that Congress should take to protect our people from gun violence. Senator Lautenberg's Homeland Security Gun Safety Act will close loopholes in our gun laws that allow rogue gun dealers to evade the law and sell guns illegally to criminals and terrorists. And that's how the D.C. sniper acquired the Bushmaster rifle.

Congress should also act to strengthen criminal background checks for gun purchases under the Brady Law, renew the assault weapons ban, close the gun show loophole once and for all.

Each of these gun safety measures is needed to protect our people in communities across the country, and I urge my colleagues to support them. To keep this nation secure, this law must be passed, and it must be passed this year.

Senator Lautenberg.

SEN. LAUTENBERG: Thank you very much, Senator Kennedy.

I'm pleased to be here with you and to make sure that we permanently ban plastic guns and other guns that cannot be detected by a metal detector. Box cutters are a pale threat when you consider the fact that if these plastic guns are produced, that they can get by a metal detector and easily be carried aboard an airplane.

It's shocking to me how the administration claims so much concern for homeland security, but there is an array of opportunities to attack us with the loopholes in our laws. Back in May, I released a CRS report that contained chilling findings about how easy it is for terrorists to access weapons legally in our country. The report explained that being a terrorist does not qualify (sic) you from getting a gun.

The report also described the kind of military-style weapons that are easily available to terrorists in the civilian market. One example is the 50-caliber assault weapon, which was developed as an anti-aircraft gun. The weapon has a range of over one mile.

The CRS report also states that the 50-caliber weapon could shoot down a helicopter, blow up a hazardous storage tank, and it's outrageous that such a weapon is so easily available.

In addition, terrorists would be able to purchase up to 50 pounds of explosive black powder on every visit to a gun shop without requiring any background check, or any reporting to the ATF. After 20 trips to a dealer, that terrorist could amass a thousand pounds of black powder. The report finds that a car bomb with that much powder would kill everyone within a 125 feet and injure people nearly 2,000 feet away.

President Bush said before the United Nations on November the 10th in 2001 that we have the responsibility to deny weapons to terrorists and to actively prevent private citizens from providing them. However, the Bush Justice Department has been more interested in monitoring e-mail traffic than weapons traffic.

And we know for a fact that terrorists have identified the lax gun laws of the United States as a means to advance their evil goal to terrorize and kill American people. In the terrorist training facility south of Kabul, in Afghanistan, coalition forces found among the rubble at that facility a manual called "How I Can Train Myself For Jihad". This manual contains an entire section on firearms training. And it singles out the United States for easy availability of firearms. It says that terrorists living in the United States should legally obtain an assault weapon, preferably an AK-47 or a variation.

There are other examples as well where terrorists have sought to take advantage of this nation's lax gun laws. On the evening of the September 11th terrorist attacks a federal grand jury convicted -- (name inaudible) -- a known member of the terrorist group Hezbollah, on seven counts of weapons charges and conspiracy to ship weapons and ammunition from the U.S. to Lebanon.

Legislation that I introduced earlier this year, along with Senator Kennedy's bill today, go to the heart of the problem. The bill, the Homeland Security Safety Act, would enact specific measures that would help prevent terrorists from acquiring firearms within our borders.

So I thank Senator Kennedy for introducing this bill. This is one part of an array of things that we have to be concerned about, and I hope that we can get this ban extended.

SEN. SCHUMER: Well, thank you. And first, I want to thank Senator Kennedy for his leadership on this issue. Despite his wrong- headed views on baseball, sometimes he comes up with a good idea -- (laughter) -- and this is one of them. And I'd like to thank Frank for his continual leadership, as well.

There's not much to add, except to say that this bill is a no- brainer. At a time when the airport security system is holier than Swiss cheese, reauthorizing a law that bans deadly weapons made for the express purpose of bypassing X-ray machines and metal detectors is not only common sense, it's survival. The need for this bill has never been greater. We just saw last week that a college student was able to bypass the security system and sneak box cutters onto a few planes earlier this week, as well as the fact that the screener training program is being criticized as too lax. It's just the latest evidence that in our post-9/11 world, you can't be too careful.

This law made sense 10 years ago; it makes even more sense today. And the amazing thing is that we even have to debate and worry and come here to figure out if it's going to be passed again. It's ludicrous to let this law lapse and not be reauthorized. When it was voted in the House, there were only four people who opposed it-one of them was Dick Cheney-thought I'd throw that in for a reference point. (Laughter.) But the only people who really oppose this bill are the usual suspects, like the NRA, and they have their usual knee- jerk reaction to any common-sense safety measure.

This is another test of the president. Is he a compassionate conservative, meaning he doesn't just (view ?) to the hard right instinctively? Well, if there was ever a classic test, this is it. You can't just listen to the-just as he wouldn't listen to the ACLU on free speech, because they think the first door-Hugo Black on free speech, because he thinks the First Amendment's absolute, you can't listen to the NRA, who thinks the Second Amendment is absolute. In my judgment, no amendment is absolute. They always need a balancing test. If the balancing test ever were to take hold, this is the place. And I hope we'll move this legislation.

SEN. KENNEDY: Are there any questions?

Q How many-what's your kind of indication of the support that this has at this point amongst Republicans? Can you give us an idea?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, when this was initially introduced, it passed on the unanimous consent calendar here, and it's inconceivable to me that there will be any opposition to this measure.

Yesterday, in the Judiciary Committee, I asked the spokesperson for the Justice Department their position on it, and they said they're going to have to study it. I would hope they wouldn't have to study it very long because this is, as has been pointed out, so enormously important before 9/11, and as the safety board has pointed out, Mr. Loy, it is more important than ever today in terms of the dangers of hijacking airlines.

So we are requesting from the majority leader that he will put this on the agenda and put it at the earliest possible time. And we are working with the House leadership as well to make sure that they are going to be responsive.

But we are committed to getting this on. And if it's not going to go on in terms of the consent agreement, it will be one of the first amendments that's offered on the continuing resolution.


Q Senator Kennedy, how prevalent are plastic firearms?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, they are not only-you can go to any playground in the country and you'll see children playing with them. You saw on, I think, the-today in the Washington Post, a member of the 101st Airborne surrounded by children, and one of them pointing a water pistol at the officers and at that time. So they are around in every playground and in every community.

And the important basic point is, as the OTA study showed in 1986, the sophistication in terms of the utilization of plastic products now make it easily useable in terms of the-shooting bullets and high-powered weapons. And that is readily available, accessible, useable. And every year it becomes even more sophisticated. And this is something that everyone in the law enforcement community understands. And there is absolutely no public policy reasons not to. None. No public policy.


Q Senator, have either the TSA or the airline industry weighed in on this?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the-in the past, we've had unanimous support for it. But I'm not sure that we have the-any letter now. But it would be difficult for me to believe that the airlines wouldn't be strongly in support of it. They have been strong in support of it in the past, in support of it. So I expect that they would be on this.

Q Senator, I'm a bit confused now. Are you talking about toys that children play with, or are you talking about actual guns that can be used to shoot and maim?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, it's firearms, it's guns. The question was in terms of proliferation of plastic weapons. There are toy weapons made of plastic. But the ability and the progress that's been made in the use of plastic now make plastic guns that can shoot missiles that kill people accessible, available, and are being produced.

SEN. SCHUMER: The problem is we've learned in our post-9/11 world that bad guys are out to figure out how to get around our security systems, and they're able to make these guns so they can't go through-they can't be detected in a metal detector. Even since this legislation passed, that great movie with John Malcovich, you know, where he tries to shoot the president. Line of Fire. Remember? He spent all his time making a plastic gun that he did actually sneak through the metal detectors at that hotel in Los Angeles. Fictional though it may be, it has the air of reality to it.

SEN. LAUTENBERG: I think the fact that, as Senator Kennedy mentioned, a children's gun, the fact that they are kind of a replication of a serious weapon suggests that we ought not to permit this to continue, because otherwise it could be assumed that a plastic gun is in fact a toy. So we just ought to get them out of production. We ought to continue to the ban on these things.

STAFF: Last question.

Q This begs the question, though, how you ????? can tell the difference, necessarily, between a water pistol and a plastic gun that is really a gun.

SEN. SCHUMER: You fire it and see if a bullet comes out.

SEN. LAUTENBERG: Yeah, but don't hold it to your head.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. LAUTENBERG: Right. So that's a more urgent reason to make these illegal as a real weapon.

SEN. SCHUMER: And the bottom line is that what our bill does is get rid of the ones that are real.

Q Thank you.

SEN. LAUTENBERG: Thanks, all.

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