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Department of Defense Appropriations Act - Continued

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. COONS. Mr. President, I rise today with a heavy heart. When we first heard of the horrific shooting in Newtown, CT, on Friday, it was impossible for me not to react, not just as a Senator but as a parent, as a father. And as my wife and I spent the weekend reflecting on the heartbreaking loss of 20 innocent children and 6 of their teachers and faculty, as we talked to our own 3 young children about what had happened, we thought about the grief and the anguish for a whole range of different parents deeply touched by this tragic incident.

The first, of course, are the parents who lost their precious innocent children, their 6- and 7-year-olds in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. Joel and JoAnn Bacon lost their precocious, outgoing, red-haired daughter Charlotte, just 6 years old. JoAnn had recently bought Charlotte a new holiday dress in her favorite color--pink--and a pair of white boots. Charlotte had begged and begged to wear her new outfit early, and on Friday, December 14, the last day of Charlotte's young life, her mother JoAnn agreed.

Steve and Rebecca Kowalski lost their active and athletic 7-year-old son Chase. Just 2 days before the shooting, Chase's next-door neighbor had asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and I understand he pointed to his two missing front teeth.

Any of us who have had the special blessing and joy of raising young children, especially at holiday time, can only imagine the unbearable sorrow of these families who now and forever will have a child-sized hole in their hearts and their lives.

We offer you whatever small measure of comfort we can in knowing that you are not alone, that all across this country and around the world people pray for your healing, and we all hope that with time you and your families can come to understand and live through the grief of this moment.

We also think of other parents, parents who years before raised their young adult children to give back to their community and the next generation--young adults who chose to become teachers. In addition to the heroics of school principal Dawn Hochsprung, school psychologist Mary Sherlach, and teacher Anne Marie Murphy, a mother of four herself, three other very young teachers gave their lives to protect the students in their care: Lauren Rousseau, a 30-year-old substitute teacher; Victoria Soto, a heroic 27-year-old teacher; and Rachel Davino, a 29-year-old whose boyfriend was planning to propose on Christmas Eve. Their parents too, their families are in our prayers.

Also in our hearts today are the families of the courageous first responders who rushed toward danger as everyone else rushed away. In any emergency, Mr. President, as you know, being a former attorney general, our law enforcement officers face unknown danger with extraordinary courage. At Sandy Hook Elementary, police officers rushed to the site knowing full well that an armed gunman awaited them. What they found was unimaginable. Thank God they arrived as quickly as they did or the carnage might have been worse. But we need but reflect for a moment on what those police officers and firefighters and folks from the ME's office ultimately found--unspeakable carnage. These heroes could not react as parents, as community members. They had to choke back their own grief and horror to carry out their professional responsibilities to catalogue, investigate, and document every detail of this tragic scene so that justice could be done and lessons learned. The scars of those long hours on a crime scene like this last a lifetime, and first responders all across this country in situations such as this bear them with honor and dignity and without complaint.

This tragedy, of course, also has ripple effects far beyond Sandy Hook and far beyond Newtown, CT. All over this country there are parents whose children struggle with mental illness, with mental health challenges, who don't have the resources they need to cope. My office has had many calls from worried parents since Friday's shootings, worried for many reasons, but one that stood out for me was a dad from Newark, DE, whose own child is struggling with mental illness and who is working hard to try to find the resources to ensure appropriate care so that he won't someday be watching the television with horror as the tragic actions of his child unfold.

We think of the story also shared online of the mother in Idaho, terrified her own son has the capacity to kill someday and yet without the ability to give him the intensive medical care, treatment, and intervention she believes he needs.

Across this country, mental health care is a growing challenge for us. Between 2009 and 2011, States cut more than $2 billion from community mental health services. Two-thirds of States have significantly slashed funding in these difficult economic times, leaving parents seeking help for their mentally ill children often with nowhere to turn.

We must do better for all these parents--the parents who lost their children at Sandy Hook Elementary, the parents who lost their children who were teachers and faculty, the families of those who were first responders, and families who struggle with children with mental illness and mental health problems.

But, frankly, this week I also think about parents all over our country who have lost their children, just as precious and just as innocent as those at Sandy Hook, to gun violence, outside the media spotlight. The truth is gun violence knows no boundaries of race or class, but our national response at times seems to.

There were 41 murders in Delaware alone last year, 28 of them where guns were used as the murder weapon.

Sixteen-year-old Alexander Kamara was playing in a soccer tournament at Eden Park in my hometown of Wilmington this summer when he was shot and killed in execution style.

Dominique Helm, age 19, was standing with his teenage cousins on the steps of his Brandywine Village rowhouse last September when a gunman opened fire. He stumbled through the doorway and died in his living room as his mother Nicole ran to him.

Stories like this are tragically, appallingly, common across our country every day. Every day, 34 Americans are murdered with a gun. It happens in our streets and in our neighborhoods. It happens in movie theaters in Aurora, CO, and houses of worship at Oak Creek, WI. It happens in high schools in Littleton, CO, and at a college campus in Blacksburg, VA. It happens outside a supermarket in Tucson, AZ, where one of the six people killed was 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green--a child herself born on 9/11, imbued with a sense of hope and a call to public service, who wanted to meet her Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords in order to learn more about public service.

They say nearly 40 percent of Americans know someone directly who has been a victim of gun violence. In Christina's case, her father was my high school classmate back in Delaware. Gun violence touches families, communities, and neighborhoods all over this country.

So what do we owe these parents? What can we offer their families besides our thoughts and prayers? I believe we must fulfill our central responsibility of protecting the safety of our children and our communities, while also preserving the individual liberties guaranteed in our Constitution.

On Sunday night, we watched President Obama speak to a community reeling in shock and grief, for the fourth time in his time as President. He asked us as a Nation whether we are doing enough to protect our children, and he gave us the painfully honest answer that we did not give ourselves after Fort Hood, after Tucson, after Aurora. He said, No, we are not. We are not doing enough to protect our own children.

Horrible crimes like these have a very complex web of causes--including, of course, mental illness. This complexity presents us with a complicated challenge. But the reality is the United States has the highest rate of gun deaths in the industrialized world, nearly 20 times higher than comparable nations.

In my view, this calls out for a comprehensive approach, for a thorough and searching examination of the causes of this uniquely American crisis. I believe it requires action by this Congress and our President.

I have received calls and letters, e-mails and Facebook posts, from Delawareans around the State, Republicans and Democrats, doctors and teachers, parents and children. They have shared with me their grief and their ideas, and they have called for action.

The United States has a long and proud tradition of independence, of protecting ourselves, of exercising our right to self-determination, of hunting and of a sporting tradition that is enshrined in our second amendment. And we have to recognize the importance--the legitimacy--of the concerns of gun owners to know that in the debate that can and will and should unfold in this Chamber we will respect their right to bear arms and that we will respect and honor this most important part of America's fabric. But every constitutionally protected right has its boundaries, its limitations.

I am troubled in particular by the thread that ties together too many of these tragic mass shootings: that the perpetrator had clear mental health problems, unaddressed, untreated mental illness challenges, and used military-style weapons and clips that have no place in everyday civilian life.

Several of my colleagues have already come forward with proposals--Senators MANCHIN, LAUTENBERG, WARNER, FEINSTEIN, and others, and I will touch on a few.

I believe reinstating the ban on high-capacity magazines, focusing on ammunition and on the outrageously devastating impact of military clips and military ammunition particularly on children across all these instances--I think we should focus on that, and reinstate the ban on high-capacity magazines in the next Congress.

In addition, Senator Lieberman just the other day on the floor--and he has been joined by Senator Rockefeller--has called for a study to gain a better understanding of the linked issues of mental health, mass shootings, and the desensitization of violence in our culture. President Obama has picked that up and carried it forward, and is proposing a new commission which the Vice President--Delaware's own Joe Biden--will be chairing. It is my hope that out of this important work we can find a path forward that marries the crying need to deal with mental health issues with cultural concerns about violence and desensitization with responsible limitations on the excessive use of military-style weapons and clips.

Last, in my view, we can and must do more to keep guns out of the hands of those with a history of violent crime or demonstrated mental illness. Our database system is broken and has to be repaired.

At Virginia Tech, 32 students and professors were murdered by a young man who got a gun he should have been prohibited from buying. A court had already ruled he was mentally ill and posed an imminent danger, but these findings simply weren't reported to the FBI's gun background check system. That is a travesty. The parents of those 32 murdered in Blacksburg, VA should be crying out for justice.

We should ensure that no gun sold in this country is sold to someone we know to be dangerous or who poses a direct threat to innocent Americans' lives. Today, an estimated 40 percent of all gun sales--some 6 million weapons a year--are sold by unlicensed dealers who aren't required to conduct any criminal background check under Federal law. This is how 12 students and 1 teacher were murdered at Columbine High School in Colorado, with guns bought from an unlicensed seller--no paperwork, no questions asked.

It is my hope, it is my prayer, that we will work to address this and many other complex but important issues in the coming weeks and months, and that we will consider all these proposals carefully and reach a balanced but effective solution.

I will apply the test of balance to find ways that we can continue to respect our traditions and protect constitutional liberties while still advancing our moral requirement to keep our kids and our communities safe.

As parents, we can't help but react with horror at the slaughter of innocent children in their classrooms. We all have to take time first to grieve with our families and our communities; but as policymakers, we also have a calling to react to the facts as we see them. And in this regard a reaction will have three stages: We need to reflect, we need to debate, and then we need to act.

The reflection and the debate have already begun. The action is still to come. I look forward to working with the Presiding Officer and my colleagues in the weeks and months ahead to ensure that this time we act. The victims of Newtown, CT, deserve nothing less.

Mr. President, I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum.


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