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Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, I wish to thank my colleague, Senator Murphy, who gave his first speech on the floor of the Senate this morning on the same topic. He is eminently qualified to speak to this issue because of his unhappy circumstance of being a Senator-elect when the Newtown, CT, massacre occurred. I have spoken to him and Senator Blumenthal about their personal life experiences and memories they will never forget about that day and those that followed.

I thank him for his voice on this issue, for his inspiration, and for speaking for many in Newtown, CT, and across the Nation who otherwise might not have as strong a voice on the floor of the Senate. I thank the Senator very much for that.

I would like to speak as in morning business briefly and then return to the underlying bill on firearms. I ask unanimous consent to speak in morning business.


Mr. DURBIN. Mr. President, in an interview with Roll Call newspaper a while back, Robert Remini--one of the great historians of our time--talked about what he hoped for after he died. Professor Remini said his idea of Heaven would be listening with his own ears to debates involving congressional giants such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun.

On March 28--Holy Thursday--Robert Remini died in a suburban Chicago hospital from complications of a recent stroke at the age of 91.

I hope his wish comes true. I hope right now he is listening in awe somewhere in Heaven as the great issues are debated in the Great Beyond.

Robert Remini lived a good and full life. He spent most of his career at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he founded the university's respected Institute for the Humanities. He produced a remarkable body of work that brought important chapters of America's history to life.

In 2002, at the age of 80, Professor Remini became a distinguished visiting scholar of American history at the Library of Congress.

At the request of Librarian of Congress James Billington, Professor Remini spent the next 3 years writing the history of the House of Representatives. That is where I met him. What a man, a great historian, a great personality, with a smile on his face every minute of the day.

Professor Remini was once asked how he found the stamina to start writing another book at the age of 80. He said he started by setting a goal for himself to write nine pages a day. Then he did what he had been taught by the Jesuits who trained him. He designed a plan to reward success and punish failure. This historian, this writer, this man who had assigned himself nine pages a day, would only get his reward at the end of the day--a martini--if he met his goal of nine pages.

His system worked. "The House'' was published in the year 2006.

In 2005, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, from Illinois, asked Professor Remini to become the official Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives. The post of House Historian had been empty for more than 10 years. Over the next 5 years, Professor Remini rebuilt the office's small staff and reestablished its reputation for impartial scholarship and integrity.

He retired from the House in 2010, but he kept writing until shortly before his death.

In all, he wrote and coauthored more than 20 books. His

subjects included Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, House Speaker Henry Clay, Senator and statesman Daniel Webster, and Mormon leader Joseph Smith.

As one former colleague said, he wrote with such immediacy ``that you might think he'd had lunch ..... with Martin Van Buren. He is an American treasure.''

The subject that interested him the most, though, was none of those great figures but Andrew Jackson. At least 10 of Professor Remini's books were about Jackson, including an influential three-volume biography, the third volume of which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1984.

To Professor Remini, Andrew Jackson was ``the embodiment of the new American.'' He was:

An orphan, poor, and yet talented, who through his own abilities, raised himself to the highest office in the land. He personified what the American Dream is all about. That it is not class or money or bloodlines that are rewarded in [America], but rather the ability of each individual to achieve something worthwhile in life.

Professor Remini did not excuse Jackson for his backward views on slavery or women's rights or his harsh treatment of Native Americans.

He regarded Jackson as admirable because:

He believed in this Union. He believed in this country. ..... [H]e ..... believed that government shouldn't be for only a small segment of society, but for all of us. That's what I want in [a] President.

So said Professor Remini.

Robert Vincent Remini was born in New York City. He graduated from Fordham University in 1943. He wanted to be a lawyer, but that changed after he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. To pass the time on board ship, he read history, including all nine volumes of Henry Adams' ``History of the United States of America.'' By the time the war ended, he knew it was history, not law, that he loved the most.

He returned to New York to obtain his master's and doctorate in history from Columbia University, and he married his childhood sweetheart, Ruth Kuhner. He taught at Fordham University for 12 years.

In 1965, he moved to Chicago and became the first chair of the history department at the newly established University of Illinois at Chicago's Circle Campus. He later founded the university's interdisciplinary Institute for the Humanities. He chaired that from 1981 to 1987. He became a professor emeritus of history and research professor emeritus of humanities in 1991.

He was an institution, not only in the field of history but certainly in Chicago and at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In addition to the National Book Award, his other honors include the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation Award, the Carl Sandburg Award for Nonfiction, the University Scholar Award of the University of Illinois, the American Historical Association's Award for Scholarly Distinction, and the Freedom Award from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.

Professor Remini's wife Ruth passed away last year. I wish to express my condolences to their children, Robert, Elizabeth, and Joan, their three grandchildren, and to Professor Remini's friends, colleagues, and former students. I will close with this: In 2003, the National Endowment for the Humanities invited Professor Remini to deliver its inaugural ``Heroes of History'' lecture. He chose as his subject the Members of the first Congress.

This is part of what he said of those men in whose footsteps many of us follow:

Ordinary. Most of them were ordinary individuals as far as the record shows, yet they performed heroically. And they deserve to be called heroes because they set aside their local and regional differences, their economic and personal prejudices, in their effort to make the Constitution succeed and thereby establish an enduring union. They had many disagreements, but they resolved them in compromise. And they did it for the sake of showing the world that a republican government was a viable instrument for the protection of liberty and betterment of its citizens.

If Professor Remini were here today, he would tell us that the spirit of principled compromise is more than a noble part of our past; it is the best hope for our future.

Now I will make a statement as part of the continuing debate on the outstanding legislation, S. 649.

As I mentioned before when Senator Murphy spoke, I rise to speak about a vote the Senate is going to take tomorrow as we begin debating legislation to reduce gun violence.

I am glad we are finally having this vote. There were some who thought we would never reach this point. It has been far too long since the Senate held a reasonable debate on how best to protect our children and families and schools and communities from violent shootings.

When we talk to the families who have lost children to gunfire--and it has been my sad duty to do that over and over again--and when we talk to law enforcement officials who are getting outgunned by criminals on the streets every day, we know this debate is long overdue.

Some Senators have said they do not want to touch this issue. They have announced their intention to filibuster in order to try to stop us from even debating gun safety. This is an extreme political position. It is an unfortunate position. But, fortunately, over the last few days, a growing number of Senators from both sides of the aisle have made it clear this debate is going to move forward.

I hope the vote tomorrow reflects that, and when we get to the point where we are in debate, we can roll up our sleeves and get to work. We can look at our Constitution, which we have sworn to uphold, including the second amendment, and we can also look to the needs of America to protect the life, liberty, and opportunity for happiness for the people who live in this country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 11,000 Americans--11,000--are murdered with guns each year. That is more each year than all the American lives lost in the 9/11 attacks, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

When we count suicides and accidental shootings, more than 31,000 Americans are killed by guns each year. That is 87 Americans killed every single day by guns. Another 200 are shot each day but survive. Think of those numbers.

Gun violence in America is truly at epidemic levels. Gunshots now kill over four times more Americans per year than HIV/AIDS, and shooting deaths are projected to surpass car accident deaths within the next few years.

These statistics should give us all pause. But numbers cannot truly capture the deeply personal impact of gun violence. There are too many families who now face an empty chair at the dinner table, too many parents who walk past an empty bedroom, too many husbands and wives who have lost the loves of their lives because of guns.

It is heartbreaking. But, sadly, it is almost routine--in a park in Chicago; at a nightclub in my hometown of East St. Louis, IL; in a movie theater in Auroro, CO; in a shopping center in Tucson, AZ; in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI; at military bases in Texas, Virginia, and Kentucky; in college lecture halls in DeKalb, IL, and Blacksburg, VA; sadly, in the first-grade classrooms in Newtown, CT.

Since the Newtown shooting on December 14, more than 3,300 Americans have been killed by guns, including at least 220 children and teenagers. The violence continues. Americans all across the country are saying with one voice: Enough. We have to do something. We need to protect our kids, our communities, our schools, and this epidemic of gun violence has to come to an end.

On Thursday, we will vote to begin debate on a bill that would take commonsense steps to prevent gun violence. It is called the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported the parts of the bill last month. The committee held three lengthy hearings and four markups which I attended.

The Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act would do three things: First, it makes sure that the FBI NICS background check programs are conducted on all gun sales with some reasonable exceptions. Currently, up to 40 percent of all transfers of firearms include no background check. Someone raised the point in one of our hearings, what if you got on the airplane and they announced to you--the flight attendant said: Welcome to this flight from Washington to Chicago. The Transportation Security Agency has checked 60 percent of the passengers to make sure they are not carrying a bomb but not the other 40 percent. Have a nice flight. What would you think about it? You would think, for goodness' sake, we have to do everything we can to check everyone if we are truly dedicated to safety. That is what this universal background check is about.

We would also create tough Federal criminal penalties for illegal straw purchasing and the trafficking of guns. Get the picture. If you are going to buy a gun from a licensed dealer, they are going to run a background check on you. If your background check discloses, for example, that you have a felony conviction or that you are under a domestic violence order or that have you been adjudged mentally incompetent, unstable, and you should not own a gun, you will not be sold that gun.

Since we came up with this idea of background checks, up to 2 million unqualified people tried to buy them and we stopped them. That is what the law is supposed to do. But under the current circumstances, straw purchasers go in and buy a gun because they have a clean record. So the gangster, the mobster, the drug gang member, the thug sends his girlfriend in to buy the gun. She does not have a criminal record. She buys the gun, comes outside and hands it to him. He turns around and uses it to kill someone. This bill is going to change what happens to her. Of course, he is still going to face the full brunt of the law for his misdeeds. But she is now going to be held accountable, too, up to 15 years of hard time in Federal prison for buying that gun.

We had a press conference in Chicago and said: Girlfriend, think twice. He ain't worth it. To run the risk of spending 15 years in prison if you buy a gun to give to that boyfriend who is going to turn around and use it in a crime, it ain't worth it. This bill would also authorize additional resources to keep schools safe.

These proposals just make sense. They have strong support from the American public, including a majority of gun owners. The National Rifle Association may speak for the gun industry, but it does not speak for gun owners. Gun owners, and I know them. They are part of my family. I have grown up with them my entire life. They are good, God-fearing, church-going, patriotic Americans who value their guns and use them properly, store them safely at home away from kids. These are people who will follow the law. They understand we have to stop those who misuse guns from getting their hands on them. A majority of those gun owners across America, sportsmen, hunters, those who buy guns for self-defense support what we are doing in this bill.

The straw purchasing and school safety proposals passed in committee with strong bipartisan votes. I am hopeful we will be able to adopt the bipartisan floor amendment from Senators MANCHIN and TOOMEY on background checks.

All these proposals are also supported by law enforcement. It was about 3 weeks ago. I went to the Chicago Police Department headquarters. Superintendent McCarthy invited me in. I sat down for about an hour with 10 beat cops from Chicago. They are ones who literally get up every morning and go, usually undercover, into neighborhoods and try to stop the murders and violence. I sat there. One of them had just gotten back from his 11th surgery. He got in a shootout with a 15-year-old who shattered his leg. He has had 11 surgeries trying to get back on his feet and get back on the force.

We talked about what life was like out there. They talked about 14- and 15-year-olds packing guns and firing away. They are not worth a darn as a shot. They, sadly, kill a lot of people they do not intend to kill. They are as irresponsible as they come, but it is the reality of the mean streets of many cities. So these people in law enforcement agree we need to do something about the straw purchasers, for example. So do the prosecutors, the medical community, the faith community, teachers, mayors, colleges, universities, and, most important, the family members of gun violence victims. Many of those family members from Newtown are here today. Senator Murphy from Connecticut spoke earlier, as did Senator Blumenthal, to note their persuasive lobbying as they walk the Halls of Congress, hoping the sad and awful tragedy they went through on December 14 will at least lead to a safer America.

I salute them. In their grief, they are standing up to make this a safer nation. Unfortunately, some parts of the gun lobby have had a long history of opposing even those commonsense ideas. They have raised objections to them. I want to respond to the main objections the gun lobby has raised. As it turns out, they just do not stand up to scrutiny.

First, the gun lobby claims that requiring FBI background checks for gun sales will lead to the creation of a national gun registry. That claim is absolutely totally false. Federal law prohibits the Federal Government from establishing a national gun registry. We could argue the merits of it, but we have to acknowledge the reality. It does not exist today. It will not exist as a result of this bill.

I have a copy of a letter signed by 30 Senators, including 26 Republicans. I ask unanimous consent to have this letter printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:


Mr. DURBIN. This letter, dated November 3, 2011, describes a number of longstanding prohibitions in Federal law. Let me quote the letter's description of two:

Firearms database prohibition. A prohibition on the use of funds to create, maintain or administer a database of firearm owners or their firearms. This prohibition has been in place since fiscal year 1979 and prevents the Federal Government from establishing a national gun registry.

Information gathering prohibition. A prohibition on the use of funds to maintain any information gathered as part of an instant background check or to maintain information for more than 24 hours. This provision protects the privacy of law-abiding gun buyers by providing information about legal gun purchases from being kept by government authorities, and has been included in the law since fiscal year 1999.

There you have it. This letter, signed by Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, Senators HATCH, INHOFE, GRASSLEY, DEMINT, and many others, showed that the claims about a national gun registry are baseless. There is no evidence of such a registry. Longstanding Federal laws prevent the creation of it. Anyone who continues to claim the FBI background check will lead to a national gun registry should be shown this letter signed by Republican Senators.

Second, the gun lobby claims these proposals would unduly burden law-abiding gun owners. What is the burden? In 2011, the FBI reported the background check system had an instant determination rate of 91.5 percent. That means 91 percent-plus of background checks were resolved in a matter of minutes. For those other background checks where the dealer is instructed to temporarily delay the sale to allow for a more thorough check, the FBI must give a response within 3 days or the sale will be allowed to go through. In other words, a background check is, at most, a minor temporary inconvenience to a small percentage of law-abiding Americans.

Meanwhile, the public safety and law enforcement benefits of background checks are enormous. Background checks have stopped unlawful users from buying guns over 1.5 million times. There is no reason for law-abiding Americans to worry about tougher penalties for straw purchases and gun trafficking. Those activities are already illegal and law-abiding Americans will not be engaged in them.

In short, the proposals before the Senate will not burden law-abiding gun owners. They will help to save lives, reduce crime, and keep guns from the hands of those who misuse them.

Third claim by the gun lobby. They claim we should not pass any new gun laws until there is more enforcement of the laws on the books. I am all for that. But it is blatantly hypocritical of the gun lobby to say we should just enforce the gun laws on the books when they constantly work to weaken those same laws.

For example, in the last few years, the gun lobby has gotten Congress to change the laws on the books to repeal the Reagan-era prohibition on loaded guns in national parks, to require Amtrak to allow guns to be transported on their trains, to give the gun industry unprecedented immunity from liability under civil law, and to pass appropriations riders which make it harder for law enforcement agencies to enforce gun laws, such as the ludicrous Tiahrt amendment that prevents information sharing about even traces of guns used in the commission of crimes.

Not only does the gun lobby try to get Congress to undo the gun laws on the books, it has also supported court challenges to these same laws across the country.

Here is the best example: The gun lobby claims to be outraged that there are not more Federal prosecutions when a person tries to buy a gun but is denied by the FBI NICS background check. The Federal agency that reviews those NICS denial cases to see whether they merit prosecution is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF. As we all know, the gun lobby has gone to great political lengths to make it harder for the ATF to do its job. The gun lobby has blocked ATF from getting a Senate-confirmed Director for six straight years. They have pushed appropriations riders that limit the ATF's authority, and they have sought to repeal ATF regulations in Court.

The best part is, at the same time the gun lobby tries to prevent ATF from carrying out its enforcement responsibilities, the gun lobby has pushed a rider into law that explicitly prevents Congress from transferring any of ATF's functions to any other agency, such as the FBI. So the gun lobby says that all we should do is enforce the gun laws on the books. Then they make it harder for the Federal Government to do that.

Here is the bottom line. We are going to have votes soon, starting tomorrow, to see where the Members of the Senate stand. Are they going to stand with the police officers, the legislatures, the teachers, the prosecutors, the doctors, the mayors, the victims and their families, and the strong majority of Americans who support proposals that will save lives, commonsense gun safety proposals? Or are they going to stand with the gun lobby that refuses to compromise even when lives could be saved?

I know where I am going to stand. I stand with Americans such as the family of Hadiya Pendleton, the promising, beautiful young teenage girl gunned down just weeks ago in a Chicago park. She had been out here for President Obama's inauguration. It was a thrilling day for her to be here with her high school friends and classmates. In a matter of days, she had been gunned down in a park after school.

I stand with Sandra Wortham, whose brother, Chicago police officer Thomas Wortham, IV, was shot and killed by gang members with a straw-purchased gun while he stood in the driveway of his father's home. The gun lobby would like us to forget about these victims. But there is no way we can.

Sandra Wortham testified at a hearing I chaired in February on gun violence. She talked about how her brother, a policeman in Chicago, was armed and shot back, but it did not save him. She told us there is nothing anti-gun about doing more to keep guns out of the hands of the people who will misuse them. It was pretty powerful testimony.

The NRA posted a summary of my hearing on their Web site describing the hearing as ``an attack on guns.'' They described the testimony given by five of our six witnesses, but they said nothing about Sandra Wortham, who lost her brother, the Chicago policeman. They pretended her testimony never happened. They did not want people to remember her story.

It is not the only time. A few weeks ago, the NRA proposed a set of redline changes to the gun trafficking bill that Senators LEAHY, KIRK, COLLINS, GILLIBRAND, and I are cosponsoring. The key section of that bill was named after Hadiya Pendleton of Chicago. That was Senator Kirk's idea and a darn good one. What was the first change the NRA proposed? Deleting Hadiya Pendleton's name from the bill. They did not want to be reminded of this young girl who lost her life to gun violence.

The gun lobby may hope we forget about Americans such as the Pendletons and the Worthams, but we will not. None of us should.

I urge my colleagues to join with the majority of Americans who support commonsense reforms that will reduce gun deaths and keep guns out of the hands of criminals. That is what we should do. I see my colleagues Senator Kaine and Senator Lee on the floor. Let me close by just reminding those who are following this debate what other countries have done when they have experienced tragic mass shootings.

They have acted to toughen the gun laws, often going far further than any proposal we have before the Senate. In Australia, on April 28, 1996, a gunman started shooting at tourists in Port Arthur. He killed 35 people. In response, that nation dramatically toughened their standards for gun ownership, banned assault weapons, and launched a buyback of hundreds of thousands of semiautomatic rifles. I might tell you, that is not included in this bill we are considering.

After these laws were passed, gun homicides and suicides decreased dramatically, and Australia has not had a single mass shooting since 1996.

In Finland, there were two mass school shootings in 2007 and 2008. The first involved a teenager who killed eight people at a high school, and the second involved a gunman who killed 10 at a culinary school.

In response, Finland raised the minimum age for gun ownership and toughened their background check requirements.

In Scotland, on March 13, 1996, a gunman entered a primary school in the town of Dunblane and killed 16 young children and their teacher. In response, the United Kingdom actually went so far as to ban virtually all handguns.

The measures we are working on in the Senate today are modest in comparison with steps other countries took in response to mass shootings. Even though we have over 300 million guns in America and a strong tradition of gun ownership, the measures we are considering have overwhelming support among the majority of Americans and gun owners. We should move forward with these measures.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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