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Gun Safety

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. TOOMEY. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the Senator from West Virginia. The work we have done together has been challenging and constructive. I think we have come to a very sensible legislative product--something I can be proud of. I want to thank Senator Kirk for the work he did on this from way back, and Senator Schumer's contribution to this process as well.

I wish to start, if I could, with some thoughts about the second amendment and what it means to me and why I think a proper understanding is so important in this discussion.

Sometimes it is useful to go to the source, and so, as a reminder--not that we are not familiar with it--I am going to read from my pocket version of the Constitution the second amendment to the Constitution, which simply says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Today, we often think that the second amendment is about sportsmen, it is about hunting. That is an important part of it. But the second amendment is actually much more profound than a protection for hunters. It is more fundamental to our country and who we are as a people.

In my view, the Framers, in writing the second amendment, were recognizing our natural rights, our natural law rights of self-defense and self-preservation. In fact, those rights precede the Constitution. They were acknowledging and recognizing those rights in the Constitution. They did not create them.

I would also suggest that the second amendment is about sovereignty. Who is sovereign in this country? Is it the government? Is it the head of state or is it the people? I think, as we know, this whole great experiment of ours that is America is an exercise in recognizing the sovereignty of the individual people. And a sovereign people, it flows logically, ought to have the right to bear arms, to protect themselves.

Ultimately, our Founders intended the second amendment to be the means by which we would maintain our liberty and prevent tyranny. We often take things for granted in a democratic society in which we get to select our own government and our constitutionally protected rights are respected. But we all know that around the world and in the recent past there have been appalling cases where tyranny has destroyed the rights of relatively free peoples who in many ways have come from societies not terribly dissimilar to ours.

So these are some of the thoughts that occur to me when I think about the second amendment, why it is so important to me. I see it as a very important part of our very identity as a Nation and as a people. It is why it is very important to me personally.

In addition to being a gun owner and someone who has always respected these rights, it has a very important philosophical underpinning for me.

For years, of course, we had many contentious debates. One of the contentious debates we had about the second amendment for many years probably arose from the first phrase about the ``well regulated Militia.'' The debate centered around whether this right, this second amendment right--that, obviously, is enshrined in the Constitution--was a collective right that depended on one's membership in a militia or if it were an individual right belonging to individual people.

It was always clear to me this is an individual right. It is clear to me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Founders never recognized the idea of collective rights. For them, it was all about individual rights. But, fortunately, our judicial system put an end to that question when a conservative majority of U.S. Supreme Court Justices reached the Heller decision. In District of Columbia v. Heller they made it very clear this is not a collective right, this is not contingent upon membership in a militia. The second amendment is an individual right that applies to individual Americans. And I wholeheartedly agree.

Not too long after that, in the McDonald et al. v. City of Chicago decision, the Court went even further in a way in upholding the Heller decision and referencing that. It affirmed that decision, but it went farther and said this second amendment right is so important and so fundamental and so basic that it is binding on States and local governments as well. So not only can the Federal Government not infringe upon second amendment rights, but neither can a State or a local government. So that is a pretty impressive conclusion that our Court has come to in resolving a big part of this contentious debate.

I would pose a question the Court has also addressed, and that is, is this a right that is enjoyed by all of the people of America? In my opinion--and I think this is not controversial--the answer to that question is no. Young children are not expected to be afforded the same second amendment rights as adults. Criminals who have been convicted of crimes have foregone many of their rights, including second amendment rights, by virtue of their conviction of serious crimes. And dangerously mentally ill people are people whom we as a society have every right to protect ourselves from, and so they do not have the same second amendment rights everyone else has.

Now, I would argue, to our Founders this was a given. After all, this was a time when capital punishment was quite common and they fully accepted capital punishment. How perverse and absurd would the idea be that someone who was subject to capital punishment would somehow be able to enjoy second amendment rights? Of course not. It is obvious criminals forego that right.

The Heller decision, the recent Supreme Court decision I referred to, addresses this as well. Justice Scalia observed:

Nothing in our opinion--

That is the Heller opinion affirming the individual right of the second amendment--He says:

Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill ..... or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

It seems to me that is a very explicit explanation that it is not an infringement on second amendment rights to attempt to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and mentally ill people.

So if the Founders were in agreement on this, and the Supreme Court is in agreement, and we have laws in all 50 States that make it illegal for certain criminals and mentally ill people to have firearms, the question is: Are we willing to take modest measures to try to achieve this goal that I think we all share and that is clearly consistent with our Constitution?

That is what Senator Manchin and Senator Kirk and I are trying to do here today. What we are trying to do is make it a little bit more difficult for the people who are not supposed to have firearms in the first place to obtain them. I think Senator Manchin will agree with me there is no panacea here, there is no law anyone could write--certainly not this one--that is ever going to guarantee that a determined criminal will not be able to obtain a weapon one way or another or that maybe even a mentally ill person may not be able to obtain a weapon eventually if they are sufficiently determined. But can't we take a very modest step to make it more difficult, if we can do it in a way that does not infringe on the second amendment rights of law-abiding citizens whose rights we want to defend?

So I think of our bill as doing three broad things. And Senator Manchin and I will walk through some of the specifics of how we achieve this. But I would suggest one way to think about it is three categories.

One is, we simply encourage greater compliance with the background check system we have in place now. We are not inventing a new one. We are not inventing new criteria for it. But the fact is, the participation in the background check system by the various States--you see, we rely on the States to provide information about the people who have been adjudicated as mentally dangerous, the people who have been adjudicated as criminals. They have been convicted. The Federal government does not have that information. We rely on the States to provide it. What we do in this bill is create greater incentives for the States to, in fact, participate because the participation varies dramatically.

A second thing we do is expand background checks to gun sales at gun shows and over the Internet. Again, this is not a new system. We are just applying this background check to a category that has not been subject to it, but it is the existing system.

Then the third thing is--and we will talk about this at a little length, I hope--we have a number of measures in this bill that, frankly, I think are overdue and they enhance the opportunity for law-abiding citizens to simply exercise the second amendment rights they ought to be able to exercise.

I think Senator Manchin put this very well. If you are a law-abiding citizen who enjoys exercising second amendment rights, you are going to like this bill. It is going to enhance your ability to exercise those rights that you have. If you are a criminal, and you want to get a weapon illegally, you probably are not going to like this bill because it is going to make it a little harder for you to do that. It will also make it harder for someone who is mentally ill.

I am going to yield back for my friend, the Senator from West Virginia. But before I do that, I want to make one simple point about how tangible and how real and how important this can be. I am referring to enhancing compliance with the NICS background check system.

We all remember the Virginia Tech shootings. One of the aspects of this tragedy is that the shooter's ability to obtain a weapon might have been prevented. I say that because the young man, Seung-Hui Cho, had already been adjudicated to be mentally ill, dangerously so, by a Virginia judge. They had discovered this. They had figured this out. They knew this was a very unstable and very dangerous man. But the State of Virginia never passed that information on. So there was no information about this man in the national background check system when who knows whatever demons possessed him to go out and obtain guns so he could wreak the havoc he did. He went and submitted himself to a background check, and he passed with flying colors because the system did not have the data.

One of the things Senator Manchin and I are proposing in this legislation is, let's provide greater incentives; and there is a carrot and there is a stick and a cost to States so they will be more in compliance.

Now, I will be clear: If Virginia had provided this information to the system, then this shooter from Virginia Tech would have been denied that day and we do not know what would have happened after that. It is possible he would have found some other way to obtain weapons. But think of all the other things that might have happened. If he had been denied at that moment and he had walked out of that store, who knows what else might have intervened--whether he would have gotten help, whether he would have been stopped some other way. We will never know that. But it seems to me it is a good idea to try to put that block in place, and that is one of the things we would achieve. Our legislation, I think, would go a long way over time to encouraging and, in fact, realizing a greater compliance on the part of the various States.

Senator Manchin may want to elaborate a little bit on how we achieve that, and then I would continue in this discussion with him.


Mr. TOOMEY. Mr. President, I think it might be useful to discuss some of the specific ways in which this legislation would enhance the compliance and the participation on the part of our 50 States with this existing background check system.

As Senator Manchin said--as we both said--we are not creating a new system. We are not creating a new set of rules by which the system operates. What we are simply asking is that since States already have information about people who are criminals and people who are dangerously mentally ill, we want them to put that in the database so we can discover when someone attempts to buy a firearm.

By the way----

Mr. MANCHIN. Mr. President, if my friend will yield, if I may, I would like to mention that we also discussed including an incentive so someone can't say that is an unfunded mandate. That provision is not an unfunded mandate, I say to my colleague.

Mr. TOOMEY. I also wish to mention one of the very typical categories of mental illness we want to capture, and that is people who have been publicly adjudicated. So that would be people who have pleaded not guilty to a crime by reason of insanity. That strikes me as a pretty good definition of somebody who is mentally ill. And someone who is deemed not competent to stand trial by virtue of their mental deficiency would be another category.

But the idea is that we have a series of specific measures that would encourage greater compliance. There is a carrot-and-stick approach. We would authorize some funding. It would have to live within the spending caps we have already agreed to, the overall spending caps, but we authorize funding for grants that States can use to carry out, first of all, an assessment of the extent to which they are or are not currently in compliance. As I said, some States are probably doing virtually all they can and other States are doing almost nothing in terms of providing the information they have to this database system, and they can start with an assessment of that.

We would then ask them to submit a 4-year plan by which they would develop full compliance or as full as they can achieve in 4 years. They work this out with the Attorney General. There will be benchmarks along the way. They would have a series of steps they would take by which they would start to turn over this information they already have about people who are criminals and people who are mentally ill.

If a State refuses to develop such a plan or to achieve the benchmarks they set out in their own plan, then we propose they have a penalty and they would lose some funding. That is the mechanism by which we have an inducement, an incentive for these States. They could lose up to 15 percent of what is known as the Byrne/JAG funding, which is funding Congress annually makes available to States for fighting crime.

So I believe this is a sensible combination of measures to simply encourage States to participate as they should.

If the Senator from West Virginia has anything more to say about the NICS improvement piece of this, I will certainly yield. If not, I want to mention a reason why I feel strongly about expanding the background checks. But at this point I yield for the Senator from West Virginia.


Mr. TOOMEY. Mr. President, the last point I wish to make is something about the NICS system that I should have mentioned; that is, currently there are States in which someone can be adjudicated as mentally ill, for instance, but that person is left with very few options to challenge that status. That is the current situation. We remedy that. One of the things we require in this bill, in the 4-year plan States have to develop, is that it has to include a program, a mechanism by which a person who feels they have been wrongly designated as someone who can't own a firearm by virtue of their criminal background or their mental health would have an opportunity to challenge that, as they should. There ought to be a process they can go through to challenge that finding so that nobody who doesn't belong on this list ends up on this list.

Let me move on to the background checks at gun shows. I am going to introduce this by reading a letter I received from a constituent yesterday. This happens to be a woman whom I know very well. I have known her for years. She is a conservative Republican, as it happens. She is a second amendment gun owner. Let me read what she wrote:

Hello, Pat. I just had to write after watching your leadership with this very difficult issue. I very much understand what you are doing with the gun show checks and appreciate your dealing with this. This issue is very personal to me and if you will indulge me, I will tell you.

She goes on to say:

I'm a very strong supporter of the second amendment. I'm the gun owner in my house. I do shoot. My father very proudly passed down his Remington 1100 to me several years before he passed away. He presented it to me with great pride. I accepted it as a very special moment between us. Meanwhile, Pat, I have an adopted daughter who has had emotional troubles her entire life. Much of our journey with her has been difficult and it continues to this day. My daughter has been involuntarily committed twice, and I unfortunately believe that it won't be the last time, as she refuses to get proper treatment. I was the one who had to sign her paperwork the first time. And it was made clear to me that I would be taking away her right to own a gun. I knew that we had no choice but to try and get her some help. But my hands shook and I had to pause quite a long time over that document, because I so strongly believe in our second amendment rights. Nevertheless, I signed it and I would do it again today.

At various times, people have been concerned for our safety with the volatile nature of my daughter's problems. The idea that she would be able to purchase a weapon openly in a public venue is not acceptable. I do not believe that she actually would, but I don't find any comfort in the fact that she could have an avenue if she so chose. Once again, I cannot emphasize the importance of the second amendment to me enough. Pat, I thank you for your efforts in D.C. and bless you for all that you're doing. Be well and be strong.

I think that says a lot about what we are trying to accomplish. Here we have a passionate supporter of the second amendment, a gun owner, someone who has always been a believer in the second amendment. For reasons that she has explained very personally, very important reasons, she does not want her daughter to be able to go into a gun show and buy a firearm without so much as a background check.

Since the mom has the recognition of her daughter's problems, if the information is provided and if that State complies--in this case it is my State of Pennsylvania--with this background check system, then someone in the circumstances of her daughter attempting to buy a weapon at a gun show would be denied.

I think that is the outcome we all want. It is certainly the outcome her own mother wants, who loves her dearly and loves the second amendment.

I would yield back to the Senator from West Virginia.


Mr. TOOMEY. The Senator makes a point which may seem basic. This bill has been available online since Thursday night. It is available now and in every detail. It is available in summary form and available in any way people choose to look at it.

The Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, one of the pro second amendment rights groups which endorses this bill, states:

If you read the Manchin-Toomey substitute amendment, you can see all the advances for our cause, that it contains.

This ``cause'' refers to defense of the second amendment, which it contains.

The bottom line is, as the Senator from Montana pointed out, our amendment isn't gun control. This is very clear, and I think it is an important contrast. There are other Members of this body who are not happy with this bill because they want active, aggressive gun control. For instance, they want to ban various categories of weapons. They wish to ban various categories of ammunition. They would like to ban various kinds of waiting periods and put other restrictions on law-abiding citizens. This is gun control. Restricting the freedom of law-abiding citizens who have never done anything to harm anyone and restricting their second amendment rights is gun control. I disagree with it. I oppose it. I will oppose every such amendment which comes before this body.

Trying to keep guns out of the hands of people who aren't legally entitled to have them--dangerous people, be they criminals or dangerously mentally ill people--that is not gun control; this is common sense.

As I started off my comments, there is no dispute this is not an infringement on the second amendment. Our Founders didn't think so. Our Supreme Court Justices didn't think so. The laws in 50 States don't maintain this. It is common sense.

I wish to point out another difference in the approach Senator Manchin and I have taken versus some others in this body have taken. Others have said let's make a universal background check, and then we will think about who to make an exception for. Then they carve out very narrow categories.

One of the problems with that, in my view, is we will not imagine every sort of set of circumstances we ought to carve out. We took a different approach. We said private transactions generally don't need to be subject to this. I am not going to try to imagine every conceivable private transaction. We said let's have background checks on commercial transactions. This is where the big volume of commercial transactions occur and where strangers are buying and selling guns from each other. This is why we require the background check at gun shows, and we require the background check on Internet sales.

The private transaction, whether it is with a family member, friends, neighbors or colleagues, if it doesn't happen at a gun show and doesn't happen over the Internet, it is not subject to the background check. We thought that would be an unnecessary burden on people who know each other.

Let me just run through quickly some of the ways in which this legislation strengthens the ability of law-abiding citizens to exercise their second amendment rights. I will do this briefly. The Senator from Montana touched on some of these. I ought to start off underscoring something the Senator from West Virginia mentioned earlier.

Not only will this not in any way contribute to any kind of national registry, it is explicitly forbidden. Anybody in the Federal Government who did try to create a Federal registry would become a felon and subject to 15 years in prison. This is point No. 1.

One of the problems we have heard from our constituents who are gun enthusiasts, which we were able to address in this legislation, is clarifying and fixing interstate travel laws such as for sportsmen who are traveling long distances. Unfortunately, it happens too frequently when a sportsman is traveling from one State to another State, perhaps on a hunting trip or going home for Christmas and wishes to give a relative a gun for a present. He is perfectly, lawfully entitled to own this gun. He is following the rules and regulations in his State. He packs the gun appropriately in his vehicle. As he is traveling through another State, he discovers he is not in compliance with the other State.

People have gotten themselves into trouble. They have not done anything to harm anybody, they are just traveling into a State which has a whole different regime and doesn't respect the regime of the other State.

We fixed that by clarifying in the legislation if a person is transiting through a State and in compliance with the laws of their home State, they are OK. We permit interstate handgun sales from dealers. We provide--and this is very important; the Senator from Montana mentioned this--a legal process for restoring veterans second amendment rights.

We have a problem in this country right now for veterans. They come back after serving this country, risking their lives, often sustaining injuries, sustaining trauma. They can go to the VA and have a social worker decide they are not able to handle their personal financial matters. This alone puts them on the registry, disqualifies them from being able to own a firearm legally and be able to purchase one.

I think this is outrageous, frankly. This is currently happening every day to veterans. We deal with that. We change the system. Under our legislation, this couldn't happen. Before anybody at the VA could designate a veteran as somebody who can't own a firearm, first they would need to inform the veteran 30 days in advance to give the veteran an opportunity to challenge the status. This is only fair. We owe that to those men and women who have given so much to us. This is in our bill.

We also have a policy today where the law of the land forbids an Active-Duty military person from buying a gun in his home State. I don't know whose idea this was. It doesn't make any sense to me. This is the law. We repeal the policy in this bill to enable a man or woman serving in uniform in this country to buy a firearm in their home State. We also allow a person who has a concealed carry permit to use the permit as the mechanism by which they are approved for a gun sale. This stands to reason. The concealed carry permit process is itself a very cumbersome and onerous process. In many cases it is very thorough and very expensive. If someone passes that they should be fine. We have it in this bill as well.

I wish to underscore that these are the reasons two of the leading pro second amendment groups have endorsed this bill. It enhances the opportunity of law-abiding citizens to exercise their second amendment rights. If someone is a criminal or mentally unqualified to have a firearm, they are not going to like this bill.

As I said at the beginning, I feel very strongly about this. It is not gun control to try to keep guns out of the hands of people who are not qualified to have them.

I, again, wish to thank the Senator from West Virginia, my friend. I appreciate the hard work he has put into this. I appreciate the chance to share these thoughts and work with him. We will welcome any questions, comments, ideas or suggestions from our colleagues as we wrestle with this bill in the coming days and, hopefully, have a vote soon which will be successful on this amendment.


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