Cummings Remarks At NPC On Bipartisan Gun Trafficking Bill
Below are remarks delivered by Ranking Member Cummings at an event today at the National Press Club titled, “A Reality Check on Congressional Gun Legislation.” He discussed his bipartisan bill to combat gun trafficking and address gun violence.
Remarks by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings
Ranking Member, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
National Press Club Newsmaker Event:
“A Reality Check on Congressional Gun Legislation”
April 2, 2013
Thank you, Mr. Weiner, for your kind introduction. Good morning everyone. Today I want to talk about an issue that is extremely personal for me, and that is gun violence.
In June 2011, I lost my nephew, Christopher, to a senseless act of gun violence. Christopher was just 20 years old. He was a student at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Like the beautiful children who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he was an amazing young man with his entire life ahead of him.
It is a painful thing to see your nephew, son, or daughter’s blood splattered across the wall. Suddenly I, like countless others, lived the unimaginable suffering of losing a loved one due to gun violence.
Last week, during his press conference urging the country not to forget the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the President was joined by 21 mothers who are fighting for legislation to reduce gun violence. And let me tell you, I understand their passion. Because when you lose a family member like that, you don’t just mourn them at their funeral, you mourn them every day of your life. You mourn for the person they could have been. And for children murdered at five and six years old, you mourn every missed birthday, every graduation, every Christmas. Every milestone missed is a reminder of the life they could have led had it not been so brutally snatched away.
So you see, we are not only mourning what we’ve lost, we are mourning what could have been. This loss leads to a great passion in me and in all those family members. That passion is deep and powerful, and that passion will lead to change. We will not forget. We will fight and keep fighting for gun safety legislation.
I want to start today by talking about our current fight against the problem of gun trafficking and straw purchasing, which I have been working on for several years.
At a bipartisan forum on gun trafficking that I organized last month, we heard from first responders and law enforcement officials who were victims of gun trafficking crimes. Far too often, it is our brave law enforcement officers and first responders who find themselves on the wrong end of a gun barrel.
I want to share some of their stories with you today. One of these brave men is Ted Scardino, a firefighter from West Webster, New York. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds when his unit was responding to a fire alarm on Christmas Eve three months ago. That fire turned out to be an ambush. It was set by William Spengler, a convicted felon who served 17 years in prison for killing his 92-year-old grandmother with a hammer.
Despite his history of violence, Spengler convinced his neighbor to buy the 12-gauge shotgun and Bushmaster rifle he used to murder two firefighters and injure two others, including Mr. Scardino. Behind me are pictures of the two firefighters who lost their lives that day: 19-year-old Tomasz Kaczowka and his mentor and Mike Chiapperini, who left behind a wife, two young daughters, and a son.
We also heard from Chief Joseph Lawrence of Plymouth Township, Pennsylvania, who talked about the loss of one of his own officers, Brad Fox. Officer Fox was directing traffic when Andrew Thomas, a convicted felon, swerved into oncoming traffic. When Officer Fox gave chase, Thomas shot and killed him before turning the gun on himself. For some reason, a straw purchaser willingly bought seven handguns and two rifles for this killer, even though he was a convicted felon.
Officer Fox was only 34-years old. He was an Iraq war veteran who returned home a hero. He left behind a pregnant wife and daughter. Chief Lawrence told us that Brad Fox, was “like a son” to him.
At our forum, we also heard from San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr. Chief Suhr described a gun trafficking ring that stretched from Georgia to California and involved hundreds of firearms. Many of these firearms ended up in the streets of the Bay Area and were recovered at crime scenes across San Francisco and Oakland, including guns in the possession of an armed robbery suspect on parole, a convicted felon, and multiple gang members and drug traffickers.
This problem is everywhere. Just last week, there were news reports of another straw purchasing incident in Colorado. A convicted felon shot and killed Colorado's prison chief and a pizza deliveryman. The shooter, Evan Ebel, was on parole after serving four years in prison for punching a prison guard in 2008.
Most Americans already think gun trafficking is a federal crime—but it’s not. They have no idea that there is no federal law targeting firearms traffickers who commonly use “straw purchasers” to buy guns for convicted felons and other dangerous criminals who cannot legally buy guns on their own.
In Congress, we have heard repeatedly from law enforcement that the laws to prevent straw purchasers are “toothless” and that they are viewed as nothing more than paperwork violations similar to doing 55 in a 65.
After years of working on this issue and hearing firsthand from law enforcement officials that they needed Congress to strengthen gun trafficking laws, I was joined by Republicans and Democrats in February to introduce the Gun Trafficking Prevention Act of 2013. This common sense legislation will, for the first time, explicitly prohibit firearms trafficking, and it will make straw purchasing a serious crime by increasing the maximum penalty to twenty years in prison.
I am very grateful to have significant support from law enforcement officials for our bill. Nearly 30 organizations support the bill, including law enforcement officials from across the country. These organizations believe our legislation is critical to combating the flow of firearms to violent criminals, international drug cartels, and other dangerous people.
This bill also enjoys significant bipartisan support in the House of Representatives thanks to the thoughtful leadership of Representatives Scott Rigell, Pat Meehan, and Carolyn Maloney, who joined me in introducing this important legislation. And bipartisan support for the legislation is growing every day.
In fact, we have now surpassed 100 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.
This legislation also has significant bipartisan support in the Senate. It was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee with the support of Republican Ranking Member Charles Grassley, and it has the support of Republican Senators off the Committee as well. And this month, after months of work, the full Senate will vote on this critical legislation.
Then it will be time for the House to act. And I hope the House Judiciary Committee acts this month to begin the process of marking up legislation so that the full House can vote on a package before summer.
I know we still have a long way to go before the President can sign this legislation into law, but it will be worth the fight. And we have so much on our side—we have common sense, a desperate need, and most importantly, we have the drive and passion of the thousands of families who have been victimized by gun violence. The vast majority of Americans believe that Congress should pass legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
I know that both the President and the Vice President share this passion for reducing gun violence. For the first time in decades, the White House made preventing gun violence a top priority. Just last week, the President held a press conference on this very issue and reminded our nation that we will never forget those who lost their lives because a gunman decided to pull the trigger.
As the President said: “What we’re proposing is not radical, it’s not taking away anybody’s gun rights. It’s something that, if we are serious, we will do it. Now is the time to turn that heartbreak into something real.”
Now I have been asked—apart from our gun trafficking bill—whether I support other gun-related legislation, and the answer is that I do. For example, I believe fixing the background check system is one of the most common-sense actions we can take to prevent criminals from getting guns. And I think it would complement our gun trafficking legislation very well.
Background checks would prevent many criminals from obtaining guns, and the anti-trafficking legislation would impose strong new criminal penalties on those who try to get around the system.
For myself, I have chosen to focus primarily on gun trafficking legislation because it is an issue I have been working on for several years in the House. I have worked painstakingly with both Democrats and Republicans to slowly build a bipartisan coalition behind this bill. And I strongly believe that when people understand what this bill does, they will support it wholeheartedly. In fact, even the NRA has come around over the past several months.
There are only two groups who should oppose this bill: criminals and people who want to buy guns for criminals.
If Congress can pass firearms trafficking legislation and universal background checks, we will have made real substantive reform that will help to reduce gun violence across the country. We are not done yet, but I believe that if we work together, and focus on our common purpose of protecting our families from gun violence, then we will succeed.
No parent should have to send a child to school—whether it is Sandy Hook Elementary School or Old Dominion College—and wonder whether he or she will make it home alive. Yet, in America’s inner cities, suburbs, and small towns, gun murders take more than 11,000 American lives each year—a death toll more than three times the number of Americans who lost their lives during the decade-long war in Iraq.
We must make these deaths by gun violence transformative. We as a nation must help to heal those families who have suffered so much.
Part of the healing process, for me and countless other families, is to prevent other senseless deaths from gun violence from occurring again. We in Congress must be vigilant and put party politics and rhetoric aside, and make protecting American families and future generations a priority.
To borrow the words of the great Martin Luther King, we must “substitute courage for caution” and do what is right by passing meaningful gun safety legislation.