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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release July 8, 1998
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY 

The Briefing Room

12:45 P.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Here to brief upon and further explicate the announcement made by the President today are Bruce Reed, the President's Senior Domestic Policy Advisor; and Jose Cerda, who works in Bruce's shop. He's a Special Assistant to the President for Crime Policy.

MR. REED: Let me briefly explain what the President announced today. He called for three things. First he called for a national child access prevention law which would build on what 15 states have already done and hold parents criminally responsible for the safe storage of firearms, and liable if they fail to store those firearms responsibly and they're subsequently used by juveniles to kill or injure another person.

As I said, 15 states have done this in the last few years -- Texas, Florida, California -- I'd be happy to give the whole list if you want it. We are calling for all 50 states to pass these laws, but as well, for Congress to pass national legislation for the most serious cases -- cases that involve reckless disregard for the law and that result in bodily injury or death.

Second, he announced that ATF will put out a final regulation requiring warning signs for federally-licensed gun dealers. We have done an enormous amount over the last six years to try to crack down on illegal gun sales and make sure that gun dealers abide by the law.

When the President took office, there were over 280,000 federally-licensed gun dealers; that's now down to 90,000. It's been cut by two-thirds because we've done a lot to get rid of the fly-by-night shops. And all gun dealers will now be required to comply with the '94 Youth Handgun Safety Act by putting in place warning signs that make it clear to all adults and juveniles that it is a crime for a juvenile to possess, or an adult to provide, a handgun to a person under 18.

And then, finally, with the help of the Maryland State Police and Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, he announced that Maryland will begin tracing every gun crime -- every gun seized in the state. They've had a pilot project with ATF in 27 cities around Maryland, and this is one of the most important things we can do to try to break the chain of violence related to illegal guns.

Q What's the chance of Congress passing stronger legislation, and how strong now is the NRA? Is it still so powerful in Congress and in the country that you can't really get these things through?

MR. REED: Well, we've had some real successes over the course of the administration. The Brady Bill, which we passed with bipartisan support over the objections of the NRA, has stopped nearly a quarter million people from purchasing handguns, and the Assault Weapons Ban has also had an impact. I think that we are going to keep pressing with this Congress. We've pressed, as well, as the President mentioned again today, for national legislation requiring trigger locks, and so far, we've met a wall of resistance.

Q You are facing a wall of resistance?

MR. REED: Congress hasn't done a whole lot this year. But we're going to keep pressing, and I think there's just no good reason to oppose this kind of legislation. Every gun owner has an interest in gun safety; that's been a longstanding NRA principle. And this is something that Americans should support whether they own guns or not.

Q Bruce, a question about the legislation the President supports. If an adult or a parent makes a good-faith effort to lock up the guns in a cabinet or a closet and the kids break in, are those parents liable for federal penalties under this legislation?

MR. REED: No. The kind of legislation we would like to see is targeted to cases of reckless disregard. For example, if a parent left a loaded gun on the table on their way to work, knowing that their children would be around and have access to that gun, that would be a case of reckless disregard. If they made a good-faith effort, locked up the gun and the kid broke in or stole their keys, that wouldn't be -- mere negligence would not be prosecuted under the federal standard that we're calling for.

Q Is "reckless disregard" a phrase in the law?

MR. REED: I think the phrase in the legislation we'd like to see is "new and disregard."

Q State laws are tougher, aren't they?

MR. REED: Yes, that's right.

Q Is that a reflection of the fact that you just don't think you can get a law that tough passed through the Congress?

MR. REED: No. No, we think that the federal role should be limited to the most serious cases. This has been our position on all manner of federal law enforcement issues -- on three strikes and you're out and other federal provisions. We want to set a national standard; we want a federal law to be in place as a backstop for states that failed to pass laws. The primary responsibility for enforcing these laws rests at the state and local level. But for the most serious cases, we think it can set an important example by having a federal law.

Q Do you think people should be required to own lock boxes for their guns?

MR. REED: We have called for legislation that would require essentially trigger locks, that would require guns themselves to be safe. And the practical effect of this legislation the President has called for would be to require parents to store their guns safely. In most cases that would mean either a trigger lock or a safe.

Q In Jonesboro, the guns were locked up, and then they went -- the perpetrators went to their --

MR. REED: Grandfather, allegedly -- right.

Q -- their grandfather's house, and didn't they blast their way in there? This law would not -- in one case, the guns were safely stored.

MR. REED: They were safely stored in one home, but not in the next. Now, I can't comment on a particular case in progress, but the mother from Arkansas, herself, said very eloquently that in her view if a law had been in place setting a standard, holding parents responsible, holding adults responsible for their guns, that that tragedy would not have occurred. And we think that's the case.

Q Bruce, there seem to be a couple of --

Q To follow up on that, the grandparents didn't have any reasonable expectation that there was going to be a break-in. Would you like, in a situation like this, to see them held negligent?

MR. REED: Well, again, I don't want to comment on the particulars of --

Q Well, a hypothetical case like that.

MR. REED: A hypothetical case where guns were left -- well, you give me the hypo.

Q A situation where a relative's house is broken into, they had no reasonable expectation that there were going to be children in the house, and the guns are taken and used in a crime.

MR. REED: The standard that we set forth or would like to see set forth in federal legislation is that the adult knew and disregarded, so if an adult knew that a child would have access to the gun and that there was a risk that they would use it. So, hypothetically, if a kid broke into a neighbor's house and the neighbor had no reasonable expectation that a kid would have done that, the federal law would not apply. I think state laws vary as to whether they would cover these particular hypothetical examples.

Q There are a couple of bills on the Hill. Which one does the administration support, if any?

MR. REED: The main bill was introduced by Senators Durbin and Chafee who were here today --

Q How about making an announcement on the pool?

Q Announce the travel pool is assembling.

MR. TOIV: Go ahead. Announce that the travel pool is assembling.

MR. REED: The travel pool is assembling.

Q Louder. (Laughter.)

Q And with more feeling. (Laughter.)

MR. REED: Durbin and Chafee have put together a bill. We would like to see it narrowed to the most serious crimes. That's the major difference.

Q Because their bill is not as narrow as what you were talking about in here?

MR. REED: That's right.

Q Bruce, do either one of you fellows own guns?

MR. REED: I grew up in a household with guns. I live in the District, so --

Q So what would you suggest that a parent who owns a shotgun or a rifle or pistol, who may probably have a trigger lock, what should that person do with his gun? Obviously, he's not going to leave it on the table loaded, which is your worst case scenario. Where should he put it? What's do you suggest?

MR. REED: We believe that parents and other adults should make sure their guns are locked and in a safe place, out of reach of young people. Those are the major steps that a parent or other individual would need to take. As the President said, this isn't about whether people should own guns -- that's every person's right. But, just as --

Q Except in the District of Columbia.

MR. REED: Just as parents should take other steps to protect their children's own safety, we believe that in this case it's very important, since it can have potentially enormous repercussions for the child, because there's any number of accidental deaths, and for the community at large.

I might highlight for you, there was a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at 12 states that had these cap laws in place. It studied them from 1990 to 1994, and the authors projected that if the cap laws had not been in place, there would have been 168 deaths, but, in fact, there were only 129. So their assessment was that the caps laws had saved 39 lives by reducing child access to guns.

So these laws work. They're in place in 15 states, many of them states where owning guns, hunting, and using guns is a longstanding tradition.

Q Can you make that list available?

MR. REED: I'd be happy to read it real quick if people want: Florida, Connecticut, Iowa, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Texas.

Q Does the federal law only cover crimes on federal territory, or would it be for -- could it be used against adults anywhere that don't adequately meet the safeguards for keeping their weapons secure?

MR. REED: Any adults, not just federal territory.

Q Then why do you need state laws enacted if a federal law would cover it?

MR. REED: As I said, our preference -- the primary responsibility should be at the state and local level, and this is mainly to both set a national standard and to enhance that enforcement.

Q Is it a strategy to go around the Congress and deal with the states directly because you can't --

MR. REED: No, we'd like to see Congress pass this legislation, and in the meantime we'll continue to beat the drums around the country and try to get more states to pass these laws.

Q Bruce, on a subject you know pretty well, tobacco, they've had signs on cash register for decades saying it's illegal to sell or give cigarettes to minors. What we're seeing today is more signs that it's illegal to transfer weapons. What's the difference now? How is it going to work with guns if it didn't work with tobacco?

MR. REED: Well, first off, we haven't had signs for decades on tobacco; we've had signs as a result of the FDA rule that the President put forward in 1995 requiring ID checks. I would say -- I don't know how many people in this room knew that an adult who transferred a handgun to a juvenile was subject to up to a 10-year prison term. We think that that's useful information, and that it's not common knowledge, and it may very well help to deter adults who might otherwise think about passing on a handgun that they purchased to a young person.

Q What's an example of one of the exceptions to that? Is it for target shooting under supervision, give a kid, a minor a gun?

MR. REED: That's right. I believe the exceptions are primarily parental supervision.

Q Bruce, what do you think the prospects are that this Congress will pass this bill?

MR. REED: That's up to Congress to decide.

Q What's your judgment on the prospect?

MR. REED: You can't listen to the woman from Jonesboro without sensing the urgency of this kind of legislation. We have seen, time after time, outbreaks of school violence that might have been prevented. So we think that there is broad desire throughout the country to take common-sense measures like this and that if Congress has common sense, it will do it.

Q But if you were betting, is this more likely to be a law or a campaign issue this fall?

MR. REED: As the President said, our goal is progress, not partisanship. We hope that Congress will use its remaining time wisely.

Q You don't really know what Congress will use its remaining time wisely.

Q You don't really know what Congress is going to do.

MR. REED: That's right.

Q In fact, you sound very pessimistic.

MR. REED: No, I just think that we've learned from our experience on this issue that it's sometimes difficult to persuade this Congress to do even common-sense measures. But I think that --

Q Who said Congress had common sense?

Q Why do you have to legislate common sense? Don't parents know this? You're saying parents don't know this, people don't know this -- these 39 cases. Don't people know -- you think people don't know to hide their guns?

MR. REED: I think that, as the mother from Arkansas said, laws make a difference. We could just leave it to chance whether people shoot each other in the street. We could live in a country without laws. We've chosen to live in a country with laws, and they help to keep peace and order. And obviously, every parent has responsibilities beyond this law to not only keep their guns out of the hands of their children, but to teach their children how to use those guns safely when they do. But a common-sense measure that has no impact on the rights of gun owners but can save lives is worth doing.

Q Again, this would have had no impact in the Jonesboro case.

MR. REED: No. I said I wouldn't comment on the particulars of a specific case, but --

Q Those scenarios wouldn't be covered by this law.

MR. REED: I wouldn't go that far. I think you should look at what the mother from Jonesboro said about it and take her word for it.


END 1:00 P.M. EDT