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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release April 27, 1999
                         PRESS BRIEFING BY

                         The Briefing Room

11:55 A.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Good afternoon, everybody -- or good morning. Good morning. We made it. As you know, the President today is going to announce a major gun initiative which will be a part of his anticrime bill. And here to brief on it ahead of time are Bruce Reed, Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy; Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder; and Under Secretary of Treasury for Enforcement Jim Johnson.

MR. REED: Good morning. This afternoon the President will propose the most comprehensive gun crime legislation any administration has put forward in a generation. This builds on the substantial legislative achievements in this area by the administration -- the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993, the passage of the assault weapons ban in 1994, as well as the juvenile handgun ban in 1994.

Let me just run through the new provisions in this bill and quickly go over some of the existing provisions that you've already heard about. First, the President's proposal will call for reducing gun running by limiting handgun purchases to one a month. This is a new proposal. One of the biggest sources of crime guns is straw purchasers who make multiple purchases in one state and transfer those guns to another state where they flood the streets.

Three states, Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina, have already adopted legislation to stop this practice. And a recent study found that Virginia's experience cut the number of handguns being transferred from Virginia to the Northeast more than half. Our legislation would put in place a national system as soon as practical to do this everywhere.

Second, the President wants to raise the ban on juvenile possession of handguns from 18 to 21. Under current law, anyone under 21 is prohibited from purchasing a handgun from a federally licensed dealer, but it is legal for 18, 19 and 20-year-olds to possess a handgun. This proposal would stop that.

There's strong anticrime reasons for doing this. ATF has found that 18 to 19 years old are the two most frequent ages for gun crime possession, and 22 percent of murder arrests are 18-to-20-year-olds, and it's far too easy today for 18-to-20-year-olds to obtain handguns from gun shows or other unlicensed dealers.

Third, the President's going to call for strengthening the assault weapons ban by prohibiting people under 18 from possessing assault rifles and clips. The 1994 law banned the sale and manufacture of assault weapons, but currently the juvenile handgun ban only applies to assault pistols. So this would take out assault rifles as well.

Fourth, the President is proposing to ban the importation of high capacity ammunition magazines. Again, the '94 law banned the future importation and manufacture of high-capacity clips with more than 10 rounds, but it allowed the importation of high-capacity clips that were manufactured before the law was signed in 1994.

ATF, in enforcing this law, discovered that the intent of the clip ban was being gutted by a flood of imported clips that were impossible to distinguish, whether they had been manufactured before or after September of 1994. So this proposal would place an across-the-board ban on the importation of high-capacity clips.

Fifth, the legislation would put in place background checks for explosives. Under current law, it is technically illegal for a felon or fugitive to purchase explosives, such as dynamity and plastic explosives, but it's common practice for felons and fugitives to be able to go into an explosives store, and no questions asked. This proposal would require explosives dealers to run a background check similar to the Brady check on explosives purchasers. It would also make it illegal for a felon to purchase any quantity of black powder. Under current law a convicted felon can buy up to 50 pounds of black powder. This would stop them from buying any black powder whatsever.

Sixth, this legislation would increase gun tracing. Jim Johnson runs a program at Treasury that is in place in 37 cities around the country where ATF traces the source of all crime guns. It's been enormously successful in those cities in helping to stop gun-running and crack illegal gun trafficking. And we're proposing to double that over the next four years, from 37 cities to 75 cities, at an increased cost of between $50 million and $60 million.

And seventh, this legislation would give ATF the authority to do repeat inspections of federally licensed dealers. Under current law, ATF is prohibited from doing more than one inspection in a given year, so once an inspection is complete, a gun dealer knows that they won't be seeing anyone from ATF for another year. This would allow ATF to do up to three inspections per year.

There are a number of proposals included in this legislation that the President has called for in the past. First, extending the Brady waiting period. In November of last year, the five-day waiting period under Brady expired. There's now in place a National Insta-Check System, but there's no waiting period except in some states that have their own waiting periods. Our proposal would reinstate a minimum three-day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun, and it would allow local law enforcement to take up to an additional two days, if necessary, to check additional law enforcement records that weren't computerized and on the Insta-Check system.

Second, this legislation closes the gun show loophole by applying background checks to gun shows. Gun shows are one of the prime sources of crime guns, one of the big existing loopholes in our ability to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

Third, this legislation includes the Juvenile Brady proposal, which would make it impossible for a violent juvenile to purchase a handgun once they turn 21.

Fourth, it would require child safety locks. Any federally licensed dealer would be required to provide a child safety lock with the purchase of every gun.

Fifth, it includes a child access prevention provision ,so-called cap law, that would hold some parents criminally liable for knowingly or recklessly giving access to a juvenile for a gun that was later used to cause injury or death. The President called for that provision last year in the wake of the Jonesboro shooting.

Sixth, it includes a new mandatory minimum penalty of three years for adults who knowingly transfer to a minor, knowing that the minor would use that gun in the commission of a crime -- a violent crime. And finally, it doubles the gun-running penalty for selling firearms without a license.

Q Can one of you maybe explain -- I don't know what the differences between licensed dealers and unlicensed. In other words, why aren't all dealers licensed?

DEPUTY SECRETARY JOHNSON: There are people called federally licensed firearm dealerships, often referred to as FFLs. And to get a license you have to make applicaiton to the ATF which is exercising the authority of the Secretary of the Treasury.

There are some 105,000 or so of them in the nation. But if you want to sell guns from a private collection -- your own collection -- you don't need to be a federally licensed firearms dealer. You can simply, as a citizen, separate and apart from being a dealer, sell from your own collection. So there is a distinction between those who sell guns as a matter of their business and livelihood who need to be licensed -- if they're not, there are potential criminal sanctions that can attach to it -- and those who are selling more as part of their private collection. There are a number of other distinctions, but that's the primary one.

Q Is there a limit -- if you're selling this as part of a private collection, then is there a limit on the number of guns you can sell per year? I mean, what's to prevent a private person from basically running a big business out of their house?

DEPUTY SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, if it comes to a point where you're actually engaged in a business and it look, feels, smells like you're running a gun business, then you can be investigated for actually engaging in the business of trafficking or selling firearms.

Q Can I follow on that? How would the Brady check work at a gun show? How would you practically do that?

DEPUTY SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, the proposal that both the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury made, and which has been accepted and endorsed by the President, was this -- that whereas now if you go to a gun show and you go to a private seller, as opposed to a licensed seller, and I asked for a weapon, I can get that, no questions asked. If I go to an FFL, and most of the people who sell at gun shows are, in fact, licensed dealers, there still needs to be a Brady check.

What the proposal would do is put in place a requirement that all transactions that occur at a gun show would have to go through a Brady background check. And for that to be accomplished, an FFL -- a licensed dealer -- has to be involved in some way with that transaction, doing the background check.

Q So what are you going to have -- you would have to have a terminal there or something for an instant check, I suppose.

DEPUTY SECRETARY JOHNSON: Or a telephone, actually. Insta-checks can often be done by telephone. So it's --

Q -- practical matter, do you suppose all the sales at a gun show would be run out of one central location and on an arena floor or something?

DEPUTY SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, let me step back and go through what the proposal entails. First of all, the gun show promoter would have to register with the ATF 72 hours before. The gun show promoter would have to have a list and be able to identify those who would be selling at the gun show, presumably 72 hours before. But even if they came in late, they would have to at least sign a ledger acknowledging that there were certain responsibilities that they had to undertake if they were going to sell at the gun show -- one of which is ensuring that a background check were conducted.

Now, you're at the gun show, and you are an unlicensed person who is selling from a private collection at the gun show, and an individual walks up to you and actually seeks to purchase a gun, you would have to get a licensed dealer involved in the transaction.

Q How would that be enforced? I mean, I know Maryland has this law, and they're finding that they're not finding a lot of people seeking background checks from gun shows, so they think that the law's just being flouted. So how do you enforce this?

UNDER SECRETARY JOHNSON: With respect to all sort of transactional violations, there's a variety of investigative tools that can be used. There may be undercovers that are run at gun shows, where you actually physically go to the gun show, and the agent would observer how the transactions are being conducted. And if there are a number of transactions that are being conducted not in conformity with the proposed legislation, that could form the basis of an investigation and further prosecution.

Q What's the penalty? What's the penalty for not running a background check?

UNDER SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, there are a couple of issues that are raised by that sort of a fact pattern. One would be the notion of, are you engaged in the business of dealing -- selling firearms without actually being a licensee? And one of the proposals would be to increase that penalty from five years to ten years.

Q To follow up on that, it's pretty well documented that gun shows are a conduit for getting weapons into the hands of people who shouldn't have them. And the average gun show can have a fairly large number of dealers. I mean, are you going to significantly step up your surveillance and enforcement, in order to make this work?

UNDER SECRETARY JOHNSON: Well, there are a couple of provisions for this. It doesn't always entail increased enforcement, increased number of agents, although one of the proposals in the report, and one of the things that we're mindful of is, if we're going to increase our enforcement activity in this area, there needs to be a commensurate level of increase in the resources devoted to that.

Q Bruce, can I ask you a broader question? What's your sense about some kind of trend or groundswell of support behind just a total ban on handguns in the United States? You know, after the Scotland killing of the students, there was a large debate in England, and the result of that was legislation that just banned private ownership of handguns. We've had so many of these incidents now in the United States. Are you sensing any movement toward that direction?

MR REED: I think that our view has always been we should focus our gun crime legislation on making sure that we keep guns, especially handguns, out of the hands of children, and out of the hands of criminals. But that's the most effective way to make a dent in this problem.

Q What's your sensitivity to the fact that you could be seen as trying to cash in on a national tragedy to advance your own political agenda? What's -- could you address that?

MR. REED: All the proposals that we've talked about here today have been in the works for months, and unfortunately, we have a lot of experience in dealing with school shootings, and other kinds of gun violence. So we've been working on this problem for a long time. We actually intended to put forward this package this week, anyway.

Q Do you think anything in this package would have prevented or alleviated or reduced what happened in Colorado?

MR. REED: I can't stand here and tell you that any one action government or anyone else might take could have prevented this particular tragedy. But our view is that everyone has to step up to the plate and take responsibility here.

Q Can I ask Eric Holder -- to what extent -- for parents in Littleton and parents all over the country, who are looking for some kind of response from the government to last week -- in what way can they see some kind of response in proposals today?

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: Well, I think you have to look at these proposals, as they've been outlined by Bruce, but also understand that this is part of a comprehensive effort on the part of this administration to deal with the problem of gun violence. We have dealt with preventive activities as well as the tough enforcement things that we are talking about today. We have supported conflict resolution programs throughout the country, and we have come up with this guide that talks about an early warning, timely response, that helps parents, school administrators, and kids themselves, to identify young people who are at risk for engaging in the kinds of conduct that led to the tragedy in Colorado.

So I think there are a whole variety of things that people could look at, to let them know that this administration is really involved on a very personal level in trying to stop these kinds of things.

Q Are people unrealistically expecting the government to be able to do something, where you could then say, well, this would have stopped the violence in Littleton?

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: No, and that's certainly not what we're trying to say today. I think what we're trying to say is that every part of our society has to play a role, has to take responsibility.

I think that, as Bruce said, the government has its role to play, and I've tried to outline some of the things that we've done. But I think parents also have a role to play. We as a community have roles to play. The faith community has a role to play. There are a whole variety of ways in which we have to interact with our young people to prevent them from getting involved in the kinds of activities that led to the tragedy in Colorado.

Q Do I understand, Mr. Holder, that these proposals would raise the legal possession age of handguns to 21, but assault rifles only to 18? Why is that?

MR. REED: The handgun ban covers handguns, and it does not cover rifles, it does not cover assault rifles.

Q Yes, but the juvenile ban on assault rifles that you're proposing only covers until 18, is that correct? So what we have here is handguns to 21 and assault rifles only to 18?

MR. REED: Sorry, it goes to 21 for all assault weapons.

Q Possession or purchase, or both?

Q The possession, I should say, to be clear -- the possession of handguns, under this package of legislation, would be limited to persons over the age of 21. Correct?

MR. REED: Right.

Q And the possession of assault weapons would be limited to persons over the age of 21 as well.

MR. REED: I believe that's correct.


Q Does anybody know for sure? That's correct. All right. Thank you.

QQ Given that you all have had a lot of trouble getting gun control measures from Congres -- I think Daschle this morning didn't even seem to embrace this enthusiastially, the gun lobby is pretty powerful -- what's the White House strategy to get this throught? In other words, will the President, other administration members, use the bully pulpit? Will you work with any other groups with TV ads, try to get the public to write letters? Is there some sort of real bid strategy to try to get these through?

MR. REED: The President will speak out strongly for this legislation, as he has over the past six years. The President has gone toe-to-toe with the gun lobby before. And when it comes to reducing gun violence, he's never been willing to take no for an answer. Seven years ago, when he proposed the assault weapons ban and ran for office promising to enact the Brady Bill, no one in Washington thought those would happen either, and few in Congress were prepared to pass them at that time. But a wave of violence and increasing concern about guns helped to put those over the top.

Q So you're fully confident you'll get this entire package through Congress?

MR REED: Well, I think it's up to Congress to fulfill its responsibility and pass this legislation. But we hope that Congress will stop resisting what are clearly common-sense measures.

Q -- better chance this year than last year? Why do you have any reason to believe you have a better chance this year?

MR. REED: We believe that the longer people look at these qeusitons the more likely they're going to be to support them; that at a certain point it becomes impossible for the gun lobby and the opponents of these ideas to defend the indefensible.

Q What are the current requirements on the purchase of explosives? Do dynamite and black powder fall in the same category? And would the President's proposals need a change for people who want to buy black powder, which also can be used in making homemade explosive devices?

MR. REED: Let me take a stab at this, and Jim may want to add. All this would do with respect to black powder is prohibit felons, fugitives, those with a criminal record from purchasing it. It wouldn't have any effect on black powder purchased by an ordinary person. Explosives are treated differently. The components of explosives, such as black powder, are not regulated in the same way that dynamite and plastic explosives, as a finished product are.

Q And as I understand it, the purchase of dynamite now -- I mean, presumably in stick form -- is less regulated than handguns?

MR. REED: That's correct. There are no background checks for that kind of thing, and this proposal would put those in place.

Q Are parents now on notice that they -- under this legislation, parents on notice they better know what their kid is up to, and better be much more careful -- much more reserved in the kinds of guns they allow their kids to have access to, because they're now liable as well?

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: Well, under the proposed legislation, certainly, people who have guns in their homes -- it's just not parents, it's adults -- have responsibilities. And I think it's a very reasonable provision in this legislation to say simply that if you have a gun, you can't be reckless, you can't knowingly allow a young person to have use of that gun and have a serious injury result. So, yes, people are on notice as a result of this legislation.

Q How is that going to be enforced? A lot of critics say that's a good thought, but not that meaningful in terms of enforcing it.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: It always comes down to questions of proof and if you have a particular incident, you have to examine the facts, and determine whether or not you can reach that level of intent. We have to here show that somebody acted recklessly or knowingly. It is not an easy standard to meet, but one that we meet in other criminal cases.

Q Is leaving a gun in a closet reckless? Does it meet that kind of standard?

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: It would really depend on the circumstances. You really have to look at the totality of the circumstances. I mean, there are exceptions. I mean, if, for instance, a person has a child safety lock on the weapon, and then the child somehow takes the safety lock off and then uses the gun, that is obviously not somebody who would be prosecuted under the terms of that provision.

Q So it's not enough -- if I may follow up -- it's not enough just to leave a gun within reach of a child. I mean, if a gun is in a closet or something like that, and there's no affirmative action by the adult to put the gun in the child's hands. I'm trying to understand what the threshold is for recklessness and negligence here.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: Yes, those are terms that are endlessly debated by lawyers in the context of trials, and they're hard ones to define without looking at a whole bunch of facts. You know, placing a gun out of reach of a child, in a locked closet, might not be reckless. On the other hand, if you have told a child that that's where the gun is, provide him with the key, and there's a ladder in there, perhaps it might be. I mean, who knows? It all depends on the facts.

Q Bruce, whatever happened to taggets? Did you consider including some kid of taggets provision into the explosives part? And why did you decide not to?

MR. REED: The Treasury Department did a study a few years ago -- I'm sorry, the Treasury Department study's still ongoing. The NAS did a recent study suggesting that there's still work to be done to demonstrate that including taggets in explosives is technologically feasible.

Q -- this package earlier, prior to the shooting. But was there anything specifically in this package that was either honed or changed or added in the last seven days following the shooting? Was there anything added specifically in response to it?

MR. REED: Not really. Obviously, we scrub our press paper up until the last possible second so that we don't get it to you too early, but -- (laughter) -- but all these ideas were on the table, and it was just a question of nailing them all down.

Q Can you tell us, there are a number of people such as police officers, police trainees, security guards, who might be under 21, who might now normally use a handgun in the course of their regular work. Would this preclude them from doing --

MR. REED: There are a number of exceptions for military, and for hunting, and farming -- I don't have the whole list. But it wouldn't stop someone who needed a gun for use in their job, for example.

Q What about hunting and farming? Explain to us -- would that be on assault weapons, there would be an exception for hunting? Well, no, I'm just asking, or handguns?

Q Handguns, and you don't need a handgun to hunt.

MR. REED: Yes.

Q Well, that's my question, then. How would there be a hunting exception for either --

MR. REED: Sorry?

MR. MCHALE: No exceptions for assault weapons, but there's an exception for handguns.

Q For hunting?

Q What? We couldn't hear that.

MR. REED: Exception -- go ahead.

MR. MCHALE: There's an exception for hunting with a handgun.

Q Who hunts with handguns?

Q And that would remain even under your new program?

Q All these measures are brought about because it's too easy for kids to get guns, and bomb-making components. At the same time, a couple clicks via the Internet, they can have bomb recipes, they can have instructions to make a gun. Has there been any talk in the White House at all towards curbing the Internet -- not necessarily regulating it, but coming up with some solution to get all this hatred and bigotry and violence from the Internet?

MR. REED: Well, we have done some things. The Vice President helped work out an agreement with Internet service providers to make sure that it was easier for parents to put in place the parental shields that many providers are now offering. And I think we'll continue to work with them on that. There has been legislation proposed -- Chuck Schumer has a bill on Internet gun sales, which we're studying, but we don't know enough about the existence of such sales to start --

Q Self-regulating isn't really working. I mean, the information was on AOL -- they were supposed to be on top of that and they weren't. So has there been any additional discsussions about what can be done about the Internet?

MR. REED: Well, it's very difficult to regulate content, regulate speech -- there are big First Amendment concerns. I think that that is part of a the larger discussion we have to have not only with Internet providers, but also with Hollywood and with video game manufacturers, and everyone else who contributes in some way to making this culture violent as possible.

Q On the trigger lock provision, is there anything saying what exactly these trigger locks have to look like, regulating them? Because apparently, some of these trigger locks that are on the market now are pretty much a joke. You know, just put a screw driver in and pop them out.

MR. REED: I think it just requires that every federally-licensed dealer provide a safety device with every gun sold.

Q The firearms industry contends, and I don't know if you dispute it or not, that almost all weapons now sold do include these trigger lock devices. You can take them off, obviously, and the manufacturer doesn't have to sell them. But Smith & Wesson and Colt, and these companies, claim that they're including them. Do you think that's correct?

MR. MCHALE: We believe that generally with respect to newly manufactured firearms that would apply. But with respect to used firearms, that wouldn't apply.

Q But you don't have to keep the trigger lock on? It just has to be bought with the weapon?

MR. MCHALE: We believe the trigger lock is bought with the weapon, along with the weapon, but it doesn't have to remain on the weapon.

Q Give us some sense if you could where things stand with Congress on this? Republicans are notorious for not exactly pushing gun control legislation. How are you going to get this through up there?

MR. REED: We have bipartisan support for these ideas. We're expecting about 40 members, on a bipartisan basis, down here this afternoon. So I think there is a great deal of congressional support. Obviously, there's some resistance, but as I said, we're not going to take no for an answer.

Q Bruce, Mr. Holder pointed out that if parents told the child, the guns are locked up, here's a key, here's a ladder -- can you explain to us in, kind of, layman's terms what parents need to do to avoid this liability of giving access to guns to children?

MR. REED: I think parents need to take every possible security precaution to keep their guns out of children's hands, in a locked place. And they don't need to do this just because we're proposing federal legislation that might some day hold them criminally liable, but because they need to do so for their own safety, for their child's safety. It's just common sense if you have guns in the house to make sure they're in a safe place. And we believe that manufacturers and gun dealers can make it easier for parents to do that.

Q In other words, a gun safe or a locked closet, as long as you didn't tell them where the key was, would be probably likely adequate?

MR. REED: Yes.

Q Do you think the power of the gun lobby is on the wane, or is it as powerful as it's ever been?

MR. REED: As I said before, I think it is getting harder and harder to explain to the American people why we shouldn't crack down on gun shows, why we shouldn't have a waiting period of handguns, why we shouldn't take every sensible measure we can take to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and young people.

Q Thank you.

END 12:28 P.M. EDT