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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release April 27, 1999
                        REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                           AND THE FIRST LADY
                       ON GUN CONTROL LEGISLATION

                            Presidential Hall

1:15 P.M. EDT

MRS. CLINTON: Thank you. Please be seated and good afternoon. It's an honor to join the President in welcoming all of you to the White House this afternoon. We are especially honored to be joined by a very large number of senators and representatives from both parties who are here on the stage for this event.

Also, Secretary Rubin and Attorney General Reno, Secretary Riley, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, Under Secretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson. And you will hear in just a few minutes from Senator Feinstein, Senator Chafee, Representative Conyers, Representative McCarthy. Also in the audience is Mayor Paul Helmke from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Bob Walker, President of Handgun Control, Inc.

We have come together in the wake of a terrible tragedy that has put our entire nation in mourning, and that has reminded all of us once again that everything in life pales in comparison to our ability to keep our children safe and out of harm's way. Today, our thoughts and prayers remain with the families and friends and the citizens of Littleton, as they bid emotional farewells to their beloved children and a dedicated teacher.

Yet, even in the midst of this terrible tragedy, we also see the people of Littleton pulling together to pray and comfort and sustain each other. And many of the rest of us are gathering strength and hope from their example.

There are many people here today, out in the audience and on this stage, who have worked tirelessly to create the safe schools and communities that we all want for our children. I particularly want to thank Attorney General Reno and Secretary of Education Dick Riley and Secretary Bob Rubin, because they have worked together, tirelessly, to try to create better conditions to provide for the safety of our children. I also want to thank all the members of Congress who are here who have proved that ending the violence and limiting access to firearms can be, and should be, a bipartisan goal.

There are many others in this room who are on the frontlines in creating safer communities -- religious groups, advocates for gun control, victims groups, child advocates, law enforcement, community and parent organizations -- and we thank you all for coming. You represent, literally, thousands, if not millions, of your fellow Americans.

All of us here are searching for answers to what happened in Littleton. I don't know that anyone will ever be able to explain fully the events of a week ago. Nor, I doubt, can we create a perfect set of solutions that, if followed, would have prevented what happened at Columbine High School, or would stop forever acts of violence that occur in our communities around our country. But that does not mean that we are either hopeless or helpless in the face of this tragedy. Instead, we have to work together to come up with the best possible solutions that we can craft, that we believe will make a difference for our children.

We come here to say simply that there are some tough things we must be willing to say, and some tough steps we must be willing to take if we are to stop the violence.

Now, I hope that everyone does know that the vast majority of America's schools are safe. But we also know that these schools in our country are not islands cut off from the rest of society. No school security system or metal detector can keep out the culture of violence that dominates the lives of so many of our children.

When our culture romanticizes and glorifies violence on TV, in the movies, on the Internet, in songs, and when there are video games that you win based on how many people you kill, then I think the evidence is absolutely clear -- our children become desensitized to violence and lose their empathy for fellow human beings. Studies show what many of us have believed, that such exposure causes more aggression and anti-social behavior.

So, today, we must fully acknowledge, once and for all, that America's culture of violence is having a profound effect on our children, and we must resolve to do what we can to change that culture.

It will take strong leadership. I remember well when the President convened a 1996 White House Conference on Children's Television, where television industry leaders joined him in agreeing to air more educational children shows, and also to work with the administration to establish a rating system to help parents navigate what's appropriate and what's not for their kids. And soon we will have the V-chip available for every home in our country.

But it will take more than strong leadership from the media and entertainment world to stop the culture of violence that surrounds our children. Kids need more caring, responsible adults in their lives. Yet, when single parenthood and two working parents are on the rise, too many of America's children are growing up alone. Parents are the central figures in their children's lives, but parents need help. They need help from the larger community, and that means all of us -- teachers, police, counselors, community and religious leaders, elected officials -- all of us have to help parents find the help they need. And we have to work together to keep our children and our communities safe.

We also know that we have to do everything possible to ensure that young people do not have easy access to weapons. We now know that includes not only firearms, but bomb-making materiel.

Now, any one of us that hasn't become completely amnesiac about our own growing-up years know that children will have disagreements and arguments; they sometimes will even have fights among themselves. Part of growing up is learning how to control one's impulses, which is often difficult for young people. But there is a very big difference between a schoolyard fight that many of us can remember and what happens today, with the access to the arsenal of guns, rifles and bombs that the two young men in Littleton were able to bring into their school. It is criminal how easy it is for children in America to obtain guns.

Just last year, 6,000 students were expelled for bringing guns to school. And Littleton is the latest tragic example of how the availability of those guns can turn a sense of alienation, of rage, of not belonging, of not fitting in, into a deadly encounter. Every day in America we lose 13 precious children to gun-related violence. Every two days, therefore, we lose the equivalent of a classroom of students.

Guns and children are two words that should never be put together in the same sentence. And this President and this administration have been working hard and successfully to try to keep them apart. I think we all in America should take pride in the passage of the Brady Bill, which has denied handguns to 250,000 felons, fugitives and stalkers. And since the crime bill was enacted, 19 of the deadliest assault weapons are harder to find on our streets. We will never know how many tragedies we've avoided because of these efforts. But we do know how much more remains to be done.

Today, we will hear about further steps that we hope all of us are willing to take to make our schools and communities places in which all citizens can live in safety, free from violence and fear. In a few minutes, the people of Littleton, Denver and, indeed, all of Colorado will be stopping whatever they do for a moment of silence on behalf of those who lost their lives. I think it would be appropriate, here in the White House, that we join them; and that we not only use that moment of silence to remember the victims of this tragedy and the perpetrators, but that we think about all of the other children in America who tell us often that they're scared -- they're scared to go outside, they're scared because they know people who bring guns to school, they're scared because of what they see happening around them. Our first obligation is to try to make our children free from that kind of fear.

So if we could just take a moment in solidarity with the people not only in Colorado who have suffered this loss, but people throughout our country, on behalf of our children.

(A moment of silence is observed.)

Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Carolyn, John Conyers, Senator Chafee, Senator Feinstein, all the many members of Congress who are here. I thank the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Education. I'm glad to see our old friend, Mayor Helmke, and Bob Walker, and others here. We have, I think, over 40 members of Congress here and two senators who went back to the floor to fight for this issue to be put on the floor today.

I would like to do two things. First, I want to tell you specifically what we are proposing, and I'll do that. But secondly, I would like to tie what we are proposing to all these culture arguments, and talk about, if you will, at least two cultures that exist in America, and say that I think this, in the end, is going to come down to what our conception of America as a community is and what our responsibilities to one another are.

I want to begin by saying a lot of people have made remarkable contributions I think to this effort to get us to look at the violence of our culture and how it makes the most vulnerable of our children, without regard to their income or their social status, closer to the line of taking violent action, and how it complicates family life for everyone.

I want to thank Hillary for what she's done. I also want to thank Al and Tipper Gore, who have done enormously important work on this for years, to try to help us deal with the TV issues, the ratings, the V-chips, and now the new efforts we've been making with the Internet community to give parents some more control over that -- and the efforts we have to make to train the parents to figure out how to do it, since their kids all know more about it than they do.

But this is very important stuff. In June, Tipper Gore's going to host our White House Conference on Mental Health. And the Attorney General and Hillary and I were just talking about some of the things we can do to help to make sure all of our schools have the adequate mentoring and mediation, and even mental health services our kids need. All this is very important. And we have to deal with that.

But if you believe that we have special cultural challenges, it seems to me that that's an argument -- that we ought to bend over backwards to try to remove the opportunities for bad things happening, if we have more kids that are vulnerable to doing those things -- not an argument that we ought to say, well, we should walk away from that, and just try to make sure everybody, individually, in the whole country, never does anything wrong.

And what's the real problem here? The problem is, we have another culture in our country, that I think has gotten confused about its objectives. We have a huge hunting and sport shooting culture in America, and unlike many of you, I grew up in it. I was 12 years old the first time I took a .22 and shot it at a can on a fencepost in the country. I know about this.

We always talk about the NRA -- the NRA has been powerful not only because they have a lot of money, but because they can influence people who vote. And in that culture, people believe everybody should be personally responsible for their actions; if you just punish people who do wrong more harshly, fewer people will do wrong; and everybody tells me I've got a constitutional right to keep and bear arms, so don't fool with me; and every reasonable restriction is just the camel's nose in the tent, and pretty soon they'll come after my shotgun, and I'll miss the next duck hunting season.

And we smile about that, but there are some people who would be on this platform today who lost their seats in 1994 because they voted for the Brady Bill and they voted for the assault weapons ban, and they did it in areas where people could be frightened. And the voters had not had enough time, which they did have within two more years, to see that nobody was going to take their gun away.

So we have more than one cultural problem here. And I want to make a plea to everybody who is waiting for the next deer season in my home state to think about this in terms of what our reasonable obligations to the larger community of America are.

Do we know for absolutely certain that if we had every reasonable law and the ones I'm going to propose here that none of these school violence things would have happened? No. But we do know one thing for certain; we know there would have been fewer of them, and there would have been fewer kids killed in the last several years in America. We know that for certain. We know that. (Applause.)

Cultures are hard to change. And cultures should never be used to avoid individual responsibility. But we -- when we get to where we change, then we wonder -- we look back and we say how could we have ever done it otherwise?

Let me ask you something. Next time you get on an airplane, think about how you'd feel if the headline in the morning paper right before you got on the airplane was "Airport Metal Detectors and X-Ray Machines Abolished as Infringement on Americans' Constitutional Right to Travel." Think about it. That's the headline in the morning paper. And right next to it there is another headline: Terrorist Groups Expanding Operations In The United States. And you read the two headlines, and you're getting on the airplane -- exercising your constitutional right to travel, which is now no longer infringed by the fact that you might have to go through the metal detector twice and take out your money clip or take off your heavily metaled belt, and that somebody is X-raying your luggage as it gets on the airplane. It's unthinkable now, isn't it? This will become unthinkable, too, that we should ever reverse these things, if we ever have enough sense to do them. (Applause.)

But we still have a cultural and a political argument that says to defend Americans' rights to reasonable hunting and sport shooting you have to defend the indefensible, as well. This is -- it doesn't make any sense at all, unless you're caught up in this sort of web of distorted logic and denial.

But Carolyn McCarthy may have made the most important point here. We're all in here preaching to the saved -- you wouldn't be here if you didn't agree. But somebody needs to call these members that grew up where I grew up, that lived in the same culture I did, that belonged to both parties, and say, hey, we've got to make this like airport metal detectors and X-ray machines. This is about our community. This is about our responsibility to our children. This is about protecting our children and -- the vulnerable children themselves -- from people who are about to go over the line here. And this is crazy that we're living in a society that takes no reasonable steps to protect the larger community.

So it's not just a culture of violence that has to change, it's the culture of hunting and sport shooting that has to stop financing efforts to frighten their members, who are good, God-fearing, law-abiding, taxpaying citizens out there, into believing that every time we try to save a kid's life, it's a camel's nose in the tent. (Applause.)

I have had to go through those metal detectors as many as three times, back when I had a real life and I was traveling around, because I had all kinds of stuff in there -- (laughter) -- and every time I start to get a little aggravated, I think, boy, I don't want that plane to blow up. (Laughter.) You know, make me go through a dozen times if you want to. And the person behind me.

Now, we've got to think about this in that way. These are the folks we have to reach. When there are no constituents for this movement, the movement will evaporate. When people from rural Pennsylvania and rural West Virginia and rural Colorado and Idaho start calling their congressmen and saying, hey, man, we can live with this, we can live with this, this is no big deal, you know? I mean, we're just out there doing what we do. We'll gladly put up with an extra hassle, a little wait, a little this, a little that, because we want to save several thousand kids a year.

That is my challenge to you. That is what os going on. (Applause.)

Now, here are the things we want to do. A lot of you won't think they're enough, but you remember the culture. You change the culture, we'll change the laws. You change the message, we'll do it. And none of them have anything to do with anybody's legitimate right to hunt.

First of all, we ought to strengthen the Brady law. It's kept 250,000 felons, fugitives and stalkers -- (applause). The states now have the Insta-Check System, which is good. The mandatory waiting period has expired -- that's bad, because we need it in addition to the Insta-Check System to give a cooling-off period to people who are in a fit of rage. It's important.

The law that we would present, the act will also prevent juveniles who commit violent crimes from ever buying a gun. It would apply the Brady law's prohibition to juvenile violence. It would require Brady background checks on anyone who wants to buy explosives. Very important. (Applause.) And it would abolish, at long last, as Senator Feinstein said, a dangerous loophole that was likely exploited in Littleton, which allows people to buy weapons at gun shows without any background checks at all. (Applause.)

Now, you need to go make this case on this gun show deal. I don't know how many of you have ever been to one of these gun shows. I've been to gun shows in rural America. People walk around, and they've got their cars and they've got their trunk open, and people walk in and say, this is nice and that's nice, and this is a 100-year-old rifle, and blah, blah, blah. And then they say, this is just too much hassle, you know. People pay cash, and nobody, you know -- so, it's going to be a hassle for them. It's worth it. It's worth it. We're sorry -- it's worth it. (Applause.)

You don't have to pretend it won't be a hassle. Tell them you know it will be a hassle, it's worth it. People's lives are at stake here. What these shows started out doing -- which was a good way for people who live in rural areas -- it started out primarily in rural ares -- who enjoy hunting and interested in different kinds of weapons, to have an interesting experience on a weekend afternoon -- has turned out to be a gaping loophole through which criminals and deranged people and other people get guns they could not otherwise get.

And so we have to say -- we haven't asked you to abolish your gun shows, but we've asked you to undergo the inconvenience necessary to save more lives. We don't have to be insensitive, we just have to be determined. But I'm telling you, if we don't do something about this gun show loophole, we're going to continue to have serious, serious problems. And it's very important. (Applause.)

The second thing we've got to do is to strengthen the assault weapons ban, to close the loophole that allows dealers to sell older, high-capacity ammunition magazines manufactured abroad. Now, I bet you -- when Senator Feinstein was talking about this she thought, now, who in the world could be against this? I actually had a conversation with a member of Congress who said to me -- serious, a good person, it was a really good person, when we were doing this back in a '94 a really good person, this person I was talking to -- who told me -- (laughter) -- let me tell you, I just want you to understand what the argument was. He said, but you've got to understand, we've got people who use these bigger magazines for certain kinds of sport contests. And I said, well, so what? (Laughter.)

But he said, they'll beat me if I vote for this. I said, they'll beat you if they think all you're doing is making their lives miserable because some Washington bureaucrat asked you to do it. If you can explain to them that it's worth a minor alteration in their sporting habits to save people's lives, they won't beat you.

But my point is, you've got to help these people. You hear this and you think, God, this is a no-brainer. This is a hundred-to-nothing deal. Who in the wide world could ever be -- you have to understand, there is another culture out there. And almost everybody in it is God-fearing, law-abiding, taxpaying, and they show up when they're needed, and they don't like this because they don't understand that if they do what you're asking them to do, they can save a lot of lives. And we have got to fix this. This is just pure mathematics, you're going to have fewer people die if you get rid of these magazines. So you need to go out there where the problem is, and debate your fellow citizens, and discuss it with them. It's important.

The third thing the legislation would do is to raise the legal age of handgun possession from 18 to 21 years. (Applause.) It would also strengthen our zero tolerance for guns in schools -- which, as one of the previous members said, had led us to 6,000 suspensions or expulsions last year -- by requiring schools to report to the police any student who brings a gun to school, and requiring that the student get counseling. That, I think, is very important.

The provision holding adults criminally responsible would only apply, but -- this is quite important -- but it would apply if they recklessly failed to keep firearms out of the reach of young people. This would mandate a steep increase in penalties for adults who transfer guns illegally to juveniles. It would require child safety locks to be sold with all new guns. (Applause.)

Finally, it would crack down on illegal gun trafficking, doubling the number of cities now working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to trace every gun seized by the police. I know this is very important to Congresswoman McCarthy. (Applause.)

It would require that dealers submit information not only on the guns they sell, but on used guns, which are often very hard for law enforcement agencies to trace. It would significantly increase penalties for gun runners caught trafficking large numbers of firearms. It would establish a national system as soon as it's feasible to limit handgun purchases to one a month, following the lead of Virginia. (Applause.)

You know, I've got to say -- this is very interesting. When we were going over the list of things we wanted to propose, some people said, well, that might be a loser because it sounds to people who care about this like that's too many, and what is this. You know, the states that have had big problems in the past, with lost of illegal gun purchases, and guns then being used for illegal purposes -- Virginia did this, and it really helped them. This was a big deal. And I just talked to Senator Robb about this a couple days ago, and he said, you know, all I can tell you is it's working in our state. So I would ask you to seriously consider what this might mean for our efforts to control the law enforcement aspects of this.

So these are the things that I wanted to say. But I hope you'll remember what I said to you about the culture. We do have to keep working on the culture. Hillary's right about it, Al and Tipper Gore are right about it. We've got a lot of responsibilities. We've got to keep working on the services for kids. We've even got to work on helping parents actually communicate with their children.

One senator called me the last before last, and said he'd had a town meeting in his state with children. And he asked how many of the schoolchildren had actually talked to their parents about what happened in Littleton. And only 10 percent of the kids raised their hands. And one child said, I had to go and turn off the television and tell my parents we were going to talk about it. She said, they're just scared. They're scared, they didn't know how to talk about it.

So there are all these cultural issues. And then there's this big cultural issue of the gun and sport hunting culture. And I hope that -- a lot of my folks at home might take offense at what I said today, but I'm trying to help explain them to you. And I felt comfortable taking on these issues, and I thought maybe I was in a unique position to take on all these gun issues all these years because of where I grew up and because I understand how people think who don't agree with this.

But I'm telling you, we've got to keep working until people start thinking about this stuff, the same way they think about X-rays and metal detectors at airports. That's the goal. We have to redefine the national community so that we have a shared obligation to save children's lives. And we've got to get out of this crazy denial that this won't make a difference. It's crazy, it won't make -- just because it won't make all the difference doesn't mean it won't make a difference. It will make a difference. (Applause.)

I implore you to remember what these members have said. I implore you to go out and get people going at the grass roots, as Carolyn McCarthy said. We need help. We can pass all this, if the American people want it bad enough. We can pass it all, if the American people want it badly enough. And we don't need to go through another Littleton for the American people to want it badly enough. You can help make sure that happens.

Thank you. (Applause.)

END 2:04 P.M. EDT