Thank you, Dean Bilek, for those kind words, and for welcoming me to your beautiful campus this afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be with you – and Chancellor Grossman – here in North Dartmouth. And it’s a privilege to stand with so many educators; administrators; leading members of the bench and bar; distinguished guests, including Congressman Keating, United States Attorney Ortiz, United States Marshal Gibbons – and, especially, the students who make the University of Massachusetts such a remarkable place.
I always appreciate the chance to speak with future leaders of our nation’s legal community – and I’m particularly happy to join you today at the only public law school in Massachusetts. Although this institution is still young, I know it’s hard at work educating a new generation of lawyers, leaders, advocates, and public servants. I’m pleased to hear that it’s becoming a forum for robust debate – where issues of consequence are discussed and addressed. I’m grateful to be among the first to add my voice to this dialogue. And I’m proud to note that, with your clinical programs and recent provisional accreditation, UMass School of Law is well on its way to becoming an essential training ground for students from across the region – whose contributions will undoubtedly help to shape our nation’s course, and determine its path, for years to come.
As aspiring stewards of the law – and servants of those whom it protects and empowers – each of the young men and women before me has already made an important commitment. And you’ve taken on serious responsibilities: not just to focus on your coursework, but to consider how you can put your skills and talents to work once you leave this campus. Before you know it, some of you will join the ranks of the very first graduates of this new program. Others will follow close behind. And all of you will fan out across Massachusetts and around the country – seeking to make a living; striving to make your mark; and trying to answer the difficult questions that every legal professional must confront:
How will you use the knowledge you’ve gained on this campus to give back to your communities? What can you do to enrich the lives of your fellow citizens and make your country a better place? What will you imagine that your parents’ generation could not? And how will you make history – and make a difference – in a world too often afflicted by crime and violence?
The way forward will not always be easy or obvious – but the answers will soon be yours to discover, since these and many other questions represent the inheritance, and the solemn obligation, that’s entrusted to every great lawyer and leader. No matter how you choose to spend your career – whether you envision a future ruling from the bench, fighting for private clients, running for public office, bringing peace to war-torn countries, prosecuting dangerous criminals, or forging another path altogether your own – each of you will soon be among the most qualified in this country to lead, to serve, and to give. And, in all that you do, you’ll be called upon to fulfill the singular ideal that stands at the center of your legal education – and at the heart of your chosen profession: not merely to serve clients or win cases, but to do justice.
I realize this may sound like a tremendous obligation. But I also believe that the fact that you are here today proves you’re up to the task. I’m confident that you have what it takes to meet the challenges ahead. And I know that you’re driven – and well-equipped – to help us address some of the most complex and intractable problems we face.
For my colleagues at every level of the Department of Justice – as for each of the judges, policymakers, and elected leaders in this crowd – this important work constitutes a top priority. And that’s why – this afternoon – I’d like to spend a few moments discussing one of the defining issues of our time, and a critical responsibility that everyone in this room shares: the need to ensure the safety of our fellow citizens – and especially our children – by addressing the epidemic of gun violence that devastates too many lives, and steals too many promising futures, each and every year.
Particularly since last December’s horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut, the urgency of this problem has come into stark focus. Since that terrible day, this tragedy has been compounded by countless individual tragedies that take place on our streets; that pass too often unnoticed; and that too frequently decimate the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
In response, countless concerned citizens, outraged parents, elected leaders, advocacy groups, and private organizations across the country have come together to call – with one voice – for the common-sense protections that our young people deserve. And – at every level of the Obama Administration – my colleagues and I have made a steadfast commitment to doing everything in our power to reduce gun violence, keep deadly weapons out of the hands of those not allowed to possess them, and make our neighborhoods and schools more secure.
Earlier this year, I was honored to join Vice President Biden and a number of my fellow Cabinet members – along with representatives from more than 200 groups – in assembling a series of recommendations for accomplishing these goals. In January, President Obama announced this comprehensive plan, which includes 23 executive actions and a range of legislative proposals – all founded on a consensus that emerged from our meetings with policymakers, anti-violence advocates, gun owners and retailers, private organizations, police chiefs, and victims of gun violence: that, as President Obama said, “if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence – if there is even one life that can be saved – then we have an obligation to try.”
Of course, this obligation is hardly exclusive to criminal justice professionals and political leaders. We’ll need the ideas, the energy, and the determination of every American to bring about the results we seek. We’re depending on ordinary citizens, and aspiring leaders like you, to join the robust, national discussion about these issues – and to guide and inform the efforts of elected and appointed leaders at every level. And we’re relying on you to speak out – and stand up – for the kinds of meaningful changes that will help to keep our communities safe.
Among the Administration’s proposals are a number of legislative reforms that we’ve called upon Congress to pass without delay – including measures requiring universal background checks, so that a full background check is required every time someone attempts to buy a gun; laws imposing tough new penalties against those who help funnel deadly weapons to dangerous criminals; and legislation banning high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, updated and stronger than the bill enacted in 1994.
Beyond these proposals, the Justice Department and other agencies are currently working to implement the 23 executive actions that President Obama announced to reduce gun violence. For instance, the President has taken steps to reinforce the Department’s efforts to provide law enforcement with the tools, training, and resources they need to respond to active shooter situations. He has asked relevant agencies to make clear that federal law does not prohibit doctors from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement. And he has directed Administration leaders to finalize regulations under the Affordable Care Act that will help expand access to mental health care services.
The President has also announced a series of actions to strengthen the national background check system – by addressing gaps, bringing accountability to the sources of information the system relies upon, and examining our laws to make certain they’re effective in identifying those who should not have access to firearms. In addition, the Administration has encouraged licensed gun dealers to process transactions for private sellers using the NICS background system.
But all of this is only the beginning. The President has also put an end to what’s effectively become a “freeze” on rigorous, non-partisan research into gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control – and has directed the CDC to resume examining the causes of this violence and evaluating strategies for its prevention. He has called upon Congress to eliminate misguided restrictions that require the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives – or ATF – to authorize the importation of dangerous weapons simply because of their age. He has urged Senate leaders to move swiftly to confirm his nominee, Todd Jones, as Director of the ATF – a critical agency that’s been without a Senate-confirmed leader for six years. And he has directed officials throughout the Administration to work with individual school districts and community leaders to develop plans for making our schools, houses of worship – and institutions of higher learning like this one – safer.
Of course, our ability to complete this work – and fulfill all of the Department’s diverse missions – will be contingent on Congress adopting a balanced deficit reduction plan and ending the untenable cuts that are slated to go into effect today, reducing the Justice Department’s budget by over $1.6 billion in just seven months’ time. If this so-called “sequester” is allowed to persist, it will have a negative impact on the safety of Americans across the country. Our capacity – to respond to crimes and threats, investigate wrongdoing, and hold criminals accountable – will be reduced. And, despite our best efforts to limit the impact of sequestration, there’s no question that the effects of these cuts – on our entire justice system, and on the American people – may be profound.
At the same time, I recognize that – even if sequestration is brought to a timely end – none of our individual anti-violence proposals, on their own, will be enough to decisively end the epidemic that touches every city and town in this country. After all, as you’re learning here at UMass, few serious questions – of law or policy – can be met with straightforward, one-size-fits-all solutions.
But, as I’m sure you’re also learning, this simply means that it’s incumbent upon each of us to join in important discussions like this one. And it’s our responsibility – as Americans, and as stewards of the justice system – to help move this country toward the brighter future we seek – and that, together, we must build.
From reducing gun violence and confronting a range of public safety challenges, to expanding access to legal services, addressing disparities and divisions, and reaching for the ideals – of equality, opportunity, and justice – that have always defined the best in our profession, each of you will soon step into a future that is far from certain, in a world riven by uncommon challenges and evolving threats. You’ll be called upon – as public servants, private practice attorneys, community activists, or businessmen and -women – to use the law as a powerful tool to improve the lives of those around you.
Along the way, you may encounter obstacles, setbacks, and disagreements. You may find that making the progress you desire is not as easy as you might like. But if you hold true to the vision of optimism that inspired this institution’s founding – just a few short years ago; if you continue to believe in yourselves; and if you keep faith with one another, and with previous generations who once walked the paths you’re about to begin – then I’m confident that, just as your future will surely be filled with fascinating challenges, it will also be defined by limitless opportunities.
I can hardly imagine a more exciting time to be preparing to join the legal profession. I am honored to count each of you as partners – and colleagues – in the work that will soon become your responsibility, and must always remain our common cause. I want you to know that I’m proud of each and every one of you. And I am counting on you all.