Wednesday, June 16, 1999

2:46 p.m.

The Department of Justice

Room 4111

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C.


MR. HOLDER: Good afternoon. We are here today because the House of Representatives has begun a debate on legislation that can make a critical difference to law enforcement and to the safety of all Americans.

Today individual members of Congress have a clear cut choice to make. Either they can cave into the narrow, special interests that value the cold, hard steel of guns more than the lives of children, neighbors and police officers; or they can fulfill the broad mandate -- fulfill a mandate of a broad majority of the American people by supporting this reasonable, common sense bill that will make all of us safer from harm of criminals.

The choice for each House member cannot be more stark.

As most of you know, I served as a judge, as the chief prosecutor for the District of Columbia and for the past two years as the Deputy Attorney General. I know the harm that guns can do to individuals, to families and also to communities.

My concern about easy access to guns in our society is built on my professional experience and the tragedies that I have encountered in my workday life.

But even more important, I am a father and I want to be sure that we here in Washington do everything we can, everything that is in our power to make our communities and our schools and our nation a safer place for our kids.

Five years ago Congress came together in a bipartisan way and passed one of the most important gun control measures ever passed, the Brady Bill.

Yesterday the President announced that since all went into effect more than 400,000 criminals and others who are not legally eligible to have guns have been stopped from buying guns. Four hundred thousand, that is a lot of guns, particularly if those guns were in the hands of fugitives or felons.

But while the Brady Law has done a lot to make this country safer, the law has some dangerous loopholes that criminals and others who cannot legally buy guns at a licensed gun shop exploit.

While everyone who buys a gun through a licensed dealer must undergo a background check to determine if they are eligible to buy a gun, the current law allows unlicensed sellers at gun shows to sell to anyone with no questions asked. And it is not hard to see what kind of message that sends to criminals.

But it is hard for me to believe that any reasonable person, including those who serve in Congress, could oppose taking the simple step necessary to close that gap.

Last month the Senate passed a bill that does close the loophole. And this week the House has an opportunity to join them in this very logical decision. This should be an easy decision; but for many members, it will not.

Because of the pressure they are under from the NRA, we must urge Congress to resist the gun lobby's pressure to vote for the sham gun control being pressed on the House.

The bill does nothing to plug the gaping loophole in the Brady Law. In fact, it actually creates new loopholes and weakens the protections that are currently in place.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what's wrong with it. The bill now with the definition of gun shows would exclude many events where large numbers of guns are sold, such as flea markets. Even worse for the guns that it does cover, the bill weakens the current law by cutting down the amount of time law enforcement has to complete three background checks from three working days to 72 hours. Now, let me be clear about what this means.

For approximately 73 percent of gun buyers, a background check is completed and they are allowed to buy their gun within minutes.

Ninety-five percent of all buyers who have had their check completed, get to their gun within two hours.

But for the tiny percentage of buyers for whom the Instant Check System receives a whole message, more time is needed.

This is because court records are needed to provide additional information and those court records sometimes can take days to access. They certainly cannot be accessed on weekends when most gun shows take place. And we now know that those purchasers who do not receive a quick go ahead are more likely to turn out to be prohibited purchasers.

In fact, data from the FBI's National Instant Check System shows that Saturday gun buyers whose check cannot be completed within 24 hours are 20 times more likely to be prohibited people than the average gun buyer.

The FBI has also estimated the impact a 72-hour limit would have if it had been in place for the last six months. And the results to me are chilling.

If law enforcement had 72 hours instead of three working days, more than 9,000 felons and other prohibited purchasers would have gotten guns. Another recently offered amendment is even worse. It cuts the time to 24 hours, which translates to 17,000 prohibited purchasers who would not have been stopped from buying deadly weapons in the last six months.

And let me just tell you about a few of these people, who they are.

Among those stopped under the law we now have were a convicted murderer in Texas, a rapist in Wisconsin, a convicted child molester and a person currently under indictment for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Had a 24-hour time limit been in place, each one of these dangerous criminals would have slipped through the system and would have been sold a gun.

I don't know about you. But I sure wouldn't want to have to tell the parent of the child lost to gun violence that the purchaser of the gun used in the crime could have been stopped from buying the gun if only law enforcement had had another day to pull their records, or if only the dealer at the gun show would have been required to run a background check.

It is these parents that Congress should think about while considering the legislation before them.

Over the past two months we have heard from the American people that they want those of us in Washington to lead and to pass real measures that protect our communities and that protect our kids.

We saw this in the bipartisan support the Senate received for the common sense measures that it passed last month. The House now has the option to consider an equally sensible bill.

Representatives McCarthy, Roukema and Blagojevich have offered a bipartisan amendment that is based upon the Senate passed gun show measures, but has been modified specifically to address concerns expressed by some who thought that the Senate provisions went too far.

It closes the gun show loophole but does nothing that would present any obstacles to law-abiding citizens seeking to purchase guns at gun shows or anywhere else.

This is not about politics, partisan or otherwise. This should not be about the narrow, misguided special interests.

This is about public safety, this is about our children.

I call upon those members in the House to talk to the families that have been ripped apart by violence and to reflect on the historic opportunity that they now have to stop other families from experiencing similar tragedies.

Now, with me today is Rachel Thompson, a survivor of a school shooting in Seattle. She was wounded by a fellow student with a nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol.

Also with me is Edward Flynn, the Chief of Police of Arlington County, Virginia.

MS. THOMPSON: Hi. My name is Rachel Thompson and I am here with Mothers Against Violence in America to get my story across. I'm 19 years old. And when I was 15 years old I was shot in my school.

There was an argument. A kid went home, got his gun that he had stolen from his grandfather's glove compartment of his truck. And if you ask me, that is no place to keep a loaded gun.

He came into school, shot off 13 rounds. And I was struck in the knee as I was trying to run out. This scares me so much that it has happened so many times after me. I was four and a half years ago and these stories keep on repeating themselves.

My school was lucky that nobody got shot but it is a shame that in America today that I am considered lucky.

I was shot in school. That is, I think, about the most worst thing I can ever think of doing. And my heart goes out to everybody in schools who has had to deal with this in their school.

And, you know, there is fear in American children today in school. All you have to do is lock up your gun and it is not that hard.

And what we're trying to pass here is saving our children. It is not about your rights; it is about children. And it is about keeping them safe and sending them to school where they feel like they can conduct everyday life without worrying about it.

That's my message. And I try to get it out to everybody because I feel like it started with me. And I want it to stop with me. And I'm here to do anything I can to make it stop.

This is Edward Flynn, Chief of Police from Arlington, Virginia -- County.

MR. FLYNN: Good afternoon. In addition to my responsibilities as the Police Chief in Arlington County, I'm on the legislative chair of the Police Executive Research Forum, otherwise known an PERF.

PERF is a national organization of progressive police professionals who are dedicated to improving police services to all members of our communities.

I know that my fellow PERF chiefs join me in urging the House to pass reasonable gun control laws.

Police know, adequate background checks, safety devices, measures that keep guns out of the hands of troubled children and others are needed now.

We witness daily the devastation and tragedy left in the wake of gun violence.

Police know that gun availability is not the sole source of gun violence.

But I can tell you that keeping guns out of the hands of disturbed children, criminals and others who are bent on doing harm to themselves and others is just good sense.

I don't need to quote you the numbers on gun related injuries and deaths. We all know that they are far too high.

Efforts are currently underway in the House that would undermine even the modest gun control measures recently passed by the Senate.

I would like someone to explain to the police why such reasonable steps are being thwarted and then explain it to the children too scared to go to school and to the citizens in my jurisdiction who live in fear of gun violence.

PERF and other police professionals urged the Congress to reject Congressman Dingell's background checks amendment that would give us only 24 hours to conduct background checks instead of the three days allowed by the recently passed Senate bill. We know that most checks can take only a few minutes, usually a few hours to complete.

But when a background check is delayed more than a few hours, it is because we detect a potential problem with the purchaser's eligibility.

The FBI estimates that if a 24-hour cut off rule had been applied to all Instant Checks over the last six months, more than 17,000 prohibited buyers would have gotten guns.

Another measure we must not undermine is the gun show amendments that close current loopholes in the law.

There are an estimated 5,000 gun shows annually in our nation at which private gun sales are not subject to waiting periods or background checks for the purchasers, unless the seller is a federally licensed firearms dealer.

To close the loopholes that are exploited by sellers who operate full-fledged businesses but are not federal firearms licensees, we urge you to support background checks for any event at which more 50 guns were sold as was done in the Senate.

Under pending House proposal, if thousands of guns are sold by under 10 dealers, the gun show background provisions would not be applied.

Police oppose this effort that thwart the Senate proposal. And we support the efforts of Representatives McCarthy, Roukema and -- I'm sorry.

I was paying attention to the pronunciation.

MR. HOLDER: Blagojevich.

MR. FLYNN: Blagojevich. PERF strongly supports measures that impose new safety standards on the manufacturer and importation of handguns requiring safety locks.

PERF helped write the handgun safety guidelines issued to most police agencies more than a decade ago on the need to secure handguns kept in the home.

We are urging Congress to clarify that the storage containers and safety mechanisms meet minimum standards to assure that the requirements have teeth.

There are many other provisions on which PERF police chiefs feels strongly. But most of all, it's ironic that as the House calls for faster gun control checks, the Senate appropriators have failed to include the requested fee to fund the cost of Brady Handgun National Instant Check System, nor provide sufficient FBI funding to operate the NICS System to perform these necessary checks.

PERF and other police chiefs like myself welcome the opportunity to work with Congress on effective gun control measures that will respect the rights of law-abiding citizens but also save their lives. Thank you.

MR. HOLDER: I'll take a few questions, if anybody has any.

QUESTION: Mr. Holder, you were apparently on Capitol Hill this morning meeting with House members, primarily conservative democrats, as I understand it.

How did it go? What were they telling you? What are you thinking is going to happen?

MR. HOLDER: I thought the meeting actually went pretty well. And I think they were kind of surprised by some of the statistics that I shared with you about what the effect of the legislation that is being considered would have of the 17,000 to 9,000.

I think people are -- at least some people up there are dealing without sufficient amounts of information to make this very difficult choice.

And what we are trying to do is to get to as many people as we can with the facts so that they can make an informed decision.

I really believe that once armed with these facts, all the reasonable people up there will see the administration's view that the attempts to weaken that which the Senate has passed, are simply misguided and just not good for this country.

QUESTION: How many democrats support Dingell's amendment, do you think?

MR. HOLDER: I don't really know, to be honest.

QUESTION: Fifty? Sixty?

MR. HOLDER: I don't know. I think that number is too high, but I don't know.

Thank you.

(Whereupon, at 3:04 p.m. the press conference was concluded.)