(Washington, DC) – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced two witnesses from Newtown, Conn. at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013: Neil Heslin, the father of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Dr. William Begg, a board certified emergency room physician who tried to save lives after the Newtown tragedy. Heslin’s testimony can be found HERE, and Begg’s testimony can be found HERE.
Blumenthal also questioned other witnesses at the hearing, including U.S. Attorney John Walsh, Milwaukee Chief of Police Edward Flynn, and Law Professor Nicholas Johnson. Video of Blumenthal’s question-and-answer session with the witnesses on Panel One and his introduction of the Newtown witnesses at the beginning of Panel Two is HERE. Video of his question-and-answer session with witnesses on Panel Two is available upon request. Transcripts of his question-and-answer sessions are below.
Blumenthal Q & A with Witnesses
BLUMENTHAL: I want to begin by thanking you, Madam Chairman, for your courage over many years and your consistent advocacy for this assault weapon ban, you have been so stalwart and strong. And the simple, blunt fact is thatthis issue was thought to be politically untouchable two months ago, we would not be here today without the horrific Newtown tragedy. So I want to begin by asking my fellow citizens of Connecticut, most particularly the members of the Newtown Community – Sandy Hook Promise, the Newtown Action Alliance, as well as the families who have victims – to please stand so that we can thank you publicly for your courage and your strength in this extraordinary historic moment, thank you.
FEINSTEIN: Let’s give them a round of applause
BLUMENTHAL: And I want to thank my colleague, my colleague Chris Murphy was here earlier, he had another hearing so he had to leave, but he’s been a very active member of this team. You know there was extraordinary evil in Newtown on December 14th of last year, but there was also extraordinary heroism. And part of it was in fact the law enforcement officers who went to the school, charged into the building and thereby prevented even more deaths because the shooter turned the gun on himself when he knew that police were on the scene. So I want to begin by thanking our law enforcement officers who are on the front lines every day, we have two of our most distinguished in the country, thank you for being here U.S. Attorney Walsh and Chief Flynn, and for your eloquent and powerful testimony today. And it was also the courage and strength of the Newtown Community that’s rallied together and taken an active advocacy position in favor of these kinds of measures.
And the statisticians and the PhDs and the lawyers may debate the numbers, but the second simple, blunt fact is that some or all of those 20 beautiful children and six great educators would be alive today if assault weapons had been banned along with high-capacity magazines. And some of the victims in Tucson would be alive today, including 9 –year- old Christina Taylor, as Captain Mark Kelly testified so powerfully just a short time ago in the place where you’re sitting now. The fact is we need a comprehensive strategy. Nobody here is saying an assault weapon ban or prohibition on high-capacity magazines will end gun violence, but we’re choosing to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. And the fact is, Chief Flynn, I would agree with you totally that what we see in our nation is mass murder, committed as a result of gun violence. I differ only to say that it is not slow motion, in fact it’s escalating, it’s rapid fire mass murder – 1,900 people have been killed since Newtown, as a result of gun violence. And so, I want to begin by asking you, Chief Flynn, and I think you have alluded to it, what is it that leads you to feel the men and women on your force are outgunned by these assault weapons?
FLYNN: For the first 20 years of my police career, I carried a six-shooter, and that was plenty. That was the standard weapon for American law enforcement for over 100 years. And in the last 20 years, we’ve been in an arms race. I, only the year before last, had to start arming my officers with assault weapons in the cruisers to start to protect themselves. That’s not where we were pre-Brady.
BLUMENTHAL: And in fact, their body armor won’t protect them against assault weapons, will it at close range?
FLYNN: No, we have to constantly upgrade the body armor and offer them the opportunity to wear metal plates. You know, our challenge is… If I may take one moment, I had the opportunity on September 11, of 2001, I was the police chief in Arlington, Virginia, that’s where the Pentagon was. And what I learned that day, that if this country takes 3,000 innocent victims, it takes major steps to alter itself; and nobody has boarded an airplane the same way since. That weapon of mass murder is no longer used in this country, because we’ve taken steps to keep it out of the hands of those who would kill us. Now I’ve wondered frequently in the last decade, how many people have to get murdered in a mass murder for it to be enough? Now I’ve been wrong time after time after time. But I’m a grandpa, I’ve got little kids at home, is 20 babies enough to say these implements should not be so easily distributed? That’s what we’re asking for. When was that gun bought?
BLUMENTHAL: I know that the Chairwoman will perhaps indulge me one more question.
FEINSTEIN: I will
BLUMENTHAL: You know, I’m a law enforcement guy too, I was a state law enforcement person, and had your job – United States Attorney Walsh – in Connecticut some years ago, and I want to say nobody in law enforcement ever thinks we’re doing enough. Nobody ever says, “Well, we can go home and stop trying to do better.” So, as much as we may agree with you that the United States Department of Justice and local and state police forces are trying to enforce these laws as aggressively as possible, I think you need more resources, and you need criminal background checks so that you can know – as Senators Graham and Senator Cruz said – how to keep these weapons, all weapons, out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them – criminals, domestic abusers, the severely mentally ill. And would you agree that the criminal background check expansion to the private sales as well as possibly ammunition sales, are a way to enforce the existing laws that are on the books right now, that can be enforced better so that you know before those weapons are purchased, along with trafficking prohibitions, that we can keep those guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them?
FLYNN: The majority of my illegal firearms are bought legally, not stolen. They’re either bought through straw purchases or they are bought outside of the regular firearms, licensed firearms dealers. Six of my officers were shot with guns that were legally bought from the same firearms dealer. That’s intolerable. So obviously, the purpose of background checks is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, not to create, you know, millions of additional prosecutions. The point is, those checks work, and if we can extend them to the gun shows, we can keep guns out of the hands of criminals, as well as the criminally insane.
BLUMENTHAL: And perhaps we can stop them from buying ammunition after they have those guns. Would you agree?
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. Would you agree, United States Attorney Walsh?
WALSH: Absolutely, Senator. I think those are critical steps that will help us keep, frankly, keep the American people safer. In addition, I’d note that after Columbine, the State of Colorado tightened up its own background check to close the so called gun show loophole. And also too, really to invigorate the extent to which records on mental illness came into the system, and that’s proved to be effective. Of course you can’t stop everything as we saw last July in Aurora.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you very much. Thank you, Madam Chairman.
Blumenthal Q & A with Witnesses
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Madam Chairman. My thanks to all the witnesses who are here today for your testimony. Dr. Begg, my objective and I believe the objective of many of my colleagues here today is to show that your mom is right, that this time is different, this time we will do something. And the reason it’s different is that Newtown changed America. It changed me. I know it changed you and others who are here today, and many of my colleagues. So I want to thank you for being here, and Mayor Nutter, no city can do it alone, no city can stop gun violence alone because our city borders are porous to illegal trafficking and our state borders are as well, and that’s why Senator Durbin and I and others have led the effort to stop illegal trafficking because a national standard, and national protection are absolutely required.
MAYOR NUTTER: Thank you, Senator.
BLUMENTHAL: Let me just say to all of you, you know there’s been a lot of debate here about statistics and numbers. The simple fact is we don’t have enough research on gun violence in this country. And part of the reason is opponents of gun violence protection have placed restrictive constraints on the research that can be done by federal agencies in collecting and analyzing research about gun violence. Research that could be done by the CDC and the NIH has been barred by restrictions placed by the Congress of the United States. So let me ask every member here. Does any of you feel that we have enough research that we shouldn’t do anymore on the issue of gun violence? I’m asking whether anybody disagrees that we need more research.
BEGG: I agree we need more research. This is a public health issue; 30,000 people a year die. The top four reasons you’re going to die – either heart attack, stroke, cancer, or trauma – and folks who have cancer, and stroke, and heart attack, there’s a lot of research. But there’s not the research [for gun violence trauma], there’s just anecdotes. But the data that’s out there is clear, that if you own a gun, you’re five times as likely to die from suicide, or a lady, you’re five times as likely to have your partner kill you. So we need more research, rather than anecdotes.
BLUMENTHAL: Professor Johnson, you know I’ve argued some cases in the United States Supreme Court, in fact, defending state statutes in the [Connecticut Supreme Court]. I defended our assault weapon ban in Connecticut and won, it was upheld. The vast majority – in fact, I don’t know of any court differing with the rulings made by federal courts on the assault weapon ban that existed before 2004 – upheld it. Do you know of any decision made by a United States district court that strikes down an assault weapon ban?
JOHNSON: Make a distinction between the pre-Heller world and now...
BLUMENTHAL: Well, let me just ask the first question.
BLUMENTHAL: Do you know of any decisions striking it down?
JOHNSON: Uh, no.
BLUMENTHAL: Do you know of a letter that was written by 50 constitutional law professors, including libertarian and conservative intellectuals like Richard Epstein, Eric Posner, Charles Freid, from the top law schools in the country, that say that restrictions on the manufacturing and sale, and I’m quoting, and I ask that this letter be put in the record Madam Chairman, “restrictions on the manufacture and sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons are also consistent with the Second Amendment.” Are you aware of that letter?
JOHNSON: I’m aware of that letter, and I know many of the folks on that list. But I would venture that most of the people on that list have not spent more than a couple of hours thinking about this issue.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, I’m sure they would differ.
JOHNSON: I’ve spent decades on this…
BLUMENTHAL: I understand you’ve spent decades.
JOHNSON: …and the assessment that I presented in 2005 is one that I would encourage you to read.
BLUMENTHAL: I’m sure they would differ on the amount of time they spent thinking about this issue before they signed the letter.
JOHNSON: Most of them haven’t published on the issue.
BLUMENTHAL: OK. Well, I’ll let you settle the issue of their credentials academically and otherwise.
JOHNSON: It’s not about credentials, it’s about whether they’ve thought this through.
BLUMENTHAL: OK. You know, with all due respect, professor, in the arguments I’ve done before the United States Supreme Court, defending state statutes, and sometimes the action of state officials, the first two propositions out of my mouth were, number one, the courts have a responsibility to deem constitutional, to presume constitutional valid acts of the legislature and, number two, legislatures are not required to solve all of the problems at once. They can take incremental steps toward solving the problem. And I would submit very respectfully, that the rational basis test, that is whether an assault weapon ban and a prohibition on high-capacity magazines is rationally related to the end of preventing gun violence, is sufficiently established by the testimony we’ve had here today. And that a decision by a court striking down the statute that’s been proposed would be deemed constitutionally incoherent. You’ve used that word incoherent.
JOHNSON: Can I just respond?
BLUMENTHAL: You’ll be given an opportunity to respond. Normally in hearings we allow everybody to finish, and then you’ll have a chance.
JOHNSON: Excuse me.
BLUMENTHAL: You have used the word incoherent to describe the legislation that’s been proposed here. I think that is, number one, disrespectful to the Committee. But, number two, I think it is just plain wrong. But number three, if you have suggestions for how to improve it, and this goes for any of the members of this panel, certainly we would welcome them. Because our ultimate objective, which I hope you share, is to help save lives, the kind of carnage that has been describe so eloquently by Mayor Nutter and Chief Flynn and United States Attorney Walsh, not to mention by Neil Heslin and Dr. Begg, based on their personal experiences. And as many articles as you and Attorney Hardy may have written, I don’t think you have had the personal experience, firsthand, of seeing how dangerous, that’s the word used by our United States Supreme Court, Heller, how dangerous these weapons are and my hope is that perhaps you’ll be more supportive, because I think America is on our side on this issue, because America knows this time is different.
JOHNSON: Could I respond?
FEINSTEIN: Yes, you may.
JOHNSON: Senator, first, we’re not on different sides. The thing that bothers me the most about the debate is that it turns us against one another, we’re all trying to figure out how best to be safe. My explicit testimony referenced the Army Joint Service Combat Shotgun Program report, and my point was, with respect to the incoherence, that the claims that were being made by the Committee and others that justified the prohibited category were better descriptions of guns in the non-prohibited category, and the Joint Service Combat Shotgun Program report shows that. That is the incoherence that I’m describing. And that kind of incoherence, that is a classification whose justifications will not hold up, is the point of the rational basis review issue that I mentioned. The other thing to point out about the Heller decision is that it requires something far more than simply rational basis, that is it’s not an automatic deference to whatever the legislature does, because now what we’re talking about is a constitutional right. So what we end up with ultimately is the Supreme Court potentially looking, or some court looking at this question, making a determination about whether these distinctions, whether the classifications between AR-15 et cetera and all of the things that are on the good-gun list, whether those classifications are rational. If the court ends up saying, “No, they are not,” then what you will have is a piece of legislation that has accelerated in a dramatic way, the purchases and the number and inventory of the very guns that you’re trying to eliminate and that seems to me to be a kind of unintended consequence that people should have an appreciation for.
FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Madam Chairman.