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Debate: After Newtown, Will Nation’s Worst-Ever Grade School Shooting Spur Tougher Gun Control?

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Police say the Newtown gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, used a semi-automatic Bushmaster assault rifle, similar to the M4 carbine used by the U.S. military. He also had two handguns, a Glock 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol and a SIG Sauer. The massacre occurred just miles from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the nation’s second-most-powerful pro-gun lobby in the country after the National Rifle Association. We host a debate on gun control between John Velleco, chief federal lobbyist for Gun Owners of America, and Christian Heyne, legislative assistant and grassroots coordinator for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. We’re also joined by Paul Barrett, author of “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The worst school massacre in U.S. history, after Virginia Tech, happened on Friday, the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary School, 26 people gunned down, 20 of them six- and seven-year-olds, six of them—all women—staff of the school, the principal and the school psychologist, as they stopped—tried to stop the shooter when he first came into the school, and then the teachers who tried to protect their students.

For more on the Newtown school massacre, we’re joined by two guests in Washington, D.C. John Velleco is the director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, also the group’s federal lobbyist. And we’re joined by Christian Heyne. He’s the legislative assistant and grassroots coordinator for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Christian lost his mother to gun violence in 2005. His father narrowly survived, sustaining multiple gunshots. And still with us, Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.

Let’s start with Christian Heyne. Christian, talk about what happened in Thousand Oaks, California, when it happened. What happened to your family?

CHRISTIAN HEYNE: I come from, like you said, Thousand Oaks, California, which is very much, in and of itself, similar to Newtown, where we’re a community that doesn’t often get affected by gun violence. When everything happened, they said that my parents were at the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re consistently rated the safest city in the country.

But my parents were returning a boat to my dad’s best friend’s house. My dad’s best friend had a restraining order against an individual as a credible threat of violence. That man came up that day to do exactly what the judge thought that he would do. He shot my dad’s best friend Steve in the back. He then turned the gun on my dad because he happened to be there. My dad tried to draw him around away from my parents, from my mom. And he finished my dad after shooting him two more times, turned back around, and my mom, rather than running away, tried to keep Steve alive. He let her beg for her life, run about 10 steps, and shot and killed her in the back. He went on to kill a mother in front of her two children, put both those children in the ICU, wounded a police officer and ultimately took his own life.

When we picked up the pieces, and my dad was able to heal, and we looked at this man, you know, not only did he have a restraining order against himself as a credible threat of violence, he had been arrested multiple times for fighting police officers. He had been discharged from the military. And he legally owned three guns and multiple extended magazines and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and they were in his name. So we picked ourselves up, and we started working on this issue proactively since then, because we realized how stark and how lax our gun laws are in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, your response, Christian, when you heard the news coming out on Friday of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and what you think needs to be done?

CHRISTIAN HEYNE: Yeah, I mean, you know, as a—unfortunately, our movement is comprised of many victims of gun violence. And the first thing you do is, you know, we just feel the pain. We’re brought back to that day, as so many Americans. You know, 34 Americans are murdered every day by guns. And it doesn’t matter—you know, when I turn to page eight and I see, you know, just one individual was shot and killed, you know, and you see the horrificness of an example of a mass shooting like this, you realize that each one of these individuals, you know, is not just one person affected. It’s a parent. It’s a son. It’s a daughter. It’s an entire community, an entire network of individuals, whose lives will be changed forever because of the lax laws that we have in this country and the easy access to deadly weapons. You know, it’s not our position to say that we’re trying to take guns away from responsible, law-abiding gun owners, but to have these things continually happen and the level of death that we allow to exist in this country and the easy access of guns, it’s irresponsible of us not to have a conversation, a dialogue to discuss things that we can do practically to keep guns out of the hands of these dangerous individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: John Velleco, I want to thank you for being with us, of Gun Owners of America. Not a lot of people who are against gun control are willing to go on the national media this weekend. David Gregory yesterday on Meet the Press said they had invited on all 31 pro-gun senators, and not one was willing to come on. In the wake of this mass school shooting, John Velleco, what do you think needs to happen?

JOHN VELLECO: Well, you know, I agree with a lot of what Christian said about the impact on families of violence. And as a parent of five children, including a six-year-old, you know, your heart breaks. It really goes out to these people who have suffered unimaginable loss, that can never be replaced, that’s always going to be there.

But I also get a little bit angry when I see politicians take to the airwaves—prominent politicians like the mayor of New York City, Senator Feinstein, Senator Schumer—in a sense, trying to capitalize on this tragedy to pursue an agenda of banning guns. And if we want to have a serious conversation about what to do with violence in this country, we have to take a step back from just the politics and say, “What can we do to protect children?” because that’s the most important thing. You know, will banning guns have protected those children? Probably not, because the mother who owned the guns had bought them legally.

On the other hand, we have so-called gun-free zones, school zones, laws in this country since the early '90s. And in fact, nearly every single multiple-victim shooting in this country has occurred in a gun-free zone. So I think if we're going to talk about the response to violence, talk about protecting children, which is the most important thing, everything needs to be on the table, including not disarming law-abiding adults, teachers, custodial workers, administrators, who happen to work in a school. And that’s the case now. These folks are—

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that they should have had guns, the people in the school?

JOHN VELLECO: I’m saying that they should not be mandatorily disarmed by the United States Congress and state governments. And people who have—there are many teachers who have concealed-carry permits issued by their state who cannot carry in school because of these laws.

AMY GOODMAN: And you think that ban should be—those bans should be lifted.

JOHN VELLECO: I think those bans—those bans have been in place since the early 1990s. You know, in the '50s and ’60s, students were able to take guns into school, and they would put them along the wall in the principal's office or in their locker, and they would use them after school to go hunting. And we didn’t have school shootings then. So something has changed over time. And now, since the—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Christian Heyne back in. What do you think of—the answer would have been if the principal, the school psychologist, the custodian, the teachers, had guns in the school this weekend?

CHRISTIAN HEYNE: I mean, we hear this argument come up every time a mass shooting occurs. And I think it’s important to take a real hard look at what exactly is being discussed. You know, in Virginia, for instance, when you talk about concealed-carry permits, you know, an individual in Virginia can acquire a concealed-carry permit by watching a one-hour video online, taking a 10-question test, never touching a gun, never live-firing that weapon, and they are permitted to carry a concealed weapon in public—no training whatsoever, not even any knowledge that they’ve ever handled a gun to begin with.

Then, if you look at the situation—you know, you hear, after Virginia Tech, after Aurora, imagine in Aurora, you know, as people say, “I wish that there had been a gun in that movie theater.” Imagine that you’re in a dark movie setting. You know, somebody busts in with all the loud noises that are already going on, hundreds of individuals in that room. Somebody breaks in, throws two smoke bombs, and not only is he firing into the crowd, but then 10 people stand up at random locations within the theater. You cannot tell me that these individuals, A, would be able to be sure that they weren’t going to be attacking any other innocent individuals. But, B, what happens when law enforcement arrives onto these scenes, and the come on, and they don’t know who to fire, who’s the target, what’s going to happen?

If we’re going to have people carrying guns in the public, we first of all need to make sure that they’re well trained. Second of all, we need to make sure that we do it in responsible locations. Antonin Scalia, when he delivered the majority opinion in D.C., Heller and McDonald, he said that even though there is a constitutional right to self-protection, that does not mean that we cannot limit where people can carry these weapons and who can carry these weapons. There is a—there’s a lot of work that we need to do on both sides of those. And the background-check system is a huge, huge portion of that, that when we start this national dialogue that the president so courageously was speaking about last night, that it’s our moral responsibility to protect our children to have this dialogue, we need to be looking at both those areas in order to make some real—some real change and some real progress.

AMY GOODMAN: You have the Empire State Building shooting, where a man killed another man in front of the Empire State Building months ago. Nine people were injured in the shooting near the Empire State Building. All of them were injured by police when they unloaded 16 rounds in the shadow of the Empire State Building after a disgruntled former apparel designer—killing him after he engaged in a gunbattle with police. Paul Barrett, Ann Coulter said on Twitter, “Only one policy has ever been shown to deter mass murder: concealed-carry laws.” More guns, less mass shootings.

PAUL BARRETT: Well, I don’t know what Ann Coulter means exactly by only one policy has been shown. I don’t know what social science she’s pointing to. The hard truth for people on both sides of this debate is that the social science is actually inconclusive. The best studies that have been done on the proliferation of concealed-carry laws, the proliferation of shall-issue laws, which take away the discretion from law enforcement and say that pretty much anyone who wants a concealed-carry license can have one—the best research that’s been done, Ian Ayres at Yale University says—and I think quite candidly—that we just can’t tell. We can’t find a good association between the liberalization of those laws, the fact that it’s now easier to carry guns concealed in public than it was 25 years ago, and crime rates. And now, there are other studies on both sides, and I’m sure these two spokespeople for their causes would have very strong views. But my view is, is that we don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m thinking about the professors at University of Colorado, Boulder, when the law went into effect saying students could carry concealed weapons on campus, their terror as they gathered together saying, “We’re afraid to give a student a poor grade.” What will trigger someone? And why should they be exposed to this?

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah. Well, if you’re asking me, personally, would I favor, as a citizen or as a voter, arming students or encouraging every teacher in every classroom to have a gun, I personally would not. And I’d be happy to explain why.


PAUL BARRETT: I mean, I just think that you can go to an extreme. However—and I also think that that would encourage gunplay that isn’t taking place right now. On the other hand, if I ran an elementary school, if that were my job, if I ran a house of worship, if I ran even a movie theater, I would make sure, starting this week, there was an armed guard, the very best armed guard I could hire. That doesn’t go to gun control. That doesn’t go to big ideological issues. That doesn’t solve everything. It’s not a panacea, and it’s nothing to celebrate. Yes, it would make us more like Israel, more like violent Latin American countries, where there are armed guards everywhere. At the same time, if you want to guard schoolchildren, starting tomorrow, in a particular school, you want to make it less likely that a mass shooter is going to be able to shoot 20 people as opposed to two people, I’d put a skilled guard in front.

AMY GOODMAN: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged President Obama to lead the national discussion on gun control. He was on Meet the Press on NBC on Sunday.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The president should console the country, but he’s the commander-in-chief as well as the consoler-in-chief, and he calls for action. But he called for action two years ago. And every time there is a disaster like this, a tragedy like this, everybody says, “Well, now is not the time,” or “If you had fixed the problem, you can’t guarantee that this particular event would have been prevented.” All of that is true. It’s time for the president, I think, to stand up and lead and tell this country what we should do, not go to Congress and say, “What do you guys want to do?” This should be his number one agenda. He’s the president of the United States. And if he does nothing during his second term, something like 48,000 Americans will be killed with illegal guns. That is roughly the number of Americans killed in the whole Vietnam War.

AMY GOODMAN: John Velleco, that was Mayor Bloomberg. Your response? You’re the director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America.

JOHN VELLECO: Yes, thank you. Well—excuse me. The politicians, like Michael Bloomberg and Senators Feinstein and Schumer, what they’re doing is taking the failed policies of the past, and they—they’ve all been involved with very strict gun-control legislation, and even drafting the laws. And they’re taking these policies that have not worked. I mean, where have gun-free zones ever stopped the criminal from entering the zone and committing mayhem? And what they want to do then is double down on policies that we know won’t work.

And one of the things—and I would agree with Ann Coulter on this—one of—one thing that helps to stop—now, and the other guest said earlier it’s not—this isn’t a panacea, either. A gun isn’t going to stop every crime from occurring, but they can stop shootings from turning into mass shootings. And the presence of an armed civilian has oftentimes stopped shooters in school shootings and in other locations. And as Christian pointed out, you know, the Colorado massacre and Virginia Tech, you know, what if someone had been armed? Would they have been able to stop? I don’t know, because no one was armed, but maybe, perhaps, they would have been able to prevent that shooting—those shootings from escalating even further.

So we know that the gun-free zones don’t work, and it’s time to give freedom a chance and allow citizens who carry concealed. And in Virginia, contrary to what Christian was suggesting, law-abiding gun owners are not involved in crimes in the commonwealth of Virginia. We can carry concealed. We can carry openly. And Virginia is a much safer location than just across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., which still has almost a complete ban on firearms. It’s very difficult to own them. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Heyne, as we wrap up, what is the legislation you would like to see? What are the areas you would like to see regulated when it comes to guns in America?

CHRISTIAN HEYNE: There’s very specific legislation that has been presented before this Congress, that’s been introduced—it will be introduced again in next Congress—that we simply haven’t addressed. In this country in 33 states, you can legally purchase a firearm without undergoing a background check. And the U.S. Department of Justice says, you know, if you’re a private individual, you can sell a gun to a stranger without administering a background check. You know, the U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that about 40 percent of guns that are bought in this country are bought without a background check. And there is no justification I have ever heard that can justify selling a gun to a stranger without at least screening them to make sure that they’re not a prohibited purchaser.

The other issue with the background-check system is that the names of individuals who are prohibited purchasers simply are not making their way into the national database. Now, when the president says that he will use the full force of his presidency to address this issue, Michael Bloomberg on that same interview on Meet the Press discussed that, you know, his executive—he could issue executive orders to make sure that these states are actually reporting the names of people who have been deemed dangerously mentally ill, which right now isn’t happening. There’s eight states in the country that haven’t administered any names since Virginia Tech six years ago. So, if we’re going to have a real dialogue and if we’re going to really listen to these legislators the way that we can really make a difference and keep guns out of these hands that we’ve already deemed are dangerous individuals, then we need to start by trying to fix the background-check system that’s already in place. And if we’re going to do that, then hopefully individuals on both sides of the aisle will be willing to address these issues and these giant loopholes that exist that are literally arming dangerous people every day.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, just a beginning of this discussion. Christian Heyne is the legislative assistant for Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. I want to thank John Velleco for joining us, chief lobbyist for Gun Owners of America, and Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. That does it for this segment. When we come back, we go to the streets of Cairo after the vote on the constitution. Stay with us.

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