March 01, 2018

Will This Time Be Different? Senator Cardin Speaks on Gun Violence and the Students Making a Difference

After the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin talks on the floor of the United States Senate about gun violence and school safety

               Mr. President, on Friday, I visited Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, which is located in Howard County, Maryland, between Washington and Baltimore.  I wanted to talk to students about the tragic Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and faculty members dead.  This is the deadliest high school shooting in American history.  I went to Wilde Lake because one of their own teachers, Laura Wallen, was shot to death in September 2017, and her former boyfriend is now on trial for her murder.

                I was extremely impressed by the passion of these students.  They had a great deal of interest in the subject matter, they were extremely articulate, and they asked great questions.  I found it extremely encouraging for the future of Howard County, Maryland, and this nation.

                These students are rightfully concerned about their safety, and the safety of their classmates.

                It’s been nearly two weeks since a disturbed young man invaded Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

                The reaction seems to be like clockwork after each shooting. There is bipartisan shock, anger and horror. Predictably, the question comes out: will this time be different? The answer for Republicans has always been “no” as the outrage and call to act quickly falls back to NRA talking points versus reality.

                This time, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and students in Maryland and across the country are not taking “no” as the final word. This time, the survivors are leading the way, speaking out in a forceful way like we have not heard before.

                Students like Ryan Deitsch, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High School, wants to know why these students, the children, need to be the ones to speak out, “just to save innocent lives,” he said. He wants to know why the adults can’t be the adults and do what is necessary to protect children?

                I think the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have had a clear, articulate message that this carnage needs to stop. They want to feel safe in their schools again. Armed with their cell phones and their stories, they have taken up the banner of #neveragain and are changing the face of this debate to make the country safer from gun violence.

                Alex Wind, another survivor from Stoneman Douglas laid out the larger problem and why students are mobilizing: “We’re marching because it’s not just schools. It’s movie theaters, it’s concerts, it’s nightclubs. This kind of stuff can’t just happen. You know, we are marching for our lives, we’re marching for the 17 lives we lost. And we’re marching for our children’s lives and our children’s children and their children.”

                So what can we do?  There are several pieces of legislation that are ready to go.  Democrats, and some Republicans, have been willing and ready to act. Leader McConnell could move any one of these bills right now.

                Let’s start by making it clear that weapons of war are not needed by civilians of any age. I have co-sponsored S. 2095, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2017, offered by Senator Feinstein. 

                This legislation would: (1) ban the sale, manufacture, transfer and importation of 205 military-style assault; (2) ban any assault weapon that accepts any detachable ammunition magazines and has one or more military characteristics; and (3) ban magazines and other ammunition feeding devices that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, which allows a shooter to quickly fire many rounds without needing to reload.

                The bill also requires a background check on any future sale, trade or gifting of an assault weapon covered by the bill, and prohibits the transfer of high-capacity ammunition magazines.  It also bans bump-fire stocks and other devices that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at fully automatic rates.

                Congress also should pass the Background Check Expansion Act, S. 2009, which I have co-sponsored and is offered by Senator Murphy. 

                This bill would expand federal background check requirements to include the sale or transfer of all firearms by private sellers, just as licensed dealers are required to conduct under the existing Brady Law.  The bill requires background checks for sales or transfers of all firearms from one private party to another, even if either party is not a federal licensed dealer. This requirement extends to all unlicensed sellers, whether they do business online, at gun shows, or out of their home.

                According to recent polls, a record 97 percent of those surveyed said they support requiring background checks for all gun buyers. Ninety-seven percent! So why can’t we get this done? It’s not a heavy lift; the Americans are with us on this. We need to recognize that saving children’s lives is more important than the National Rifle Association.       

                Congress also should ease restrictions on gun violence research and prevention efforts by removing onerous restrictions on Center for Disease Control research.  We can improve states’ sharing of information with federal databases than screen gun buyers. 

                At a town hall last week, Senator Marco Rubio – when challenged by an audience of students and parents from Stoneman Douglas – said that “the problems we are facing here today cannot be solved by gun laws alone.” With that, I agree, but these gun laws WILL make a difference. Yes, there is no single solution, but we should be united in our willingness to do what we can to save lives.

                I agree with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that we must devote more resources to mental health priorities to identify young people, who may be about to cause harm to themselves or others. Let’s attack this problem from multiple directions. We cannot raise our hands in the air and give up because there is no one law that can solve this problem.

                Sitting on the sidelines is not an option when our children are being killed – sometimes by other children. And surrendering to the false logic that the problem is too big to address falls well short of what the American people deserve. We were sent here to our nation’s capital to make the tough decisions and to do the right thing.

                I agree with Alex Wind that this problem we need to tackle is larger than simply school safety, but I would like to talk about that specifically for a moment. In an effort to turn the conversation away from an assault weapons ban or closing loopholes in background checks, the president decided to latch on to this idea that we should arm teachers and educators in our schools.

                We do NOT need, as President Trump suggested, more guns in the schools, and we do not need teachers carrying guns.

But we do know that teachers are hired to teach, not be security guards.

                Let’s listen to our educators and say no to this proposal before it gains any more credence. The answer to keeping guns and gun violence out of our schools is not to bring more guns into the school.

                The students I talked to at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Maryland understood that adding more guns would not help the situation, and could lead to more problems in the schools themselves.  They certainly want to see their buildings more secure, but we can do that through infrastructure improvements, technology, and school resource officers.

                So why are these things happening here in the U.S. with such alarming frequency and not elsewhere around the world? Gun-related deaths unfold in tragic circumstances across this country daily, with more than 1,800 people killed by guns this year alone, according to Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit group.

                Mass shootings often shine the spotlight on the U.S. and its position as a global outlier.

                The number of firearms available to American civilians is estimated at around 310 million, according to a 2009 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report. 

                According to the Small Arms Survey, the exact number of civilian-owned firearms is impossible to pinpoint because of a variety of factors including arms that go unregistered, the illegal trade and global conflict.  Estimates indicate that Americans own nearly half of the 650 million civilian-owned guns in the world today, which is nearly 1 gun for every man, woman, and child in the United States (current population of 323 million).  Our nation is well armed. India is home to the second-largest civilian firearm stockpile, estimated at 46 million.

                Americans own the most guns per person in the world, with about 4 in 10 saying they either own a gun or live in a home with guns, according to a 2017 Pew Center study.  Forty-eight percent of Americans said they grew up in a house with guns.  According to the survey, a majority (66%) of US gun owners own multiple firearms.

                The number two country for the world’s largest gun-owning population per capita: Yemen, a country in the throes of a three-year-old civil conflict. And, they trail significantly behind us. They have 54 guns owned per 100 people in Yemen; we have 88 guns owned per 100 people in the United States.

                When it comes to gun massacres, the U.S. is an anomaly.  There are more public mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.  The US makes up less than 5% of world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.  In Australia, for example, four mass shootings occurred between 1987 and 1996. After those incidents, public opinion turned against gun violence, and Parliament passed stricter gun safety laws. Australia hasn't had a mass shooting since.

                Gun safety laws work; the public demands that we take action to make our communities safer.

                Gun homicide rates are about 25 times higher in the US than other developed countries.  25 times higher!  The US has one of the highest rates of death by firearm in the developed world, according to World Health Organization data.   The calculations based on OECD data from 2010 show that Americans are 51 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than people in the United Kingdom.

                Most American gun owners (two-thirds) say a major reason they own a gun is for their personal protection, according to the Pew study. However, the majority of America's firearm-related deaths are attributed to self-harm.  Gun-related suicides are eight times higher in the US than in other high-income nations.

                Thinking again of Stoneman Douglas High School, we all wonder out loud, “What drove this young man to kill indiscriminately?” There is no one single reason. But that is no excuse for Congress and lawmakers in all of our states to remain frozen and fail to act to try to stop a future shooting from happening. If anything, it should be the impetus for us to move forward on many fronts and take many actions to support our children and support our communities so more lives are not lost in such a violent way.

                We cannot allow the story of this shooting to end like all the others in recent history.

                We should have taken action after three students were killed and five wounded on December 1, 1997 at a high school in West Paducah, Kentucky. And we should have taken action after two students opened fire on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others. We should have taken action after a gunman fatally shot 32 people in a dorm and a classroom at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on April 16, 2007.

                Columbine. Virginia Tech. For a period, these names became code for the some of the worst killings in our history

                Nearly five years later, it happened again. Three students were killed and two wounded in a shooting on February 27, 2012 that started in a school cafeteria in Chardon, Ohio, as students waited for buses to other schools.

                And then there was Sandy Hook. We all remember a 20-year-old gunman, in December 2012, killing 20 first-grade children and six educators inside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

                These were first-graders, for goodness sake. Young children that should have been enough to move to action.

                But no. The killings continued because too many Republican lawmakers have been unwilling to budge from the NRA-approved message.

                We have had bipartisan support for some legislation – we do today. But too many are so afraid of an imaginary “slippery slope” argument that they lose sight of the fact that our children are being killed right before our eyes.

                On September 8, 2016, a 14-year-old girl died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after shooting and wounding another female student at Alpine High School in West Texas. Just 20 days later, on Sept. 28, 2016, a 6-year-old boy was fatally shot on the playground of Townville Elementary School in South Carolina by a 14-year-old boy who had just killed his father, authorities said. Another child and a teacher were struck by bullets but survived.

                I know, you’re thinking, “I hadn’t heard about those shootings.” That is a problem in itself.

                School shootings have become so commonplace, so much a part of our lives, that children dying in our schools might not make it the paper. We might miss it. We cannot let this become commonplace; it can’t be the new norm.

                Another incident you may not have heard of happened last April: A gunman opened fire in the special education classroom of his estranged wife at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, California, killing her and an 8-year-old boy, and wounding another child.

                And in September of last year, in Rockford, Washington, a 15-year-old boy was killed at Freeman High School, and three female students were wounded when authorities say another 15-year-old boy opened fire with a handgun.

                December of last year, two students at Aztec High School in New Mexico were killed by a gunman disguised as a student. And barely a month ago, in January, two students were killed and 14 wounded by gunfire when a student opened fire before classes began at Marshall County High School in west Kentucky. A 15-year-old – FIFTEEN – is being charged for this crime.

                This time, the survivors are speaking out in a forceful way like we have not heard before.

                I think the students speaking out have had a clear, articulate message that this carnage needs to stop. I’m not sure I know any lawmakers or Americans who would disagree with the idea that our students need to be safe in their schools. It means that we need to act, really act this time.

                Setting aside his outrageous idea of arming teachers, it has been heartening to see the president move somewhat in the direction of legislative solutions like expanded background checks and banning bump stocks. The devil is always in the details with him, so we’ll see how far he is willing to stray from the NRA … and whether the Republican leadership will back their president or remain on the sidelines of protecting the American people and, especially, our children.

                On that Valentine’s Day, February 14, when I heard about the shooting in Parkland, Florida, my immediate reaction was horror, pain and outrage. How could we allow this to happen yet again? Schools should be a safe harbor for our children, not a place of killing and terror.

                I was in my office and thinking about how tragic this was, not only for those who were killed, but for all the children who were there.

                I’m as frustrated as people across this country. I want to pass commonsense gun safety legislation. Why shouldn’t we get these military-style weapons off the streets?

                It’s hard to know what will motivate the Congressional leadership to bring up this issue. What will jar them to action? I want action. We may not solve the problems entirely, but we need to try. We need to do something.

                A new CNN poll released just this Sunday finds that 70 PERCENT of Americans now back tougher gun laws. This is a huge jump from 52 percent after the horrific October shooting in Las Vegas. This number includes 49 percent of Republicans, which I think is encouraging. Saving lives should not be a partisan issue; common sense gun safety legislation should not be partisan issue. Public opinion polls may not be perfect, but they are generally helpful to show trends. Americans are getting it, and it’s time that we do, too. And this trend, toward protecting the American people and especially our children, is moving in the right direction.

                The American public is letting their voices be heard on this issue. Thoughts and prayers might console the grieving for a moment, but action speaks louder and will have a lasting impact.

                From my hometown of Baltimore, to the many towns across America that have had their names in the headlines because of gun-related tragedies or mass shootings, people are calling upon on Congress to act.

                I don’t care what the reasons are for a change in heart, but let’s get bills on the floor. What we are proposing are logical next steps to address a deadly problem that has been festering in this country for too long. Too many young lives have been lost.

                Will this time be different? In honor of the victims of Marjory Stoneman High School:

  • Alyssa Alhadeff, 14  
  • Scott Beigel, 35   
  • Martin Duque Anguiano, 14 
  • Nicholas Dworet, 17  
  • Aaron Feis, 37  
  • Jaime Guttenberg, 14 
  • Chris Hixon, 49 
  • Luke Hoyer, 15
  • Cara Loughran, 14 
  • Gina Montalto, 14 
  • Joaquin Oliver, 17
  • Alaina Petty, 14
  • Meadow Pollack, 18
  • Helena Ramsay, 17
  • Alex Schachter, 14
  • Carmen Schentrup, 16
  • Peter Wang, 15

… and all the victims of gun violence who have preceded them, let’s make the answer a resounding “yes.”

I yield the floor.