Mr. President, first, let me begin by expressing how honored and humbled I am to be a member of this body and to represent the great state of Alabama. I began my career right here, fresh out of law school in 1979, working as staff counsel to Senator Howell Heflin on the Judiciary Committee. There are only three members of the Senate where I served as a staffer that continue to serve today – Senator Leahy, Senator Hatch and Senator Cochran. Two of those three – Senators Hatch and Cochran – will be retiring this year, Senator Cochran in just over a week, and a grateful nation thanks them for their service. For me personally, I am honored to have come full circle with them, from a young staffer to a junior colleague and I wish them well in their life after the Senate.
I want to thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for welcoming me to this body, many of whom are here with me today, braving the wintery weather outside. Thank you for your friendship, your advice, and your willingness to include me and my staff in the great work you are doing.
I particularly want to thank my senior colleague from Alabama, Senator Shelby and his staff. I appreciate their graciousness and patience in helping me as I navigate my new role as a freshman Senator.
And my family – my amazing wife Louise, my incredible kids Courtney, Carson and Christopher, who so fully supported me in my quest to reach the Senate, but more importantly in my life. I have grown with them and certainly because of them.
And of course my sister Terry, wonderful parents, who I am blessed to have around today, and my grandparents who are not. They instilled in me the values of family, faith, patriotism, respect for others and the work ethic that have guided me throughout my life.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to pay special tribute to my mentor and former Senator whose seat I now hold – the late Howell Heflin of Alabama. He was a remarkable man whose large, lumbering frame and Southern drawl would often mask his amazing intellect. His compassion and sense of justice for his fellow man forged a path for myself and so many others that worked for him over the years.
He came to the Senate in 1979 at a time when bipartisanship was more than just a campaign slogan or sound bite. In those days, when Senators spoke of bipartisanship, they truly meant it. They would never compromise principles, but would compromise with their colleagues on the serious issues of the day in order to move this country forward.
But by the time he left this Senate in 1997, he sensed a change in the political climate, and he was concerned about it. He wrote in a parting essay:
“Our Constitution itself came about through a series of great compromises; it was not written by ideologues who clung to ‘their way or no.’ Compromise and negotiation – the hallmarks of moderation – aimed at achieving moderate, centrist policies for our country, should not be viewed as negatives.”
Which leads me to the reason I rise today. I want to speak about an issue that has evaded the broad bipartisan discussions and moderation that Senator Heflin spoke of. Instead, it seems to have been an issue where folks quickly take sides and often criticize the who they disagree with.
It is time, Mr. President, that we have a serious, pragmatic and practical discussion – not a debate or negotiation – but a dialogue on the steps that we can take to reduce the harm caused by gun violence in this country.
Now I know, Mr. President, with just those words, people across this country may have already reached for their phones to start tweeting or posting – without another word, without knowing where I might stand on this issue. This just seems to be the way it is in America these days, which is so unfortunate because once you take a side it is hard to come off.
In the wake of yet another mass shooting, and the rising voices of young people across the country, it is our responsibility – our duty – to have a serious discussion about guns and gun safety. But that conversation has to be two-fold: we must acknowledge the deadly consequences that can follow when a gun is in the wrong hands, but also recognize and respect the freedom to own and enjoy guns by law-abiding citizens as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Those two concepts, Mr. President, are not mutually exclusive.
Before I jump to the actions I believe we can take today, I want to go back and explain a little bit about where I come from.
Growing up in Alabama, I learned to shoot from my father and grandfather. I was not much of a hunter in my youth, but whether it was cans or bottles on a tree log or the occasional skeet, we simply enjoyed shooting and always had a few guns in the house. The distinction between a hunter and someone who just enjoys guns and shooting is significant. To this day, I still have my father’s .22 rifle, my grandfather’s pistol that he gave me and a couple of rifles and shotguns I got as presents as a kid.
But my interest in hunting began to grow when my youngest son Christopher was born 20 years ago this past Monday. At an early age he was fascinated with guns and hunting so with my wife’s blessing I took up the sport so that he could learn gun safety and conservation from me. Today, I am more passionate about it than he is. I consider myself an avid hunter – deer, turkey, quail – whatever might be in season in Alabama. With the campaign last year and transition into this office, this past deer season was somewhat of a bust for me, but with the start of turkey season I am anxious to get back into the woods.
But frankly, I also enjoy guns. I enjoy shooting them. I like how they are made, their power, and their history. I own many of them, all stored in a locked gun safe that is, quite franly, larger than what my wife initially approved a number of years ago. And collecting them and shooting them at the range or hunting is a bond I share with my son Christopher and many of my friends.
So while I know that guns and gun control are difficult issues in this country, I can tell you they’re complicated for me, too.
But as a United States Senator today, a member of the legislative branch of government, I have many obligations. And I believe that the first obligation of government is to protect its citizens.
We spend unimaginable amounts of money fighting our enemies abroad and terrorists who would attack us at home.
Yet, on many levels, we fail our children and grandchildren every morning when we pack their backpacks and send them into harm’s way.
Or when they pick up what they think is a toy or a really cool weapon that they have seen on television or in the movies and it turns out to be a killing machine they should never have had access to and don’t know how to handle.
We fail the abused women, men, and children of our society when we let family or relationship problems lead to a murder.
We fail parishioners in church, employees at work, and concert- and theater-goers when they are caught off guard by a hail of bullets from a disturbed individual.
We fail those who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when street violence breaks out and a stray bullet takes an innocent life.
We fail veterans and others in society suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress, and other mental health disorders, who decide that life is simply not worth living.
We fail people of every walk of life, of every age, in every corner of this country. Every day.
Gun deaths continue to rise. In 2016, over 38,000 people died in this country because of gunfire. Almost 15,000 of those deaths were homicides. Almost 23,000 were suicides – epidemic-type numbers – and nearly 500 were accidental.
We’ve failed in Alabama, too.
In the last few weeks, we lost a police officer in Mobile who was shot and killed when responding to a domestic dispute.
We lost a one-year-old boy who was accidentally shot in the back by his two-year-old brother with their parents’ gun.
We lost a beautiful young 17-year-old girl who was about to head off to college because one of her classmates brought a gun to school. He was showing it off when it accidentally fired.
Last week, we lost a dedicated nurse at UAB Highlands hospital when a disgruntled former employee showed up at the hospital and opened fire.
Just yesterday, as I was finalizing these remarks, I learned that a former client of mine was shot and killed by his girlfriend’s brother as he was picking up his three-month-old baby from a visit.
The list could go on. Similar tragedies take place every week in every one of our states.
These stories don’t grab national headlines, but they are examples of the gun violence that has become commonplace in our communities.
In 2016, Alabama had the second-highest rate of gun deaths in the nation. That means 1,046 Alabamians were killed by guns that year.
Worse yet, our gun deaths have increased by a staggering 34 percent between 2005 and 2016.
As a former prosecutor, I worked closely with law enforcement. I have seen first-hand what weapons in the wrong hands can do to families, communities, and society. When I was a U.S. Attorney we had a program we called “Isolating the Criminal Element” where we tried to crack down on illegal weapons in our communities.
As most of you know, my career was defined by prosecuting the killers of children. It was September 15, 1963, when a bomb placed outside the ladies lounge window of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham exploded, killing four beautiful young girls. I wish I could turn back time and do something that would have prevented it altogether. Had I or anyone else had that moment, it might very well be one of those young girls giving this speech today and not me.
I stand in that moment now. And so do you. So does our country.
I believe we have finally reached a tipping point regarding gun violence now, not because of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, but thanks to the millions of young voices across this country, led by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Much like the students who took to the streets of Birmingham in 1963, who were attacked by firehoses and police dogs, who woke the conscience of America to civil rights, these young men and women are awakening the conscience of America regarding gun violence.
I’m that one of those young men, Alfonso Calderón, of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is here with me as my guest in the gallery today.
You know we could spend days in this chamber debating the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment. We can let our nation further divide itself while more lives are lost. We can fret about what people are saying about us on social media or whether we might lose campaign contributions. We can again choose the path of inaction, in the face of yet another mass shooting, and expect different results.
Or, we can take another path.
Let us find what we can agree on, act on it, act on it, and begin to make our country a safer place. We can be reasonable here because we all want the same thing: a safer country, a safer world. At its core, the Second Amendment was an effort to protect Americans. Let us do the same.
But in order to do that, we need to build more trust in this body and encourage camaraderie. Most importantly, we need to fundamentally change the way we talk about difficult issues in our country and set an example for our fellow Americans to follow to dial down the rhetoric.
Remember that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” is not just one of Newton’s laws of motion, but also one of political rhetoric. Extreme views promote equal but opposite extreme views.
For those who want more gun restrictions, instead of focusing your energy on banning certain weapons—which fankly, and as a practical matter will not pass Congress—focus instead on efforts to keep those weapons and others out of the hands of those who would do us harm. You cannot simply demonize the NRA and other pro-gun groups. While I know these groups sometimes take what many, including me, consider extreme positions, they are also representing millions of law-abiding gun owners who are concerned that their right to bear arms is at risk.
For millions of Americans, gun ownership and enjoyment is a cultural issue with deeply held beliefs. Addressing the issue is not like regulating stock transactions or cutting taxes.
And to those who would seek to maintain the status quo, be it the NRA or someone else, stop using scare tactics to convince law-abiding gun owners that the federal government is hell-bent on taking their guns away. That is simply not going to happen and everyone knows it.
We also have to get past the idea that more guns in society will make us all safer. The statistics and the data simply do not support that. We don’t need guns in the hands of schoolteachers. Simply having more “good guys with guns” is not the solution. Americans just simply do not want to return to the days of the Wild West.
This topic like so many others, has become a space that is less about having a thoughtful conversation, and has instead devolved into a clash of cultures.
As leaders, we must reject the “us against them mentality.”
Because ultimately, we are all Americans, who are united by a common bond of shared values and love of country.
There will always be forces that seek to sow division and discord, our challenge and our mission is to prevent them from succeeding.
We can seize this moment by changing the conversation and our country.
Let’s start a productive dialogue and work toward a comprehensive bill that includes ideas we should be able to agree on. There are already a half-dozen proposals in this body that have bipartisan support.
My friend from Connecticut Senator Murphy outlined them just the other day, but they bear repeating here.
Ban bump stocks and make it a crime to possess or manufacture them, as Senator Feinstein has proposed. The President and the Department of Justice should be commended for taking the first steps through regulation, but the Senate of the United States should go on record about this deadly accessory.
We should pass the “Fix NICS” legislation proposed by Senators Cornyn and Murphy. The NICS system is only as good as the data that goes into it. Their bill would block bonus pay for political appointees that fail to upload records to the NICS system, and reward states that follow the uploading plan. It would also create a “domestic abuse and violence prevention program” to give states the ability and incentives to share information to prevent someone convicted of a domestic violence crime from purchasing a gun. “Fix NICS” is a good start towards overhauling our background check system and as Senator Murphy said, a good base bill on which to build.
But frankly, we have to do more on background checks. We have to require background checks on all gun sales, whether it is at a gun show or over the internet or between individuals. It can be as simple as going to a licensed dealer or local police station to have a background check run on a prospective purchaser or transferee. It may be inconvenient, but it will save lives.
With universal background checks, however, I would also suggest a couple of companion measures. For instance, in my view it is entirely appropriate for a family member to sell or give a gun to another close family member, as they should be presumed to know whether their relative is prohibited from having a gun. We can also consider exceptions for those who can produce a valid concealed carry permit or between law enforcement officers. But in carving out those exceptions, we should also increase both civil and criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly transfers a gun to a prohibited person and provide the necessary funds to the Department of Justice to prosecute those individuals when appropriate.
We can also take steps to deter prohibited individuals from even trying to purchase a firearm. Senator Toomey’s NICS Denial Notification bill would allow reporting to state and local authorities when someone has tried to purchase a gun and has been denied, and it would require the DOJ to report to Congress on such prosecutions. To his credit, Attorney General Sessions has announced that DOJ will vigorously prosecute those who make false statements in connection with their background checks. We should ensure he has the resources to do so.
We should close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” as proposed by Senator Blumenthal. This loophole allows a purchaser to receive a firearm after three days, regardless of whether or not their background check has been completed or not. We can create certain exceptions for concealed carry permit holders and others, but no one should be allowed to take possession of a firearm until they have cleared a background check.
Current law prohibits a firearms dealer from selling a pistol to anyone under the age of 21. That has been the law for many years without any real challenge. The same logic behind this prohibition should apply to the sale of pistols and semi-automatic weapons to those under the age of 21.
Senator Klobuchar has filed a badly needed piece legislation to expand the definition of domestic violence to include dating partners and eliminate the “boyfriend” loophole that allows certain dangerous individuals to access guns and evade laws meant to protect domestic violence victims.
We can implement at least a three-day waiting period for the purchase of any pistol or semi-automatic weapon and we can increase penalties for those who steal firearms. States that have implemented waiting periods have seen significant decreases in suicides.
We can also repeal the Dickey Amendment and open the door for new research on gun violence prevention. No one is happy when innocent people die because of a gunshot and law-abiding gun owners should not be afraid of studies on how to reduce the number of gun deaths in this country.
And we can do more to stop mental health issues from turning dangerous by allowing law enforcement or family members to seek a court order when an individual poses an extreme danger to themselves or others – and prevent them from getting access to firearms. Senators Feinstein, Blumenthal and Graham have all proposed versions of the extreme risk laws.
For too long, gridlock and partisanship have stood in the way of compromise. But I didn’t come here to do nothing. And I don’t think any of you did, either.
Today, we face a difficult problem, but not an insurmountable one.
To find solutions, we must demand courage of ourselves and one another.
As history has shown, we face greater consequences with inaction. Certainly greater consequences with inaction on gun violence.
So I ask all of us to consider this question – what is our collective legacy as representatives of the American people and as the members of this hallowed institution?
I believe it is to leave this body and our country better than we found it.
We can only do that if we rise together, to confront the unknown.
I have given talks all over the country about the prosecutions of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and I am always reminded of a passage from the poem, “The Cure at Troy,” which was written by Irish poet Seamus Haney as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. My friend Vice President Biden often quotes this passage, where Haney wrote:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
With the convictions of two former Klansmen for the murder of those four young girls, that longed-for tidal wave of justice rose up, and hope and history rhymed in Birmingham, Alabama.
And for me, and I hope for you, when I walk the halls of the Senate office buildings, and come through those double doors onto the Senate floor, I realize that every day we as a collective body have that same opportunity. Whether it is for DREAMers, or voting rights, or victims of sex trafficking, or in this case, our children who are demanding action on gun violence, we have the opportunity to build that tidal wave of justice and have hope and history rhyme.
But we have to have the courage to seize the moment.
I don’t have all the answers on how to do it, but I’m willing to work with each and every one of you to find them.
Because that’s why we were sent here – to find those answers…so that the tidal wave of justice will rise up.
Please, let us work together to make it happen sooner rather than later.
Thank you, Mr. President, I yield the floor.