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March 25, 2018

The Time Has Come for a Common Sense Conversation on Gun Safety

It has been the honor of a lifetime to represent the great state of Alabama in the United States Senate. I began my career there nearly 40 years ago, working as staff counsel to the late Senator Howell Heflin on the Judiciary Committee.

Senator Heflin arrived in the Senate at a time when bipartisanship was more than just a campaign slogan or sound bite. In those days, when Senators spoke of bipartisanship, they meant it. But by the time he left in 1997, he’d talked of things changing for the worse.

For my first speech in the Senate this past week, I chose a topic that has evaded the broad bipartisan discussions and moderation that Senator Heflin often spoke of. Too often today, folks quickly take sides and criticize those who dare to disagree.

In my speech, I asked my colleagues to have a discussion?—?not a debate, not a negotiation?—?about what we can do to reduce the harm caused by gun violence in this country.

I know that guns and gun control are difficult issues for this country. I can tell you they’re complicated for me, too.

Growing up, I learned to shoot from my father and grandfather. 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. To this day, I still have my father’s .22 and my grandfather’s pistol, as well as the many guns I’ve accumulated over my lifetime.

I’m an avid hunter?—?deer, turkey, quail?—?whatever might be in season in Alabama, and collecting guns and shooting them at the range is a bond I’ve shared with my son Christopher since he was a child.

But I believe that the first obligation of government is to protect its citizens. 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 increased by a staggering 34 percent between 2005 and 2016.

Rather than retreat to our corners, I am asking that we take another more productive path. Let’s find what we can agree on regarding gun violence, act on it, and begin to make our country a safer place.

For those who want more gun restrictions, instead of banning certain weapons, let’s work to keep those weapons out of the hands of people who would do us harm. But even this won’t happen if you simply demonize the NRA and other pro-gun groups. For millions of Americans, gun ownership is a cultural issue with deeply held beliefs.

And to those who would seek to maintain the status quo, be it the NRA or anyone 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 just not true.

We also have to get past the idea that more guns will make us safer. We don’t need guns in the hands of schoolteachers. Simply having more guns in our society is not a solution.

So let’s tone down the rhetoric and find common ground to save lives. As a hunter and a responsible gun owner, I know that common sense rules are nothing new and nothing to be afraid of. I believe we can have a productive dialogue and work toward policies that we should all be able to agree on.

On Friday, we took several important first steps in the omnibus funding bill. That bill clarified that the Centers for Disease Control can do new research on gun violence prevention, after more than 20 years of uncertainty. I also cosponsored two additional measures included in the bill, the first to boost school safety and the second to shore up our nation’s background check system.

These may seem like small steps but they are a start.

We can also ban bump stocks and make it a crime to possess or manufacture them. The President and the Department of Justice should be commended for taking the first steps to do this through regulation, but the U.S. Senate should go on record about this deadly accessory.

We can require background checks for all purchases and transfers, with some commonsense exceptions. We can institute three-day waiting periods to purchase pistols or semi-automatic weapons in order to reduce the number of suicides and domestic violence crimes. We should expand protections for victims of domestic violence to include dating partners by closing the “boyfriend” loophole.

We face a difficult problem, but not an insurmountable one. To find solutions, we must demand courage of ourselves and one another. As we always have, we face greater consequences with inaction.

We can only do that if we rise together, to confront the unknown. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to work with anyone to find them, because that is what you elected me to do.

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