For the first time in eight years, the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to pass major gun-related legislation on Wednesday.
In that time, more than half a million Americans have been killed by a firearm (including suicides). Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was terrorized by a gunman, as was a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a country musical festival in Las Vegas, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a bar in Los Angeles, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and perhaps most infamously of all, an Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The list goes on and will almost certainly get longer in the years to come. Mass shootings have become so common in America that several people survived the Las Vegas music festival shooting only to be gunned down in the bar in Los Angeles hardly a year later.
The bills that are under consideration in the House are aimed at enhancing background check requirements for would-be gun owners. While licensed gun dealers are federally required to complete background checks on customers, a number of loopholes exist in many states that allow people to legally acquire a gun without one.
Ahead of Wednesday’s votes on Capitol Hill, The Globe Post spoke to Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Il.), a leading voice in Congress for gun law reform who serves as vice chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
The district that she represents includes parts of Chicago, and many of her constituents are from communities that are among the most heavily affected by gun violence in the country.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. For the first time in eight years, the House will consider major gun legislation on Wednesday. Starting with H.R. 8 – the Bipartisan Background Checks Act that you were an original co-sponsor of – what is this bill designed to d? And what are some of the most significant changes it would make to the current federal gun laws that we have?
Kelly: Well the bill definitely gives the background checks. We have background checks but it dealt more with brick and mortar. This will close some of those loopholes – you hear about gun show loophole, buying guns online.
This will close those loopholes and we’re just trying to make it that everyone who buys a gun has to have a background check.
Q. In states like Illinois, residents who want to sell guns privately are required to solicit a background check from state officials and to submit a record of the sale to the state. But in other states, these requirements don’t currently exist. So considering that most of the “crime guns” in Chicago, for example, come from out of the state of Illinois, do you think that H.R. 8 could have an impact in reducing the number of guns that are available on the black market in Chicago and other major cities?
Kelly: Well, I think it can’t hurt. This is just a first step in my view. That’s why I’m working on trafficking and straw purchasing legislation. Because as you say, those that are not getting their gun in the legal way, they will more than likely be able to skirt this.
But that’s why we still need this. We still need background checks because it has kept guns out of people’s hands that should not have them. But also we need to build upon that.
Q. This bill has the term “bipartisan” in the title but out of the 232 co-sponsors, only five are Republicans. So do you think that this bill has a decent chance of passing in the Senate where the Republicans, of course, retain the majority?
Kelly: I think it has a chance but that’s where the public comes in. Over 90 percent of the population wants background check laws. So we need the public to help us put the pressure on their senators, on their representative to vote for this bill.
That’s just the bottom line. I think we’ll have some we’ll lose some. But hopefully with everything that has happened across the United States and all the deaths that we dealt with, whether individually or the mass shootings, I would think that my colleagues in the Senate would have some common sense about this.
But the number people can call is 202-224-3121 if they want to make their feelings known. And the people that believe in this bill – they have to make their feelings known.
Q. The other bill that is also going to be under consideration tomorrow the enhanced background checks and I understand that this bill is designed to close the loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to come into possession of a gun and carry out the horrible Charleston church shooting in 2015 –
Kelly: His background check didn’t come back definitively “no.” So they sold him the gun. And that happens and in many many cases – I don’t have the number right in front of me. They’ve caught people but in many cases they needed more than three days.
Maybe on the fifth day they contacted the store and said, “No don’t sell the gun.” But in his case it was too late. So they sold the gun and he did what he did. So this closes what we call it the “Charleston loophole.” This closes that loophole giving you more time for a definite answer on whether a person should have a gun or not.
Q. I think many listeners out there probably already have a sense of this, but seeing as this is going to be the first time that we’ve had major gun reform legislation considered by the House in a number of years, why is it exactly that these background check bills are only coming to the floor of the House now? As somebody who’s been a leader on gun violence prevention in Congress, what are the main obstacles that you and your colleagues have run into trying to advance this kind of legislation in years past?
Well, the bottom line is elections have consequences. And this background check bill has been around a long time but we could not get the bill out of committee or called to the floor. There was one point the background check bill – the King-Thompson Bill- had 208 co-sponsors and they still didn’t call the bill to the floor.
So that has been the problem. The [National Rifle Association] and the gun lobby has been a big problem also. We’ve run into money. There are people that just vote on one issue. The people that are anti-gun safety, they would just vote on that one issue and I think that people were scared to talk about it.
People running for office, they thought that they’d automatically lose I think. But so much has happened. So many people have died or been maimed and it’s touched from sea to shining sea. North and South. Young to older. The stories just kept getting worse and worse and worse.
Q. To the best of your knowledge, do you do you believe that the NRA opposes these two pieces of legislation that will be considered tomorrow?
Kelly: I think the NRA does oppose. But the NRA used to support background checks. But as they got more seemingly partisan and money hungry, I think that’s when they started opposing everything.
But yeah, I’m sure they do. And they you the excuse, “Well this wouldn’t stop this. This wouldn’t have stopped that.” There’s nothing – there’s not one thing that’s going to stop every murder. There’s a series of things we have to do and we still won’t stop every murder.
But we can’t watch it continue in this vein. This cannot become the normal. I mean it’s terrible.
Q. You’ve called these bills “an important first step toward fulfilling the Democrats promise to address gun violence.” I think ordinary people – Democrats, Republicans, independents – it seems are becoming increasingly dejected by the fact that mass shootings are becoming almost commonplace in America. Conservatives have proposed ideas like arming teachers for example as one way of trying to prevent –
Kelly: Teachers don’t want that. Teachers don’t want that responsibility. And why should they have to have that responsibility? I’m totally against it.
Q. But alternatively for Democrats, what kind of additional measures beyond the two bills that are going to be considered tomorrow do you think need to be included in the party’s long term vision for preventing these kinds of shootings?
Kelly: Definitely bills around trafficking and straw purchases. Bills around keeping guns out of dangerous hands of violent felons, stalkers, people that have been charged with domestic violence.
I have a bill where the surgeon general will give a report every year on the impact of gun violence – much like the surgeon general did reports on the impact of smoking tobacco and then we did something about it. Just so we have the current data of how society is impacted and its impact and in many ways.Also people have bills on “smart guns.”There’s a lot of different things.
Also when you look at mental health – having counselors or social workers in schools to flag people who might seem troubled or might need some care and nurturing – some professional help. I think it’s a lot of different things, not just one thing is going to end this.
And also we have to, have to, have to – especially in the urban areas – invest in those communities to give young people hope and opportunity so they are picking up job skills and mentors and jobs, not picking up guns.
Q. On mental health, that’s been an issue that conservatives have also spoken quite a lot about –
Kelly: They speak about in a different way. More people with mental health issues are hurt by guns than hurt people. They try to blame everything on mental health like, “oh you know they had an issue. That’s why they did that.”
But actually, more people with mental illness died from guns with suicides than anything. So they use it in a different way from a different lens.
But they still don’t invest in it. That’s the interesting part. They’ve tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act – they talk about it but they don’t put their money where their mouth is.
Q. Do you think that there’s any room at all for us to come together as a society and address mental health issues in a better way – promote education about mental health issues –
Kelly: We could take the stigma off of mental health for one thing. And then also people have to have access to mental health. Whether it’s more clinics, whether it’s telehealth, – it’s hard if you live in a rural area.
We do need to talk about it more. In the same way as if you broke your arm, you would go and get help if you have some issues, some trouble in your life or you hit a bump in the road, it should be okay to get help for that also.
Q. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last year, there was a surge of youth activism calling for gun reform that’s been led in large part by some of the survivors of that shooting. We’re seeing the same kind of youth activism I think right now around the issue of climate change as well. How important do you think the participation of young people will be going forward when it comes to trying to meaningfully address gun violence?
Kelly: Well I think it’s very important. But the one thing is that the Parkland kids get a lot of credit, which they deserve. But there are kids in Chicago and in Baltimore and other places – there were groups of kids that were involved long before and many people think because those are black and brown kids didn’t get the same attention.
But the Parkland kids were mostly white and upper middle class. And they got the attention. They’ve done a great job. And they actually understand their power and have included – because they’ve been to Chicago and other places – they’ve been very inclusive which is a great thing.
But now their activism is extremely important. Even the amount of new people in Florida that registered to vote – as they go on, this is their world that they’re going to step into or going to take over. So it’s very important that young people are involved and vote.
More on the Subject
There are no gun shops in Chicago, but the city is inundated with firearms.
Police have seized more than 5,600 illegally-possessed guns in Chicago this year alone, including 60 the weekend of August 3-5, when 66 people were shot and 12 killed between Friday evening and Sunday morning.
“Getting a gun in the city is like buying a pack of cigarettes at a gas station,” Wesley Pickett, a resident convicted of selling guns illegally, said in a 2017 letter from prison sent to ProPublica.