PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – U.S. Sen. Jack Reed is joining President Obama and other Democrats in calling for a new look at the nation's gun laws in the wake of last week's tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn.
In his first interview since the assault at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Reed shared his thoughts on the issue during a taping of WPRI 12's Newsmakers via satellite from Washington, D.C. Other members of Rhode Island's congressional delegation have made similar comments.
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
WPRI: What elements must be in any gun control legislation for you to support it?
REED: We have to first make access to military-type assault weapons very difficult. Second we have to ensure that they don't have the ability to buy large-size magazine clips that can be fed into these weapons. Then I think we have unfinished business with respect to background checks at gun shows. That is something I worked on, on a bipartisan basis with John McCain and we've attempted to do that. So there are several measures I think would be essential.
The biggest issue would be to try to prevent the ready access to these military-type assault weapons. I served in the Army – I've used these weapons; they were designed to engage and kill personnel. I think we have to recognize that and limit their general access.
WPRI: You've been a strong advocate for stricter gun laws throughout your career. The National Rifle Association has even given you the letter grade "F" for your voting record. Are you disappointed, at all, that the president failed to champion gun control legislation in his first term?
REED: The president, as we all know, was preoccupied not only by the greatest economic crisis we've faced but also winding down the war in Iraq and beginning the same process in Afghanistan. But I think more could have been done, and frankly his recent efforts are commendable, and he even recognizes more could or should have been done.
But the inattention to these issues precedes President Obama. I can remember in 2004 trying to defend against efforts by the NRA to provide more protections from liability suits for gun dealers and, ironically, Senator McCain and I got [added to] that bill an amendment to close the gun-show loophole. Because we were successful the NRA essentially suggested to all their supporters, even cosponsors, to vote against the bill. It went down in ['04] but it came back with more Republican senators in '05. So we have seen, I think, at the executive level and the legislative level, inattention to this issue and I hope that's changed now by the demands, the public demands, by the American people.
WPRI: You've never straddled the issue when it's come to gun control – your stance is very overt. Do you wear the NRA's grade of "F" as a badge of honor?
REED: No I don't. This has to be based on a common-sense balance between rights and responsibilities. And it has to be in terms of public safety. We recognize – I recognize – there are genuine sportsmen and women who enjoy hunting. That is something that has been part of our culture and tradition. But we have to be able to draw a line so that we don't have these incredible and heart-wrenching incidents that we saw in Newtown, Conn., and we saw elsewhere. I think we can and we should draw that line. Provide the balance. It's something that should be done; it shouldn't be about one group. It should be about what's in the best interest of this country.
WPRI: Do you think the government should be looking into the mental health background of family members?
REED: I think we have to recognize that there are several factors contributing to many of these deplorable incidents. One is the access to firearms, and we have to work on that. The other is – in many cases – the mental health of the perpetrator. That argues not so much I think for more elaborate checks of everyone he or she might know or be related to; it requires more investment in mental health for all Americans.
One of the ironies at this moment, as we're talking about trying to do and cope with the crisis and all its dimensions in Connecticut, [is] there are efforts to cut funding away from Medicaid programs that provide support for mental health clinics. There has been an effort to defund a lot of programs that could provide genuine help to people who have mental health problems, regardless of whether they own or have access to weapons. There are two related issues here: are we going to have reasonable balanced access to firearms, and are we going to have a program of support for people with mental health issues? Not just because they might come in contact with a gun, but because it's the right thing to do for them and for the country overall.
WPRI: Senator Jay Rockefeller has introduced a bill that would have the National Academy of Sciences look at any link between violent video games and media and violent acts by children. Do you support that legislation?
REED: I would support a study. I think we have to recognize that it is a really a different world then the one certainly I grew up in, in terms of what's on television, what's easily accessible to children, and what in fact is marketed to children in terms of entertainment. I've seen some of these games and they are starkly engaged in someone destroying as many opponents, if you will, as they can … using weapons, using all sorts of different instruments. I think we do have to look at it, because there is a cultural context to everyone's actions as well as the individual characteristics, whether they have a mental health issue or not. I think looking at and coming up with suggestions would be a positive step forward – recognizing that it's very difficult, particularly because of people's right to have access to a whole range of information, to sort of regulate that. But I think asking the right questions and tough questions will help us understand it much better.
WPRI: How powerful a group is the NRA on Capital Hill? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says their power is "vastly overrated." Is he right or wrong?
REED: I think their power does not compare to the power of the American people when they have spoken. And I think the American people are beginning, loudly, to speak out about the dangers inherent in some of the gun control laws we have in the United States. There are groups organized around a host of issues across the board, economic issues and social issues. I think the American people – that's the loudest voice. And if they speak loudly then there is no one special interest group that can deflect their will. That's what I hope is going to happen. I hope this national conversation about firearms and about protecting all of our citizens, but particularly school children, will be more decisive than any type of grass-roots or political activity by an interest group.
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