April 16, 2015

Kaine Delivers Senate Floor Speech On Eighth Anniversary Of Virginia Tech Tragedy

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In remarks on the Senate floor today, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine marked the eighth anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, highlighting the resilience of survivors and the entire Virginia Tech community, and challenging Congress to stand up against groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) by taking action to reduce gun violence in America, including passage of comprehensive background check legislation. Kaine opened his remarks by reading the names of the 32 students, teachers and faculty killed on April 16, 2007. He also shared the stories of two inspiring survivors, Colin Goddard and Lily Habtu, who have become passionate advocates for stricter gun laws.  

“As we commemorate the shooting at Virginia Tech honoring those we lost, honoring those brave survivors like Colin and Lily, who are using their experiences to help others, honoring the resilience of the entire Hokie nation, it is my hope that my colleagues will get serious about gun safety,” Kaine said. “I am a gun owner and a proud supporter of the Second Amendment. But the time is long overdue for a comprehensive background check system that keeps weapons out of the hands of dangerous people like Seung-Hui Cho.”

“Two years ago, as a Senator, on the very week when we were commemorating the anniversary of this most horrific shooting on a [college] campus in the history of the United States, in the shadows of the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, we tried to create a uniform background record check system at the federal level,” Kaine continued. “The same groups who fought against us in Virginia fought against background checks here.”

“Why is the NRA opposed to background record checks?” Kaine asked. “The NRA opposes background checks even though American gun owners and even NRA members have indicated strong support. … even though their avowed principles would suggest they would support such laws. For example, the NRA has been fond of saying,  ‘we don’t need new gun laws, we just need to enforce existing laws.’ That is exactly what a background records check does.”

In closing, Kaine made the case that the NRA doesn’t represent American gun owners, but rather gun manufacturers, and that Congress is equally beholden to the gun industry whose first interest is “selling as many guns as you can to whomever you can, whenever you can and wherever you can.”

He went on to describe 2005 legislation passed by Congress and signed into law that restricts the ability of people to bring lawsuits against gun manufacturers in state or federal court for negligent use of firearms.

“This is a highly unusual shielding of an entire industry, the gun manufacturers, from state and federal claims based on negligence,” he argued.

Full transcript below:

Mr. President, I rise today to commemorate a horrible tragedy, to honor a community and to challenge this Congress. Eight years ago today, I was the Governor of Virginia. I had just landed in Japan to begin a two-week trade mission in Japan and India, and a knock on my hotel room door with state police informed me that there had been a horrible shooting on the campus of one of my state universities, Virginia Tech. We turned on CNN that far away around the world and saw the news unfold, the horrific events of that day. We went back to the airport, and we flew back home and spent weeks, months and then years dealing with the aftermath of this horrible tragedy.

32 wonderful Americans, Virginians, and folks from around the world, students and professors and graduate students of Virginia Tech, lost their lives that day, and, Mr. President, if you'll allow me I just want to read their names into the record. Ross Alameddine, Jamie Bishop, Brian Bluhm, Ryan Clark, Austin Michelle Cloyd, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, Daniel Alejandro Perez Cueva, Kevin Granata, Matthew Gwaltney, Caitlin Hammaren, Jeremy Herbstritt, Rachael Elizabeth Hill, Emily Hilscher, Jarrett Lane, Matthew La Porte, Henry Lee, Liviu Librescu, G.V. Loganathan, Partahi Mamora Halomoan Lumbantoruan, Lauren McCain, Daniel O'Neil, Juan Ramon Ortiz, Minal Panchal, Erin Peterson, Michael Pohle, Julia Pryde, Mary Karen Read, Reema Samaha, Waleed Mohamed Shaalan, Leslie Sherman, Maxine Turner and Nicole White. 32 precious, precious people of amazing accomplishment and even more amazing promise.

Seventeen others were shot that day and wounded. Six others were not shot but were injured leaping from windows in a classroom building to escape the carnage. And so many others were affected, Mr. President, first responders, pastors, counselors, the entire Hokie nation - what we call the Virginia Tech community. I know there has been a presentation on the floor about mental health issues and first responders. Some of the most painful discussions I had in the aftermath of this shooting -- and I had many with family members and students who were injured -- but some of the most painful were first responders. The EMTs on the scene included students who were volunteering at the campus EMT operation. Their description of this carnage that they walked into, and as horrible as the carnage was, the physical carnage, the thing many of them told me was the most difficult for them to get over was walking in classrooms where there were dead bodies and hearing in pockets and backpacks next to them the vibrating and ringing of cell phones from parents and friends who had seen the news on TV and were reaching out to try to find out whether their friend or their child was safe, and those unanswered phones were deeply, deeply difficult to those who were the responders. I have friends who were pastors and counselors in the Blacksburg community, and their own experiences years later, this has profoundly transformed their lives.

Even in tragedy, though, you can see examples of resilience and remarkable spirit. The Virginia Tech community – the Hokie nation – on that day demonstrated resilience and in the years since. I do stand to honor that spirit and resilience of the entire community, even as we acknowledge the horrible tragedy.

Two years ago, Mr. President, on this day we were in the midst of a grim debate on this floor inspired by another horrific shooting—the murder of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. I stood on the floor, and I talked about the shooting at Virginia Tech and lessons we had learned. And I also told the story of just one of the victims. It’s sort of unfair to single out a person because all were so special, but one of the victims who was killed that day was a professor of engineering, Liviu Librescu, a Romanian born who survived the Holocaust, who survived the Soviet takeover of his native country, only to be killed by gun violence in America as he barred the door to his classroom to stop the shooter from entering so that his students could safely escape. Survived the Holocaust! Survived the depredations imposed on his country by Soviet Communism and killed by gun violence at Virginia Tech University in this country.

Mr. President, today, I want to tell you about two students who were shot that day but survived. They offer a powerful lesson about the resilient human spirit and also a challenge to this body.

Colin Goddard was a senior just weeks away from graduation who was badly wounded, shot four times that day. My wife Anne and I visited Colin in the hospital two days after the shooting and have seen he and his parents often. They live in Richmond where we live. In the years since his graduation, Colin has become a passionate advocate for gun safety, especially focusing on the need for a national system of background record checks. He helped produce and was part of an award-winning documentary about his friends called “Living for 32” that is really powerful.

Elilta “Lily” Habtu was also a senior majoring in psychology when she was shot and badly injured that day. She is with us today in the Senate gallery. Lily was already focused on helping people, but the shooting put her on a new path. Along with other survivors, she founded Students for Gun Free Schools, a grassroots movement to keep campuses safe. She received a Master’s Degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and she has used that training to work on a number of gun safety issues. She’s also served as an intern in the White House.

I could tell you wonderful stories about many of these others who were killed and injured—all are precious—and I hope to in years to come because I have a feeling I’ll stand on this floor often on April 16th. But I focus on Colin and Lily today because of their passionate work for gun safety.

In the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech, I commissioned a panel to review what went wrong that day. I had lawyers who said don’t do that; then people could use that to bring lawsuits against the state. But I said no, we’ve got to know what went wrong; we’ve got to know what we can do to reduce the chance this will ever happen again. We won’t be able to eliminate violence; we won’t be able to eliminate shootings; at least we can reduce the chance if we learn what went wrong. And my panel dug into it, and they made recommendations about mental health, about campus safety protocols, about first responders, about training of campus personnel and about gun safety. These detailed recommendations led to numerous changes to state and federal best practices and laws. And I saw legislators of both parties work together—with strong public support—to make these changes so our campuses would be safer.

But, Mr. President, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say there was one recommendation, one by my panel, that was opposed both at the state and federal levels—the institution of a comprehensive background record check system to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals. And I want to talk today about that continuing failure.

The Virginia Tech student who killed and wounded so many—Seung Hui Cho—should never have been able to purchase weapons at all. He had been adjudicated in a court of the Commonwealth of Virginia mentally ill and dangerous and was thus barred by federal law from purchasing or owning weapons. That is a longstanding federal law. But the law is only as a good as the background record checks system that is able to determine when someone purchases a weapon if they have, in fact, been adjudicated mentally ill and dangerous. And because the record of his adjudication had not been entered into the National NICS database, he slipped through the cracks, and this troubled individual illegally bought the weapons that destroyed so many lives, removing from this earth so much promise.

We fixed the narrow issue that led to Seung Hui Cho’s adjudication to be left out of the database. I did it by executive order. My legislature confirmed it. At the federal level, laws were passed and signed into law by President Bush to encourage states to enter mental health adjudications into the federal database, a database that has succeeded in stopping more than two million people from making illegal gun purchases.

But when I tried just months later as Governor to make sure that we perform background record checks on all, especially those who purchase guns at gun shows, which are a huge source for gun purchases in the United States – there is no law requiring background record checks at gun shows – when I made that effort, my General Assembly basically caved in to pressure from a Virginia organization, the National Rifle Association, and other groups, and they voted against background checks.

And two years ago, as a Senator, on the very week when we were commemorating the anniversary of this most horrific shooting on a campus in the history of the United States – a college campus – and in the shadows of the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, we tried to create a uniform background record check system at the federal level. The same groups who fought against background checks in Virginia fought against background checks here. And even in the shadow of the horrific school shooting of little kids, and even today, since Newtown, more than 70,000 more Americans have been killed by gun violence in this country, we still lack a comprehensive background record check system.

It’s estimated that 40% of all guns that are sold in the United States occur with no background records check. Mr. President, you know the law. Convicted felons are not lawfully allowed to purchase or own weapons, but without a comprehensive background records check system they can and they do. People who have been adjudicated mentally ill and dangerous are not lawfully allowed to purchase or own weapons, but without a comprehensive background records check system, they can and they do. Domestic violence perpetrators who have been placed under protective orders are not lawfully allowed to purchase or own weapons, but without a comprehensive background records check system, they can and they do.

So why not fix our laws to create a records check system to keep weapons out of the hands of those who are not legally allowed to have them? And why are groups like the NRA so passionately opposed to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people?

I am particularly interested in the NRA’s position on this issue because I know the organization very well. The NRA is headquartered in Virginia. I know many NRA members. When I was the Mayor of Richmond helping to implement an anti-gun program, Project Exile that would send gun criminals to federal prison, the NRA supported our effort. So why is the NRA opposed to background record checks?

The NRA opposes background checks even though American gun-owners, and even NRA members, have indicated strong support for background record checks in polling frequently.

The NRA opposes background checks even though their avowed principles would suggest that they would support such laws. For example, the NRA has been fond of saying we don’t need new gun laws; we just need to enforce existing gun laws. And that is exactly what a background record check law does. It makes no change in law to who can or cannot have a weapon; it just enables us to enforce existing laws to stop dangerous people like Seung Hui Cho from purchasing weapons. The NRA has also famously said that we shouldn’t take guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens; we should instead focus on getting guns away from criminals. Again, that is exactly what a background check system does. It only stops people from purchasing weapons if they are legally prohibited from purchasing weapons.

So if gun owners and NRA members support background checks in polls, and if the NRA’s own principles suggest that background checks are in tune with their philosophy, why have they fought so hard and so long to keep our nation from having a comprehensive background check system?

I have pondered this question since 2007 because that day was one of the worst days of my life. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and thinking about what I ought to do as a citizen and as an elected official to reduce the chance that anyone will ever have to go through that experience again. And after pondering this question of why any legitimate organization would fight against background record checks, the only purpose of which is to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people who are not legally allowed to have them, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one answer. And the answer is this: the NRA does not really speak for or represent American gun owners. Instead they speak for, represent and—most importantly—receive funding from gun manufacturers. And if you make guns, it is in your financial interest to sell as many guns as you can, to whomever you can, whenever you can and wherever you can. And I believe that is the reason why so many states and even Congress are not able to pass background record check laws that would keep us safer.

Mr. President, let me be self-critical because I wouldn’t call out the NRA if I wasn’t about to do what I’m doing. I’m going to bring it home and talk about Congress. If the NRA is now beholden to gun manufacturers, I’ve got to be honest enough to admit that Congress can hardly be self-righteous about this. Because I would argue that Congress is equally beholden to the gun manufacturers as well.

As you know, Mr. President, Congress generally leaves the question of tort law as a matter for states to resolve. We generally don’t have big tort reform at the federal level. Republicans often advance notions of state’s rights and oppose federal laws that trump state laws. And Democrats are generally against efforts that block plaintiffs’ access to state courts to seek redress for injuries. So in some ways, both Republican and Democratic principles have tended to be opposed to tort reform at the national level. But here’s an unusual example. In 2005, ten years ago, both Democrats and Republicans joined together to support a major federal tort reform act, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. And that act restricts the ability of people to bring lawsuits against firearm manufacturers in state or federal court for negligent use of firearms.

This 2005 Act, a bipartisan one – in this body 13 Democrats joined with Republicans to pass it -- is highly unusual because you can look through the entire United States Code. And if you do, you’re not going to find many national, federal-level tort laws that shield entire industries from state court claims based in negligence. There may be another one, but I don’t know what it is. This a highly unusual shielding of an entire industry, the gun manufacturers industry, from state and federal claims based on negligence. This industry uniquely receives this very special protection from the Congress of The United States, and when the law was passed in this body and signed into law by President Bush, plaintiffs in state courts whose cases were being immediately had to close down their cases. Plaintiffs who had one case but had cases on appeal immediately had their cases dismissed. This does not often happen. But for gun manufacturers, in this Congress, it has happened.

Mr. President, I’ll just conclude and say this. We have to make a decision about what’s important. We have to make decisions every day about what’s important. Should we keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, people who are prohibited by law from having them? If you think the answer yes, then you should support background check laws. Or should we embrace a policy that is based in the notion that we should sell as many guns as we can to whomever we can whenever we can and wherever we can? That is the current state of the law with an inadequate background check system. It serves no one’s interest other than gun manufacturers, but the human cost is incalculably high.

As we commemorate the shooting at Virginia Tech, honoring those we lost, honoring those brave survivors like Colin and Lily who are using their painful experiences to help others, honoring the resilience of the entire Hokie Nation, it’s my hope that my colleagues will get serious about gun safety. I am a gun owner, and I’m a proud supporter of the Second Amendment. But the time is long overdue for a comprehensive background check system that keeps weapons out of the hands of dangerous people like Seung Hui Cho. And I look forward to the day when we will accomplish this and have a safer nation as a result.

Mr. President, with that, I yield the floor, and I note the absence of a quorum.

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