Sunday, June 12 was the somber sixth anniversary of the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL, where 49 people were killed and 53 injured. But now, six years later, the date holds new hope for gun law reform advocates, who are anticipating what they say is a small but positive step forward in efforts to tighten federal firearm legislation.
Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) announced an agreement on a framework of reforms they say will save lives if approved by their senate colleagues.
Just two days earlier, GOOD Morning Wilton sat down with Wilton’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D) for an update on House legislative action on guns leading up to Sunday’s announcement, and to get his perspective on related events over the last few weeks.
The bipartisan deal doesn’t go as far on gun control measures as many Democrats and activists had hoped, but senate negotiators say what has been worked out will earn the support needed to pass a Senate vote and accomplish something long viewed as impossible.
The agreement was hammered out by 20 senators — evenly split among Republicans and Democrats and endorsed by President Biden — and includes enhanced background checks for prospective gun buyers under 21-years-old and provides funding to states for “red-flag laws” that allow authorities to confiscate guns from people determined by a court to be dangerous. It also closes the “boyfriend loophole” and extends protection to dating partners in restraining orders that block domestic abusers from purchasing guns, and increases funding for school security and mental health services. Finally, the deal strengthens efforts to crack down on illegal gun dealers.
Because GMW‘s interview with Himes took place before Sunday’s announcement, we reached out to his staff Sunday evening to ask if the congressman would like to provide any additional reaction. During our interview Friday, Himes did remark in anticipation that Senators Murphy and Cornyn might reach a deal: “Instead of getting angry over the fact that [the reforms] are really small, I’m going to celebrate the fact that we actually made a little bit of progress. Because I’ve just had too many years of no progress.”
Because this is also a year when Himes is running for re-election, we’ve extended an invitation to Himes’ Republican opponent, Jayme Stevenson to meet for a similar Q&A. As of press time, GMW has not received a response.
GOOD Morning Wilton: You’re not on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform but I’m sure you heard the emotional testimony this past Wednesday on the Uvalde mass school shooting from survivors and family members of the children killed there. You also met with actor Matthew McConaughey who spent time with the families. How did that impact you, hearing those first-hand accounts?
Rep. Jim Himes: It’s a great question because it’s a very personal question. My belief is that in my job, I need to be as dispassionate and balanced and cool as possible in a time of polarized politics. Emotion and anger kind of come naturally to me, personality-wise, but I really think that’s important.
I can’t do that on the gun issue. I have to manage a lot of personal rage, and I have to do it over and over again. To this day, I could tell you what I was doing every second as I was watching Sandy Hook be reported. And I was convinced after that, that it would change America for the better, because thinking back on when Ronald Reagan was attacked, when there was an attempt to assassinate him, the Republican senior people around him — James Brady chief amongst them — said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about guns.
Then comes Columbine. Orlando. On and on and on. Buffalo. Sandy Hook. Even as I talk right now, I can feel the rage rising. I’ve had to manage that over time. Many years ago, I finally said, ‘I’m not going to do a moment of silence ever again on this issue. Churches, businesses, football games, you do your moments of silence. But when the one place that can actually fix this refuses to do anything other than to shut up for 10 seconds, it just makes me want to throw up.
It’s particularly egregious because we know what needs to be done, and most Americans support what needs to be done. Yet I have to listen to endless bullsh*t from the other side and that bullsh*t takes a bunch of different forms.
It’s, ‘Well, universal background checks wouldn’t have stopped Sandy Hook. It was his mother’s weapon.’ You answer, ‘So, what about safe storage?’ ‘Well, safe storage wouldn’t have stopped that attack.’
So I see over and over and over again, the — let me use the word baloney — that is used to stop what we need to do to keep children alive. I can’t talk about it in an emotionally uninvolved way.
We call ourselves a democracy. Ninety percent of people believe we should do universal background checks — even some Republicans, by the way, support it. And yet it won’t get done.
So it just makes me want to throw up because this isn’t about, ‘Where should the corporate tax rate be, 25% or 21%?’ This is about the fact that before the month is over, other children are going to die and we’re doing nothing about it, even though the vast majority of Americans want us to do something about it.
GMW: Your say the job of a representative is to hear things and be dispassionate. During Wednesday’s testimony, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) who sits on the Oversight Committee walked out right before the very moving testimony of 11-year-old Uvalde survivor Miah Cerrillo, who described how she played dead. What do you think of Jordan not sitting and hearing her words?
Himes: It’s cowardly. I mean, I’m not in the business of judging individual members of Congress, but I do think that one of the things that might actually eventually push us over the edge and get some of these things done, [is] I do believe that if more Americans saw what a child who has been killed with an AR-15 looked like. There was testimony in Congress about a pediatrician who talked about what these children looked like. That might actually be helpful so that people could see what their failure to act leads to.
GMW: The House of Representatives just passed a much more comprehensive gun reform package. What got passed in the House and how does it differ from what the Senate is trying to achieve.
Himes: In the House this week we passed a whole bunch of things that we passed here in Connecticut — chiefly, extreme risk protection orders. That for a 14-day period, a judge — a judge, not the local police chief — can issue an order to remove firearms from the possession of somebody who a father or a mother or a sister or a boyfriend has said, ‘This individual is in a very bad place.’ Two weeks — if you want to do it for longer, the individual concerned has the right to appear with an attorney. It’s a very well-calibrated process, which is appropriate because the Second Amendment does guarantee your right to bear arms. [Extreme risk protection orders] is working very well — if you talk to law enforcement in the state of Connecticut, they’ll tell you it’s probably saved a lot of lives.
Then we passed a collection of [other] things, again, none of them particularly radical: universal background checks; 21 minimum age for the purchase of a long gun — it currently exists for handguns, it currently exists for beer, but not for AR-15s; some minimum safe-storage standards.
The bad news is that I heard the same baloney over and over and over again about how ‘We can’t regulate the Second Amendment.’ Oddly, they believe that the Second Amendment is somehow unique and that it’s not subject to regulation even though every other amendment is. But the good news is we [voted on] the whole bill and then we voted on the various parts of the bill, and on the various parts, we actually got — not huge, but we got a little bit of — Republican support. Each title, depending on the title, got 10, 11, six or seven votes. Yippee, right? But that’s better than zero votes in a world where you’re otherwise making no progress.
The second part of your question, I haven’t talked to Sen. Murphy the last week or so, but I understand that raising the minimum age for the purchase of a long gun is on the table. You referred to the meeting that I had with Matthew McConaughey, another Democrat and two Republicans — both of the Republicans in that meeting said they were open to raising the age to 21. So fingers crossed, maybe that happens. It’s not gonna fix the problem, but it’ll save some lives. … I always feel a little guilty celebrating tiny little increments of progress, but it’s better than no progress. [Editor’s note: the announced framework does not include a provision to raise the minimum purchase age for long guns to 21.]
GMW: Sounds logical, as you describe it.
Himes: It’s amazing to think that you can’t rent a car until you’re 26 in most places, but you can buy an assault rifle.
GMW: Assuming something gets passed in the Senate, what happens if after the midterm elections, the party balance is different, and Republicans get an overwhelming majority. What happens if the balance changes?
Himes: If very limited legislation passes, I think it’ll survive regardless of what the outcome of November’s elections are. If it can pass the Senate, that means by definition, you’ve got 10 Republican senators voting for it to get to the 60-vote threshold. That’s a resilient piece of legislation. They couldn’t then turn around, even if they had a Senate majority and get a whole bunch of Democrats to join them in turning it around. So if the Senate succeeds in getting something done, it will get through the House and then I think it will be resilient.
GMW: How do you reconcile the changes you advocate for with what’s constitutionally protected in the Second Amendment?
Himes: Well, I don’t have a gun conversation where I don’t start with the notion that I support the Second Amendment, and I actually quite like shooting. By the way, every two years I raise my right hand and take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which includes the Second Amendment. And I don’t get to choose which amendments I defend and which ones I don’t. So the Second Amendment is something that I’m committed to — in fact, I’m sworn to uphold and defend it.
It’s also true that there are no rights in any of our amendments that are absolute. So the notion that somehow the Second Amendment is special and limitations can’t be put on that enumerated right is just absurd at every level. But that doesn’t stop it from being said.
What’s important to remember, the argument about guns is not a policy argument. Because if it were a policy argument, we would do something. It’s a clash of cultures. Watch an NRA video, it has nothing to do with guns. It has to do with the coastal elites coming for your God-fearing way of life. They don’t even mention guns. So guns become a fetish item. When members of Congress are sending Christmas cards with every member of the family holding assault rifles, it’s no longer anything other than a fetish item.
So we’re trying to have a policy conversation on one side, the other side is using guns as a cultural signifier, as something to annoy “the libs,” to own “the libs,” to identify themselves as somehow “more American” or more patriotic than those who would limit second amendment rights. We’re having a clash of culture that’s very deliberate. The other side recognizes that if we have a policy discussion, they lose.
Let me tell you a story about that. Years ago I [went] to Sacred Heart, to meet with a bunch of OEF/OIF Iraq, Afghanistan veterans, young guys who were at Sacred Heart, I think, under the GI bill. I was supposed to meet with seven or eight of them, only one showed up, a young Marine. And I said, “What’s up?” And this guy said, “You know, a bunch of my guys didn’t want to come cuz they don’t like where you are on guns.”
I said, “Geez, let’s talk about that. When you say where I am on guns, I support the Second Amendment, I actually quite like shooting and have shot a lot of different kinds of guns. I just think that we should check everybody out before they can purchase a weapon. I think there’s some weapons that you probably used in Iraq that don’t belong on our streets.” He was like, “Absolutely, you’re absolutely right about that.”
Then he said — and this is fascinating — then he said, “You know what? In the Marine Corps I had to actually requalify on my weapons every single year. Civilians should have to requalify on their weapons every single year.”
And I said, “Oh my God, if I said that publicly, they would burn my house down. I would be “the gun-grabber.”
That’s an illustration that, if you can get beyond that, “He’s a gun grabber, I’m more American, you’ll only take my guns from my cold dead hands…” [then] you have a policy discussion. You discover there’s huge agreement.
GMW: Which leads perfectly into my next question. There’s tremendous political posturing in public in front of the cameras. Privately, when you’re talking to somebody across the aisle, how much policy agreement happens? Do you hear, “Yeah, I agree with that policy, but I’m not going to say it publicly.”
Himes: That happens a lot more in discussions about Donald Trump than it does on guns, because they’re just so scared on the gun issue. It’s just bananas, right? When a U.S. Senator makes a video of himself cooking bacon on the barrel of a machine gun as Ted Cruz did, when a member of Congress sends out a Christmas card, presumably celebrating the birth of the so-called Prince of Peace and everyone in his family has a weapon of war in their hands, what you have a deeply warped cultural signifier. I can get any number of Republicans after work to agree that Donald Trump may not be the greatest thing from slice bread, but boy, do they get pretty cautious and careful when they talk about guns.
GMW: So ironically, in Connecticut, where so much of the gun safety legislation came after Sandy Hook, you also have gun manufacturers and gun lobbyists based here. Three of the most vocal U.S. legislators are from Connecticut opposite this very, very strong pro-gun entity in the state. How do you reconcile that?
Himes: We can’t frame this as, ‘legislators who want gun safety against guns’. I would keep a gun if my wife would let me. I like guns, [but] she won’t let me. I would love to have more businesses in Connecticut. I like that there are lots of responsible gun owners who care about hunting.
I’m a lot more skeptical about the notion that you can keep your family safe with a gun in the house. [Actually,] the facts show that a gun in the house makes that house more dangerous. But look, if that’s important to you, I’m sorry, but obviously that’s your right.
So I have no problem with lawful, careful gun ownership. And I have no problem with the people who go through the act of making a gun. I [do] have a real problem when the gun industry throws fuel on the fire of the fetish, which they do because they want households to have dozens and dozens of guns. That’s the bottom line.
The reason I’m being really careful in how I talk about this is that I don’t, and most like-minded people don’t want to end guns or end the gun industry any more than we want to end cars or alcohol or airplanes — other things that kill lots of Americans. But just like alcohol, cars and airplanes, we want to be a lot more thoughtful about saving more American lives.
GMW: What kind of hope there is for change at the federal level?
Himes: This is a problem where states can do a lot of good work and help save a lot of lives. We’re doing that in Connecticut, consistent with people’s Second Amendment rights. But at the end of the day, you’re going to need a federal solution eventually.
The reason for that is, the other side is always fond of pointing out that Chicago has a lot of gun violence and it does. They say, “Chicago has some of the most restrictive gun regulations, but criminals don’t follow the law.” Well, part of the reason for Chicago’s immense amount of gun violence is that it’s not far from the state of Indiana and other states where gun regulation is considerably more lax. So it’s really not hard to drive very briefly, buy a weapon and bring it into Chicago. So at the end of the day, states can do a lot of good work, but eventually we’re going to need some minimum federal standards.
GMW: Can that happen?
Himes: I believe in being really optimistic, but my hopes have been crushed too many times in too horrible a way. It was Sandy Hook, it was Orlando, it’s Buffalo, it’s El Paso. After every one of these tragedies, I say, ‘Surely this time is enough.’ It’s never enough. So this unbridled optimist is pessimistic on this issue.
There’s one point that I try always to make, just because I get so tired of hearing the baloney from the other side, and I heard it all week long, all week long, including when Matthew McConaughey was there in this small room — “It’s really mental health and it’s hardening our schools and it’s this and it’s that.” You hear that it’s violent movies and this, that… It is all a big distraction because, sure we can do better by mental health. I don’t happen to like really violent video games. But this country does not have more mental health problems than the UK, Germany or Japan. It does not have more violent movies than Korea or Australia or New Zealand. The one thing that distinguishes us from countries that have a 10th or less of the gun violence is that we have more guns than people in this country. And it’s just so easy for the bad guys to put a lethal weapon in their hands. And sadly, the other side really wants to distract us from that one distinguishing feature.
GMW: Last night was the opening night of the January 6 Committee Hearings. Do you want to comment about what was shown?
Himes: It was really hard [to watch]. It really brought it back. I was in the chamber. I was one of the last guys out of the chamber and there was an hour there where I really thought… I was in lower Manhattan on 9/11, and it was a similar feeling. For two hours, it was kind of like, “We could die here.” So it was really hard to relive that.
And to see that violence [on the video shown during Thursday evening’s hearing], it was pretty dramatic to learn. I did not know the extent to which the people around Donald Trump — the attorney general, his daughter, his campaign people — said, “You lost, sir.” He had [Rudy] Giuliani spinning fantasies, but the responsible people around him told him he’d lost. That’s something.
I had hoped that now, a year and a half later, we’d be in a better place nationally in terms of the stability of our democracy. And we’re not, we’re in as dangerous a place as we were on Jan. 5. And that just really worries the hell outta me. Everybody asks me, “Is it going to have an effect? Is this going to affect the elections?” Probably not. But one effect I hope it does have is that I hope people look at that imagery, which is very gut-wrenching and just say, “Hey, maybe I need to take a little bit of a deep breath here.”
On both sides, by the way. Maybe when the temptation is to call somebody stupid or unpatriotic or a fascist or a communist or a Nazi, [instead] to say, “Maybe I’ve got to dial it back a few notches.”
This comes back to why I think it’s really important for me to be unemotional in most circumstances, but I hope that America just says, “Hey, the other side is just a different group of Americans with different ideas. They’re not communists, they’re Nazis or Bolsheviks or traitors. Because if we stay in this world where they’re Nazis or Bolsheviks or traitors, we’re going to lose our democracy. I have very little doubt about that.”