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Rep. Steny Hoyer: Mass shootings should be met with action, not moments of silence

Capital Gazette

By Chase Cook

U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer visited The Capital to discuss gun violence issues and his advocating for universal background checks and stronger laws — commonly called red flag laws — that allow police to seize weapons from potentially dangerous people.

The House minority whip’s visit Monday follows the three-month anniversary of The Capital shooting. Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith were killed after a gunman opened fire in the newsroom. The man barricaded the backdoor and blasted through the newsrooms glass doors to gain entrance.

It was a targeted attack linked to articles about the man’s harassment charges in 2011, police said. The man has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder along with other charges.

In the wake of the shooting, The Capital’s editorial board called on lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — to voice their solutions on gun violence. Hoyer submitted a column on Sept. 20, that can be read here.

The St. Mary’s County Democrat also sat down for a 40-minute conversation about his re-election, gun violence and whether he would seek the Speaker of the House title if Democrats retake the House of Representatives in November.

Hoyer, who has served in public office for decades, is running for re-election in District 5 and faces Republican William Devine III, Libertarian Jacob Pulcher and Green Party candidate Patrick Elder on Nov. 6.

His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What could and should happen to prevent more mass shootings?

Unfortunately too many of these mass shootings have been met in the House with a minute of silent reflection in memory of those who are lost or injured. But not with a day or week or month or year of action. What the Stoneman Douglass High School students in Parkland, Florida, and people all over the country have overwhelmingly asked for is action. When I say overwhelming, 96 percent of people think we ought to pass a comprehensive background check. No matter how you purchase a gun, how a gun is transferred, there is a determination whether this person is a danger. Have they committed crimes? Have they been domestic abuser? Are they on a terrorist list? More than 90 percent of people think people who fall in that category should not have weapons.

When I talk to students, they think we need to be much more vigorous and intervene when we know there are mental health problems. We should have hearings on how we can accomplish greater safety at schools and at every venue. Bottom line is we ought to be taking action rather than simply standing for a minute in the House of Representatives and saying “we are awfully sorry to hear about this” and taking zero action. I think the American public should be very upset with that kind of lack of response.

If you put forward the red flag law, would you consider expanding the protection outside of family disputes?

That is why I said we ought to have hearings to make this as effective as possible. We are talking about the red flag, but also generally speaking. We understand the Constitution and Supreme Court agrees people have the right to bear arms. We are not going to have confiscation of weapons. But it is irrational to think we cannot take positive steps that will make people more safe. Not absolutely safe. But more safe. We ought to look at what alternatives and how to write legislation in a way that gives us more warning.

Some of these laws require more money in police departments to store weapons. Or expand mental health services. Will funding be an issue?

I don’t think the funding issue is going to be an impediment to this law. It is a lot cheaper to save lives than it is to lose them. Look at the billions, billions, billions of dollars we have expended for the purposes of making people safe on airplanes. We have done that because we think it is important to save lives. Certainty in this instance, I would think, the same rational would apply. And we ought to make state and federal and local resources necessary to ensure the safety of our children and the safety of our people. The impediment to the legislation are opponents who don’t want to see legislation of any type.

It is two more years to the next presidential election, if legislation like this were to make it out of both houses, would the president sign it?

I don’t know. The president has sent mixed messages about, his political message is a very strong: Whatever the NRA wants, I’m going to do. On the other hand, he has from time to time made statements that appear to have sympathy to trying to make our communities safer. He is also a strong supporter of law enforcement. Frankly our officers are at great risk. For the most part, they are supporters of making sure we have rational constraints both with respect to owning and purchasing guns. However, ultimately, if he thinks about the American people, the American people overwhelming support the pieces of legislation we discussed.

If you are re-elected and the Dems take the house, are you going to seek the speakership?

Well, we will see what happens. Right now I’m focused on taking back the house.

How is your relationship with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-California?

Good. We work together closely. We’ve been very productive. The four years she was speaker and I was majority leader were some of the most productive period of times I’ve served in the federal Congress. We saved the country from going into depression; we passed the Affordable Care Act; we passed a bill that is great protection for consumers and constraint on financial institution for taking advantage of people. We passed a major environmental bill that Bush signed.

Democrats always talk about Republicans stopping gun control measures, but urban areas like Baltimore and Chicago have struggled with homicide rates and gun violence. Why are those Democratically controlled areas unable to stall some of the violence?

I think they are struggling because we have a high degree of violence not only in our urban areas but also our rural areas. Therefore you see it more. You’ve seen violence in the more rural areas of our state and our country. The bills I just talked about are bills which will make all areas of the country safer, but that won’t reduce the struggle because there are other reasons for violence in our cities and urban areas. Again, I want to emphasize, there are a lot more people in the urban and suburban areas. It is not that violence doesn’t exist in our rural areas. Great Mills is not one of the urban centers of our country, and a young man killed a young woman at Great Mills High School. It doesn’t happen as often. We need to be seized of the concern about violence in our society.

What is gun violence impact on communities? What are you hearing from your constituents?

They are very concerned about gun violence. People I hear most from are the students. Young people who say I’m afraid to go to school. And I’m sure there are a lot of parents who say if I send my child to school am I sending them to a dangerous venue that will be the site of another mass shooting. I had a forum with the students and administrators and parents in Charles County not too long ago. They were very interested in the mental health aspect of this issue. And they were concerned about kids they knew were expressing and acting in a way that appeared to be dangerous, threatening. They wanted to see if there could be more counselors and mental health services available. These young people, when you ask me who is really raising the issue, have engaged this issue more effectively in many respects than the adults. I don’t mean adults are not concerned, they are. But these young people are making a difference. Really articulating in an incredible and compelling way.

You’ve mentioned 90 percent support for some of these issues, universal background checks is one of them. How do politicians keep getting elected while preventing that issue from reaching the floor?

While they may agree on this issue, they don’t necessarily vote this issue. They vote some other issue they care more about. If this issue was important enough to them, they would not vote for people who refuse to bring the legislation to the floor.

Do we need to wait for the young people to run for office to affect partisan gridlock?

They are affecting change by saying we are not going to vote for you. And telling their parents and people older than them not to vote for people who don’t take action to make them safer. That is how you do it in a democracy. If Republicans thought people were voting on that issue, they would act differently. The NRA is in some respects more important.