President Biden unveiled his first attempts to curb gun violence on Thursday, announcing a set of modest moves designed to begin revamping federal gun policy by tweaking the government's definition of a firearm and more aggressively responding to urban gun violence. KPIX 5's Anne Makovec spoke with California congressman Mike Thompson about the new measures and the next steps to respond to gun violence.
- We are speaking with North Bay congressman Mike Thompson. He is the chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Thanks for making time for us this afternoon. The president just laid out all of these executive orders, which is a step in I'm sure what you would call the right direction when it comes to gun control. A lot of it, though, is talking about reviewing federal policy, hoping for congressional action. What do these actions actually mean?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, thank you for having me on. I'm very pleased with what the president did today and what he said today. He initiated a process by which the attorney general will put forward regulatory constraints on things such as the short barrel of assault weapon pistol that, when used in conjunction with an arm brace, functions as a short-barrel rifle. This is a deadly device. It's easily concealable.
- Now, that is what the shooter in Boulder was accused of using. So you're saying that it makes it much easier for them to do more damage.
MIKE THOMPSON: That's correct. And it's easily concealable. And that shooter, as you know, killed innocent civilians, killed a police officer. And he has also directed the attorney general to review these ghost guns, and put regulations in place to better regulate them. A ghost gun is a kit that you can buy. You can walk into a store and buy one of these. You don't need to have a background check. There are no serial numbers. You can take it home, and within 15 minutes or 30 minutes, you can assemble an actual gun. And without a background check, without a serial number. It's insanity that these are so easy to get.
- We know the black marketplace--
MIKE THOMPSON: Criminals can get them. Terrorists can get them.
- --these days, though. Will it not be really easy to still get your hands on one of these kits, one that doesn't have serial numbers? With the internet, you can buy anything.
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, I think what the-- what everybody wants, every responsible gun owner, and the lawmakers that I know and the president want to minimize the opportunity for people to get these. We'd like to shut this down completely. There are some people who just shouldn't have guns, and we shouldn't make it easier for them to get them.
- And speaking of, let's talk about the red flag legislation that you're pushing. This would be a model for states. They would have to enact their own. Or is there going to be potentially a federal blanket policy here?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, there's federal law that has been proposed. There's bills that have been introduced to put in place a federal red flag or extreme risk order protection. But states, because Congress has been so slow to respond to this epidemic of gun violence, many states have moved on their own, and many more would like to. So I think what the president wants to do is to put in place a template where a state can easily take that and put in place their own state red flag orders.
- OK. Obviously, guns being in the wrong hands is the big problem here, but criminals don't care if it's illegal to own an illegal gun. How are we going to get at that root of the problem here?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, there's always going to be criminals trying to get around the law. You have that with bank robbers and extortionists and speeders. But that doesn't mean that, as a government, we just remove all laws or fail to respond to a crisis. This is a crisis. And the measure that I have, HR-8, the expansion of background checks, is bipartisan. It's supported by over 90% of the American people.
It would require someone to get a background check before they buy a gun. We know it works in the places where background checks are already the law. 160 felons every day are stopped from getting a gun. 50 domestic abusers every day are stopped from getting a gun. These are things that work. We know they work. We have the evidence to back that up. And we should put those-- we should put those measures in the law.
- Now, the president in his remarks earlier today called gun violence in America an international embarrassment. It certainly is more prolific here in the US, whether it's availability or motivation, culture. What do you think is driving people's obsessions with guns?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, that's probably the topic of seven more interviews. I don't know that we could cover it all today. But there are certainly a lot of problems out there that need to be addressed. We need to be taking serious action on mental health issues. We need to make sure that people feel part of our communities and our society, people are gainfully employed, people have health care, all the things that diminish someone's self-worth. But until we get those done, we ought to have protection on the books that will keep our communities safe from gun violence.
- We know we've had this conversation over and over whenever there is a mass shooting. Public opinion seems to be a little bit more supportive of gun control. But we've seen these bills flop time and time again. Now, of course, Democrats do have control of both houses of Congress, and there are several proposals in the works. Do you think that this is the time? Are these actually going to move forward?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, you said it spot-on, that every time there's a mass shooting event, that there's a lot of attention. But the truth of the matter is there's 30 people every day who are killed by someone using a gun. If you add accidental deaths and suicide, that number jumps to 100. It's sad that the only time that it's talked about publicly is when there was a mass shooting. This is a crisis. This is an epidemic. It costs the taxpayers in this country almost $300 billion a year.
And we need to do something about it. Is there bipartisan support? There is. As I mentioned, my bill, HR-8, background check bill, has bipartisan co-authors, Democrats and Republicans. It passed the House with support from Democrats and Republicans. It's over in the Senate now. And as you know, the margin over there is much slimmer. And then they have this 60-vote rule. So if you took my bill up today, it would get 51 votes, a majority of the United States Senate. But because of the 60-vote rule, it takes 60 votes to even bring it up for a vote. So it's a much more difficult and higher threshold.
I feel confident that Senator Murphy, who is the Senate author of my bill, is making progress. He told us today in the Oval Office, told me and told the president that he has Republicans who are interested in working with him. So I'm hopeful that the United States Senate will understand that the only place background checks are a partisan issue today is in the halls of the United States Senate. The American public support it by 90%.
- So is this something, as far as the various proposals on the table, do you think that one has the most teeth?
MIKE THOMPSON: I think that it's something that has the most support, the widest support. And I'm confident-- I'm confident that we'll get that bill signed into law. The question is when.
- Now, again, just for clarification, some of the president's executive orders asking the Justice Department to issue directives, issued a proposed rule. So is that something that, then, procedurally has to be passed through Congress, or does that stand on its own?
MIKE THOMPSON: No, that's the process that they go through. The-- the White House has given charge to the attorney general to promulgate these regulations. There'll be a public process by which the public can weigh in, and then that regulation will become the law of the land.
And just so you know, I would like to see Congress codify those rules. You know, executive orders can be repealed with the next president. Once the Justice Department figures out how to best regulate these easily concealable assault weapon pistols and how to properly regulate ghost guns, Congress should do its duty, do its job, and codify those regulations in the law.
- And what do you feel like is standing in the way when public opinion is often changing toward more gun regulations? A lot of the political opinions are, as well. Then there's very strong organizations, like the NRA. Is that the main problem? What is stopping a lot of these laws from taking hold?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, you know, that'd be a good question to ask some of my Republican colleagues. Not a single California Republican House member voted for background checks, something that's already the law in California, something that has 90% support from the American people. And you should ask them exactly who's whispering in their ear to suggest that they should vote against this. Why are they stopping us from making our communities safer by voting against this piece of legislation?
- Now, today was a very big day for you personally there with the president as he signs these executive orders, as the chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. How are you feeling right now? Are we realistically going to see change?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, I feel very good today. I told the president that the last time that I was in the White House was with his predecessor, when he called me over with a group of my colleagues to talk about gun violence prevention because we'd had yet another mass shooting. And your listeners, your viewers all remember this. At that meeting, the president called for swift action on background checks to confiscate weapons from people who shouldn't have them.
And by the time I left that-- between the time I left that White House and got back to my office, the NRA had already called him, Capitol Hill NRA had already told him, and he had reversed course. This president's not going to reverse course. This president knows that community safety, neighborhood safety, school safety depends upon us doing our job. And I feel his message today was not only spot-on, but a smart fellow. He's dedicated to making sure that we make our communities safer.
- That story you just told, though, does show the power of organizations that are very much against gun control measures when it comes to money and political influence. How do we combat that if you're trying to actually make meaningful change when it comes to these laws?
MIKE THOMPSON: Well, I think it also tells the story of a lack of character and lack of courage. This president has courage. This president has character. He is committed to working to make our communities safer, and I feel confident that he's not going to be pushed around by Capitol Hill bullies.
- OK. Anything else you would like to say, Congressman Thompson, before you hit the plane?
MIKE THOMPSON: No, you ask good questions. Thank you very much.
- Thank you. I really appreciate your work, and taking the time to share it with us. Have a good flight.
MIKE THOMPSON: OK, talk to you--