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“Children Under Fire: An American Crisis”

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In his new book, “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox highlights the psychological toll that gun violence has on children. On Thursday, April 8 at 3:00pm ET, Cox will host a discussion with former U.S. congresswoman Gabby Giffords, executive director of Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence Peter Ambler and former South Carolina state senator Greg Gregory about what’s being done to protect children physically and emotionally from the epidemic of gun violence in the United States.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JOHN WOODROW COX: Good afternoon and welcome to "Washington Post Live." My name is John Woodrow Cox. I'm a staff writer at "The Washington Post." I'm also the author of a new book that published last week, "Children Under Fire An American Crisis."

It is my great privilege to be joined today by former US Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. She is the co-founder of one of the most prominent gun safety organizations in the United States. She's also a survivor of gun violence. She was shot in the head in January of 2011 in an attack in Arizona that left six people dead.

Also with us is Peter Ambler. He is the executive director and co-founder of the Giffords Organization. And also with us is Greg Gregory he is a former Republican state senator from South Carolina. Thank you all so much for being here today.

Gabby, I'd like to start with today's big news. President Biden announced last night, his administration announced last night, some new executive actions to address gun violence in America. Things like regulating ghost guns and the nomination of one of Giffords own, David Chipman to head up the ATF. So I just wanted to get your reaction to today's news.

GABBY GIFFORDS: So excited. Joe Biden. Get her done. Get her done. Get her done.

PETER AMBER: It's absolutely a significant action the President took today. So we're very excited.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So Gabby, I'd like to go back to the beginning of your fight for change. Where this all started. And a lot of people, I think, don't know that it was actually the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012 that inspired you and your husband, Senator Mark Kelly, to found your organization. So I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about how that shooting at Sandy Hook affected you.

GABBY GIFFORDS: Battling gun violence takes courage. The courage to do what is right. The courage of new ideas. I've seen great courage when a life was on the line. Now is the time to come together. Be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone, we must never stop fighting. Fight, fight, fight. Be bold. Be courageous. The nation's counting on you. Thank you very much.

JOHN WOODROW COX: Thanks so much, Gabby. I'd like to turn to Greg Gregory, who recently left office after a lengthy term on the South Carolina State Senate. Greg is a Republican and he plays a really prominent role in one chapter of the book that delves into the NRA's influence. Greg, after the school shooting in Parkland Florida in 2018, you stood up in front of the South Carolina State Senate and delivered a speech calling for new gun laws. And I just like to play a portion of that speech right now.

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- The first thing we need to do, in my opinion, with regard to gun violence in our country is quit rationalizing it. We need to quit rationalizing gun violence, and talking about any time one of these incidents happens this is the price of freedom. That's a load of malarkey. You know, I heard some commentator on Fox News after the Las Vegas shooting where a guy shot up a crowd of people, shot over 500 rounds of ammunition into a crowd of people, say that's the price of freedom. If you believe that, I mean you need to find another line of work and get out a political commentating. Because nowhere else in the developed world is this going on. Not even in the uncivilized world this is not happening.

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JOHN WOODROW COX: So Greg, what was it specifically about the shooting at Parkland that led you to speak up?

GREG GREGORY: Well, just that I'd had enough. And I'd long been interested in the issue. And of course, our body in the South Carolina Senate was affected by gun violence. And that one of our members Senator Clementa Pinckney was killed in the Charleston massacre. And he was probably the most beloved member of our body. Everybody liked the guy, and he was as genteel as a come. Yet he was shot down in a prayer group by a mad man with a gun wanting to start a race war. And I just was already frustrated that we as a body in the South Carolina Senate had not gotten any traction to close the Charleston loophole among other issues. And then Las Vegas happened, then Parkland happened, and I just had enough where I felt I needed to take the floor and speak out.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So Greg, I wonder why don't more Republicans back gun laws that the vast majority of Americans support?

GREG GREGORY: Well, I think it goes back to the primary process. There's so many other issues in America to. You know, if you're going to lose your seat in the legislature or Congress, you're most likely going to lose it in a primary rather than a general election. And in primaries people that are hard left or hard right are generally the ones that are coming out to vote because they have the most interest it seems in voting. Whereas those in the middle stay at home are not getting involved in primaries.

And I think as far as a gun issue is concerned that you know in Republican districts, especially swing districts, those in the suburbs, those in the middle moderates, suburban moms, that care about this issue, they've got to get involved and vote in the primaries. And they need to let their voices be heard with regard to Republican legislators. I think all Republicans for the most part, when these type things happen, you cringe. But they really are afraid to take action. They just I think kind of quietly hope that the problem's going to go away. But it's not going to go away.

I mean, it's a macabre fad that has been going on now for, you know, almost 20 years or longer. And we just had an incident tragically in the next county over from where I live. Yesterday a mass shooting where a prominent doctor, his wife, and a six-year-old, and nine-year-old children were all shot and killed along with one other person. And it's just the latest incident in the last two or three weeks.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So Greg, how much in your view, does the gun lobby actually play and influence or play a role in how Republican lawmakers vote?

GREG GREGORY: It plays a role. But I think that outside of the gun lobby that there's a lot of pressure on Republican legislators from constituents that allowed you know 10% to 15% that don't want any changes in gun laws. They think that the government's coming for their guns. They think that you know just a 1% move to the other side of the ledger is eventually going to lead to confiscation of their guns. And as legislators, you just have to, I think, marginalize those people. You only need 51% to win. And the crazy people around the far edges of the debate just have to be ignored for effective policy to come about.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So Peter, the book delves really deeply into child access prevention laws. And for those who don't know, these are laws that basically mandate that gun owners not allow their children access to their weapons. I wonder, though why we don't hear more about these child access prevention laws on Capitol Hill.

PETER AMBLER: Well, I think one of the reasons is that it's more of a state federal response question. If you're looking at a child access prevention law, that's probably something that is going to be happening at the state or municipal level. And doesn't really enter into the purview of Congress.

JOHN WOODROW COX: You know, I know of course that universal background checks are back on the table again. And I think that that is a thing that can impact children's lives more than people think. And I wonder if you could explain how universal background checks could actually benefit children in this country.

PETER AMBLER: Absolutely. I mean, universal background checks is the single biggest thing that we can do to bring down the rates of gun violence in this country. Address this problem for what it is, which is a public health crisis. There are roughly 20% of firearm transactions that are estimated by academics to occur without a universal background check. Background checks stop kids from being able to buy guns. And they stop guns from being able to be trafficked from states with weak gun laws to states with strong gun laws.

We know that there are 3 1/2 million people over the years that are prohibited from being able to own a gun who have been stopped by the background check. What we don't know is who's slipping through the cracks. How many of those 3 1/2 million then went into the unregulated market to procure a gun? And with readier access to firearms, you see the proliferation of community violence. You see the proliferation of shootings in schools. And the cost to America's children is manifest. You have since Columbine, 150,000 children who have been exposed to gun violence in schools. And that doesn't even count the hundreds of thousands more who are exposed on a daily basis in their communities.

We work with young people all across the country. And you talk about school violence. But then you have folks, many of whom live in black and brown communities, who talk about the walk to school. And the exposure to gun violence that they get doing that, and the trauma that it ensues. You look at guns being the third leading cause of death for young people. 17% of America's teens have been exposed to gun violence in some way, shape, or form. And let's sit with a stat. Of those children who are exposed to gun violence, 40% will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which is just such a huge slice of our population. And the kids who are part of it.

We have a national movement aimed at addressing PTSD from our soldiers, sailors, airmen who come back from conflicts overseas. But when they get home, we're inflicting PTSD on our children from gun violence due to a problem that we have the ability to solve, but not the political will to.

JOHN WOODROW COX: You know, of everything that the Biden Administration announced yesterday, maybe what's coming, is there one specific thing that you think would make a really big difference in kids' lives? Something that maybe that was missing or that wasn't included in these new actions?

PETER AMBLER: I think when it comes to gun violence, it's a complex matrix of failure that we as a society have. So there's never that one thing that that you can do. Right? And that's always the wrong question to ask. Right? There is a horrible tragedy. The wrong question to ask is what could we have done to stop this one specific thing from happening that relates to this one specific fact pattern? What the right question to ask is is, what can we do to prevent the most shootings from taking place in the future?

One very significant action that the President took yesterday and today that I'll try to raise attention to is a deep $1 billion investment in community violence intervention programs. And if these are real dollars that are going to flow to programs based in communities across the country that are having the worst epidemic of gun violence that studies have shown, that these programs have shown, can result in precipitous decline in homicides and shootings when adequately and implemented correctly.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So just really quickly, I know that I mentioned earlier that one of Gifford's own, David Shipman, is going to be the nominee for the new head of the ATF. I've interviewed David at great length. He's a real policy expert. Former ATF agent. I wonder if you could just quickly speak to why he is well positioned to do that job.

PETER AMBLER: Gabby and I have been lucky enough to be advised by David over the past several years. We're so proud of him. But the experience that I would point to is the 25 years at ATF. He served on SWAT. He investigated the Oklahoma City bombing. He investigated and helped solve a series of racially motivated church arsons in Alabama. He has had great positions of responsibility. As the attorney general said, he came up through the ranks. And is somebody who can provide vital necessary leadership at ATF, and help make this country a safer place.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So Greg, you told me something really fascinating during an interview that I did with you for the book. And you said that part of the motivation for you to find compromise with people who want gun safety reform is actually to protect the Second Amendment. It's something that you view as a way to save it. So I wonder if you could speak to that. Why you don't think it might survive two decades from now if there isn't compromise today?

GREG GREGORY: So guns were something I was quite interested in as a young man and growing up hunting, and shooting targets, and that type thing. So it was probably one of the things I was most interested in my teenage years. And my grandfather hunted and taught me how to handle guns safely. So I just kind of had a love affair with shotguns mainly growing up. And so it concerns me that-- as it does millions of other people-- that eventually, the right to own a gun could be lost.

And I think that there there's a possibility of that without meaningful reform because as I mentioned earlier, these type of incidents are going to continue. You've got a number of deranged people out there that want to make a name for themselves you know killing more people than anybody has ever killed before. Las Vegas certainly incredibly horrific event. But who's to say that something worse can't happen? I mean, who's to say that an SEC football game where people are massing up to get in the stadium that somebody doesn't shoot 1,000 people. And if and when that does happen, then you know it's going to be eventually very difficult to hold back I think the tide of growing public sentiment that is against guns in this country.

Only I think 1/3 of households in the country own guns. And so, you know, 2/3 don't. And I think the people that do support gun ownership-- one of which of whom I am-- need to pay attention to that. And need to pay attention to public sentiment. And not just what's happening today, but where we could be 10 years from now without some meaningful change that keeps guns out of the hands of people it should not have them.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So Greg, are there any gun laws in your view that you think a majority of Republicans would support? And that's either on Capitol Hill or in a state legislature.

GREG GREGORY: Well, in my experience in the senate in South Carolina that most Republicans did support a bill I was trying to advance. We got into some personality quarrels and so forth that kept that from happening as is often the case with legislation. But we were working on a bill that was based off a bill from around 2014 called a Bowland Bill, which prohibited people in South Carolina who had been adjudicated for mental illness from being able to purchase a weapon as they legally should not have been able to do. But we improved the process of reporting the names of those people to the next database.

And that's kept a number of really thousands of people from purchasing a weapon. That happened from an incident at a girls school in Charleston, where a woman bodyguard and tried to shoot up the people in the parking lot waiting for their children to get out of school. Fortunately, She didn't know how to operate the gun and it jammed. But she had been adjudicated for mental illness, but was still able to buy the gun legally. What we'd like to-- when we were working on was shortening the process with reporting the names to the database.

Now in South Carolina, there's a 30 day window that those names can be reported to the database. And we wanted to shorten that to 5. And that kind of originated from the Charleston massacre and Dylann Roof, who purchased his gun primarily due to an error about FBI with regard to the database and the jurisdiction in which he was booked. It's complicated. But nonetheless, he shouldn't have been able to buy the gun because he had a conviction that should have put his name in the database, and it wasn't. So he wanted to shorten the time frame for somebody who's say convicted of a charged with CDV. But then the agency would have 30 days to get their name in the database. And they still, in that 30 day period, could go out and buy a gun.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So obviously, another really important part of this conversation about gun violence is a recovery. Many kids who I write about in this book are still suffering from debilitating PTSD that includes one little girl named Eva who lives in South Carolina. She survived a school shooting there. She still even five years later, still suffering from really significant symptoms. She had to be pulled out of school. She has threatened to hurt herself. She's gone through a half a dozen therapists. And has really struggled at times.

And of course, Gabby, you are one of the most well-known gun violence survivors in America. And as it happens, Eva is a really big admirer of yours. And how hard that you have fought to persevere. I've read that soon after your shooting that you could only say a couple of words. And I wondered if you could talk about that? Just sort of in the very beginning only being able to say those few words.

GABBY GIFFORDS: What. What. What. Chicken, chicken, chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken.

PETER AMBLER: I remember in the first days, those were some of the things that I was able to say. And today, despite her challenges with aphasia, she gives lengthy speeches. She's able to discipline conversations like this. And what always strikes me is like what goes into that that other people across the country don't get to see. To be able to do what I take for granted-- to take a step, to say a word, being with you.

Gabby literally puts in thousands upon thousands of hours of practice and therapy. Not a day goes by where she's not in some way, shape, or form putting in grueling, oftentimes frustrating, work to contribute to her recovery. To be able-- fundamentally to be able to sit here today, and have this conversation.

JOHN WOODROW COX: Right. You know, Gabby, with everything you have been through, I wonder how optimistic you are about your recovery.

GABBY GIFFORDS: I'm optimistic. It will be a long, hard haul. But I'm optimistic.

PETER AMBLER: Getting better every day.

GABBY GIFFORDS: Every day.

JOHN WOODROW COX: And it's-- you know, it's remarkable. I don't think a lot of people understand what all you have been through, and what it takes for you to be in a place like this today. You know, survivors of gun violence-- and this is especially true of children-- they often want to give up. And so, Gabby, I wonder what you tell yourself when things are really difficult.

GABBY GIFFORDS: No way, Jose. Move ahead.

PETER AMBLER: Never quit.

JOHN WOODROW COX: You know, Peter, I wonder if you could speak to the impact that Giffords has had. I mean, I find that so remarkable that Gabby has had this impact on the world, on this country. When you think of gun violence organizations, you think of Moms Demand. You think of Giffords. There's a handful. You think of Brady. So can you explain for our audience why Gabby has been able to do that? Why you've been able to do that? Yeah. If you could just put words to that.

PETER AMBLER: Absolutely. I mean, first and foremost, Giffords is an expression of Gabby's commitment to end gun violence, and her values as a person and a leader. I worked for Gabby in Congress. I worked for her when she was shot. We lost our colleague, Gabe Zimmerman, who was Gabby's constituent services director. Obviously, Kristina Taylor Greene who you knew about was nine years old. Born on 9/11. Had a bright future ahead of her. Wanted to meet her Congresswoman, and was shot and killed before she was able to be.

But Gabby, her entire career, is somebody who's brought folks together. And Giffords is a-- we have our Giffords Law Center. We have Giffords. We have Gifford pack. We're sort of vertically integrated. We're a machine that looks at policy and evidence based way. Lifts up the most compelling solutions. We draft that legislation. We lobby Congress. And of course, the administration very successfully these days. And then state legislatures across the country to take action. We pass over 400 pieces of legislation in the past several years in state capitals. And that's been very exciting. So Gabby is not just a survivor of gun violence. Right. She's a gun owner as well. So she's somebody who really bridges these worlds. And--

GABBY GIFFORDS: Oh, Tombstone.

PETER AMBLER: Has been able to travel across the country. At first physically. And more recently more virtually. And launch chapters of gun owners for safety. We are closing in on 100,000 gun owners organized. And I think that's something that's really, ultimately going to tip the political scales because for so long the NRA thought they were this monolithic voice for gun owners. Turned out all the time, they had us fooled. And they were, in fact, just speaking for the firearms industry. For the big gun lobby. When as we know, 90% of-- not only 90% of Americans support universal background checks, but 90% of gun owners support universal background checks.

And Gabby wanted to roll up our sleeves, and get out in the country and actually organize these people. And that's what she and talented team at Giffords and a lot of great activists across the country have been able to do. And that's why the politics are changing. Right? The shift in the politics. Greg mentioned getting these moderate sort of independent type Republicans to vote in primaries. Right? What's happening is those voters are becoming Democrats. And they're becoming Democrats on issues like gun violence prevention. And I think if the Republican Party wants to stay relevant in huge swaths of the country that are urban, suburban, exurban, that are diverse, then they're going to have to get right on guns because the country is heading in a different direction.

And that's why we're sitting here today where we have a gun safety majority in the House. We've got a gun safety majority in the Senate. And we've got a man and woman in the White House who ran on the strongest gun safety ticket in history and won. So we're very optimistic. We think we've won the political argument on gun safety. And looking forward to translating that into big policy wins like we did today. And you're still on mute. There you.

JOHN WOODROW COX: You do sound really optimistic. And just so one quick final question.

PETER AMBLER: How can I not be optimistic when I'm sitting next to Gabby Giffords. Right?

JOHN WOODROW COX: Well, I I want to get one more thing because I think there is a lot of optimism among gun reform groups. But the filibuster still exists. And you still have to get to 60 votes. And I think there's a lot of doubt on Capitol Hill that's going to be possible. So I just wondered if you could quickly speak to that.? Do you think that is possible.? And if so, why?

PETER AMBLER: I think the Senate is going to act. I don't think they have a choice. When you have a problem as pervasive as gun violence is-- you saw in 2020 the biggest year over year spike in shootings in decades. You now have America sort of returning to normal. I'm seeing that light at the end of the tunnel, but already seeing the shadows. Already understanding that this return to normal isn't good enough. That we need to stop the shootings in Atlanta. Stop the shootings in Chicago. Stop shootings like the one in Boulder.

And if Congress is unable to take a problem as serious as gun violence that is such a leading cause of mortality, such a big public safety and public health crisis, when there is a solution available that's as effective and as popular as universal background checks, which 90% of Americans support, there is tremendous pressure. Not just on these individuals senators, but on Congress and on the Senate as an institution to act. If we can't find a path forward on this, I don't know where we can find a path forward on.

JOHN WOODROW COX: So I am sad to say that we're out of time, and we'll have to lead things there. Gabby Giffords, Peter Ambler, and Greg Gregory, thank you all so much for being here today. This was such a powerful conversation.

PETER AMBLER: And read the book. It's a simple read. We enjoyed it, and enjoyed talking to you about it.

JOHN WOODROW COX: Thank you. And I hope everybody who's watching right now will please join us tomorrow at 9:00 AM Eastern. My colleague, Jonathan Capehart, will talk with Post reporters and columnists about the biggest news stories of the day. My name is John Woodrow Cox, and you can find my new book, "Children Under Fire An American Crisis," anywhere that books are sold. Thanks so much for watching.