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New Gun Laws Still A Touchy Subject In Congress


President Obama's also trying to get the government more involved in trying to stop gun violence, but his supporters in Congress face an uphill battle in getting new gun control measures passed. Senator Richard Durbin's Senate judiciary subcommittee held hearings this week. The senator from Illinois, who is also majority whip, joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: It's good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: There are plenty of Democrats who don't support stricter gun laws. Do you have the votes in your own party to get something passed?

DURBIN: It's not clear. You know, immediately after Newtown, a lot of my colleagues who had voted consistently with the National Rifle Association raised some questions. It took some courage for them to do that. And many of them have continued looking for some ways to change the law that might make America safer.

SIMON: Can you tell us, anyone shifted positions?

DURBIN: Well, a number of them are engaged in a dialogue at least to try to explore some elements. One of them, for example, dealing with straw purchasers. That is just a terrible situation when it comes to the great city of Chicago. There's one gun dealer just in the suburbs that is responsible for about 20 percent of the crime guns. So, certainly when it comes to stiffer federal penalties on straw purchasers and gun traffickers, I think there's a growing bipartisan consensus.

SIMON: You touched on the appalling homicide rate in Chicago over the past year. More than 500 of your constituents, as I don't have to tell you, were killed in violence in Chicago last year. Is it realistic to think that further legislation will actually have any effect on gangs who are shooting in the streets?

DURBIN: It will be a start. We have to do things to keep guns out of the hands of those who misuse them, penalize those who would buy them and give them to those people, make sure mental health records are part of the NIC system, the national background check system. All of these are fairly obvious, but, you know, in and of themselves they will not end the gun violence. There is so much more that has to be part of this - good policing on the street, interventions earlier in the lives of these young people before they become hopelessly involved in these gang activities.

SIMON: So, you're not saying that gun legislation is the solution but part of what you see is potential solutions.

DURBIN: I think so. And when I hear the critics say, well, for goodness sakes, why do want to change the law? It's not going to solve the problem. It's almost like saying, you know, since people speed on the highways, why in the world do we have speed limits? By and large, you reduce the carnage, you reduce the deaths, you increase safety. I think universal background checks have a good chance. I've yet to have anyone on any side of this issue stand up and say, you know, it's a pretty good idea that we don't really know if the purchaser is a convict or a fugitive or under a restraining order for domestic violence or mentally unstable. Everybody knows it's far better and safer for everyone in America if we have a background check that discourages, if not stops, those people from buying.

SIMON: Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, he said the odds of being prosecuted for lying on a background check are probably a whole lot less than being struck by lightning. So, why pass new laws if the ones on the books seem so imperfectly enforced?

DURBIN: Well, because currently, if you go into a gun dealer and misrepresent your background, it's a paperwork violation. And yet I think if we made it a serious crime, there'd be a lot fewer people trying to get around the law. Over a million people who clearly were disqualified have filled out those forms and been stopped.

SIMON: Senator, what's your, not just political but, human feel for this? Did the deaths at Newtown clarify the thinking of, if I might say, both sides in this debate? Both people who believe in further and further, tighter, stricter gun laws and those who feel that one of the lessons is that the right to self-defense has to be enshrined?

DURBIN: Well, to think that two years ago when one of our own, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was shot point-blank in the face at a town meeting in Arizona, we didn't have this national response. But Newtown, Connecticut made a difference - just the faces and the thoughts of those 20 little infant children in the first grade and the six teachers and administrators so bravely trying to defend them. That really was a tipping point. I think things have changed. The national dialogue has changed. In Chicago, with all of the gun violence - Hadiya Pendleton's death - right on the heels of all these really brought attention in our city. The deaths have continued - don't get me wrong - but there were moments when we reflected on the victims. And I really think that there's a sense that we can do this, we must do that. And politically, I'm seeing a lot more courage on this issue than I have in a long time.

SIMON: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. Thanks very much for being with us, senator.

DURBIN: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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