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After Mass Shootings, Welch Implores Congress To Enact Gun Background Check Legislation

A vigil outside NRA headquarters. People hold up orange letter cutouts that spell out GUN REFORM NOW.
Patrick Semansky
Associated Press
People call for gun reform during a vigil outside the NRA headquarters in Virigina on Monday. Vermont Rep. Peter Welch told 'Vermont Edition' this week that the U.S. needs to pass "common-sense gun safety legislation."

Over the course of a week, three mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio renewed a sense of despair, fear, sadness and anger for many Americans. The wave of recent tragedies has also revived conversations about enacting federal gun control legislation.

"The easy access to these guns, especially these automatic weapons, makes it very simple for somebody who's quite disturbed to do an immense amount of slaughter in a very short period of time," Rep. Peter Welch told Vermont Edition Tuesday. "So I think we do have to pass, finally, some common-sense gun safety legislation." 

Find excerpts from the conversation with Rep. Peter Welch below, and listen above to the full interview.

More from Vermont Edition: Taking Steps Toward Healing After Mass Shootings

The president's rhetoric

Welch said President Donald Trump's response after these recent shootings — in which the president condemned racist ideologies — was "not credible" in light of past divisive remarks Trump has made.

"The president has used hate speech," Welch said.

However, the congressman agreed the fact the president did make a public condemnation in this case opens up the opportunity to hold him accountable to it and make Republicans take action in Congress.

When asked about censoring online communities where extremist views can thrive, Welch said: "I don't support infringing on First Amendment rights, but I do support public officials — starting with the president — to speak with compassion instead of division. You know, the country always is in need of a leader who uses our office of highest public trust to promote unity, not division. And that makes a difference.

"And the president's rhetoric, you know from his campaign forward, has been very divisive and that has real consequences. Hate speech will lead to hate crimes and people will feel authorized — disturbed people who hear a validation of their disturbed ideas will act, and we've seen that. ... It's not as though the hate speech is what pulls the trigger but it provides the powder that makes a bad outcome more likely."

President Donald Trump stands at a podium, while Vice President Mike Pence stands off to the side. A portrait of George Washington hangs on the wall.
Credit Evan Vucci / Associated Press
Associated Press
President Donald Trump held a press conference Monday morning at the White House to comment on the shootings that occurred in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio over the weekend. Rep. Peter Welch told VPR he felt Trump's comments Monday were "not credible" considering the president's past divisive rhetoric.

Next steps for Congress

"We should do everything that we can to follow up, and it should start with some common-sense gun legislation," Welch said. "You know, the House has passed a strong background check bill that is sitting in the Senate [and Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell won't bring it up.

"And, you know, you contrast what's happening with the stonewalling there with what happened in Vermont after we had that near tragedy at Fair Haven. We had a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor, Phil Scott, who came together to pass very significant gun safety legislation. So I'd like to see us follow through on that with actions, not just words. ...

"When we passed this in the [U.S.] House, we had Republican support. I mean, this is a common sense step: do a background check before somebody gets a gun. And many Republican senators — [South Carolina Rep.] Tim Scott has indicated that he would go back to Washington and support that. Mitch McConnell is stonewalling and the president is not giving it the support that we need from the president. And essentially this should be done on a bipartisan basis. We should be talking about these weapons of war."

Potential for a gun buyback program

The Global Arms Survey estimates that, at the end of 2017, there were nearly 400 million firearms owned by American civilians; that's about 120 guns per 100 people. Considering this statistic, would instituting a gun buyback program have to be part of a solution to addressing the country's gun violence?

"As far as the buyback is concerned, that is something we could definitely consider; it's voluntary, people could turn in guns and that might help in some respects. But I also think that the massive number of guns out there means that none of us can have total confidence that any specific action, one thing — even the background check — is necessarily going to end it," Welch said.

"But we should do the things that we can do, where we're making a societal commitment to take real care before a person is allowed to have a firearm. They should have a background check so we have some confidence that that person is going to use it responsibly — and of course the vast number of people who own guns do that."

More from NPR — "After Mass Shootings, Other Nations Issue Caution About 'Gun Society' In U.S."

More focus on domestic terrorism

"I also think there's cultural challenges that we face. I mean, the president's rhetoric that whips up this white nationalist sentiment is very, very dangerous. Also I think we've got to address what is domestic terrorism and name that," Welch said. "You know, since 9/11 the focus and massive amounts of resources have been spent on protecting the homeland from international terrorists ... yet we have no tracking system here to follow domestic terrorism.

"We don't have a coordinated approach. We just leave it all to the FBI. We don't have the resources in our local law enforcement agencies to assist them in trying to track what is going on in the white nationalist community. So I think that there has to now be a focus on this domestic threat that is emerging."

In his speech Monday, Trump said he has instructed the FBI to identify resources necessary to disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism. The recent shootings in Gilroy, California, and in El Paso, Texas, are both being looked into by federal authorities as acts of domestic terrorism.

This interview was broadcast on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019 at noon and 7 p.m.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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