A picture of Senator Richard J. Durbin
Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Gun Violence

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2013-02-14

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, I rise to speak about the problem of gun violence in America. Every day we lose over 30 men, women and children in violent shooting deaths. More than 11,000 Americans are murdered with guns each year. That is more deaths [[Page S757]] each year than all the American lives lost in the 9/11 attacks . . . and the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war combined. Every day provides some grim reminder of the toll of gun violence in our nation. And today marks yet another sad anniversary.

    Five years ago today, on February 14, 2008, a gunman entered a lecture hall on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The gunman opened fire on the students gathered in the hall, taking the lives of five students and wounding 17 others. The five Illinoisans we lost that day were: Gayle Dubowski, 20 years old, from Carol Stream, who sang in her church choir and enjoyed working as a camp counselor; Catalina Garcia, of Cicero, age 20, who had a glowing smile and who hoped to be a teacher someday; Juliana Gehant, of Mendota, age 32, a veteran of the United States Army and Army Reserve who also dreamed of becoming a teacher; Ryanne Mace, of Carpentersville, only 19 years old, who aspired to work as a counselor so she could help others; and Daniel Parmenter, 20 years old, from Westchester, a rugby player and a gentle giant who died trying to shield his girlfriend from the shooter.

    This day was devastating for the families of the victims, for the NIU community, and for our nation. We were heartbroken by the senseless murders of these young Americans who had hopes and dreams and bright futures. The Northern Illinois University community came together in response to the tragedy. They held each other close, and continued to move ``forward, together forward'' in the words of the Huskie fight song. But no family and no community should have to suffer like this. And those who were scarred by the shooting but survived will never forget that day and never fully heal from it.

    There are things that we can do to move forward together on this issue of gun violence. Just the other day I received an email from Patrick Korellis, of Gurnee, IL, who was in the NIU lecture hall on that day 5 years ago. He was shot in the head but survived. Patrick wrote me because he believes Congress needs to act to prevent and reduce gun violence. He wrote in support of the proposals that the President has put forward and that we will soon consider in the Senate Judiciary Committee. These proposals will not stop every shooting in America. But they will stop many of them. And lives will be saved if we can move forward and put them into effect.

    We know what we need to do. Earlier this week I chaired a hearing in the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to discuss ways we can protect our communities from gun violence while respecting the Second Amendment. We discussed a number of common sense proposals. First, we need to have a system of universal background checks for all gun sales. This idea is a no-brainer. Universal background checks will ensure that those who are prohibited by law from buying a gun, like felons, fugitives, and the mentally ill, cannot get one from a private seller at a gun show or over the Internet. Universal background checks are not controversial. In fact, the idea is supported by 74 percent of the members of the NRA, according to a poll conducted last year by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.

    We should also stop the flood of new military-style assault weapons onto our streets. When you talk to hunters, they tell you that these kinds of weapons are not needed for hunting. And these weapons are not designed for self-defense. These are weapons of aggression, designed to spray a large number of bullets in a short time with minimal reloading. And they were used to commit mass slaughter in places like Newtown and Aurora. Our children and our first responders should not have to face these weapons of aggression. Surely we can agree on reasonable limits for military-style assault weapons.

    We should also limit the capacity of ammunition magazines--to a level that allows for reasonable self-defense but that reduces the scope of carnage that a mass shooter can cause. This would have saved lives in Tucson and in other mass shootings.

    We should crack down on the straw purchasers who buy guns and then give them to criminals and other prohibited purchasers. Straw purchasing fuels the criminal gun market, and it costs lives. But right now federal law only allows straw purchasers to be charged with a paperwork violation for lying on the gun sale form. At the hearing I chaired earlier this week, we learned from U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy of the Western District of Virginia that these ``paperwork prosecutions'' are difficult to prove and usually carry only minor penalties. That is not good enough. We need to create a strong deterrent to these unlawful straw purchases so we can stop this supply chain of guns to criminals.

    At the hearing I chaired, we also heard powerful testimony from Sandra Wortham of the South Side of Chicago. Sandra's brother, Officer Thomas Wortham the Fourth, was shot and killed by gang members on May 19, 2010, in front of his parents' home. Thomas was a Chicago Police Officer, a community leader and a combat veteran who had served two tours in Iraq. Some say that the answer to gun violence in America is simply to arm more good guys with guns so they can shoot back. But both Thomas Wortham and his father, a retired Chicago police officer, were armed that night, and they shot back at the men who pulled a gun on Thomas. Even so, those men killed Thomas Wortham with a straw-purchased handgun.

    These were men who were not allowed to legally buy a handgun, but they got one all too easily on the streets--a gun that was straw purchased in Mississippi and trafficked up to Chicago. As Sandra Wortham said so eloquently in her testimony, ``the fact that my brother and father were armed that night did not prevent my brother from being killed. We need to do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands in the first place. I don't think that makes us anti-gun, I think it makes us pro-decent, law abiding people.'' I agree with Sandra. We can take steps, consistent with our Constitution and the Second Amendment, to limit access to dangerous weapons and keep them out of the hands of those prohibited from using them.

    I believe the Wortham family deserves a vote here in the United States Senate. They deserve a vote on common sense reforms that would keep guns out of the wrong hands. We owe that to them, and I look forward to that vote.

    Whether it strikes in a college lecture hall in DeKalb or on the sidewalks of the South Side of Chicago, gun violence is a tragedy. Today we mourn the loss of those taken from us at NIU 5 years ago. And we mourn Thomas Wortham and the tens of thousands of other Americans we have lost in violent shootings since that day. But the time is coming soon when we will be able to vote on measures to save families from the suffering that the Worthams and so many others have experienced. And I hope the Senate will make those families proud.


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