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News brief: Senate gun vote, reaction to Supreme Court gun ruling, Jan. 6 hearing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It took mass killings in Uvalde and in Buffalo, along with countless other victims of mass shootings, for a long-sought breakthrough on gun safety measures in the Senate.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The yeas are 65. The nays are 33. The motion to concur with an amendment is agreed to.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sixty-five votes there, so it's bipartisan - a lot of Democrats, some Republicans. And now the modest gun safety bill goes to the House for a vote that is expected later today.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following it all. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there. Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So Congress has been unable to pass gun legislation for decades. What was different about this bill?

SNELL: Well, lawmakers I talked to said the biggest difference this time was that there was huge public pressure to get something done on guns. You know, they talked about the enormous grief and anger people felt after the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo. The Uvalde shooting in particular, where 19 children and two teachers were killed in an elementary school, really drove negotiators to the table. You know, another difference was that the negotiators were very narrowly focused from the outset, and then they fine-tuned the policy to reach a deal.

Now, the bill includes expanded background checks for gun buyers under 21, with potentially longer waiting periods for those buyers. There are new penalties for illegal straw purchases, grants for crisis intervention, including red flag laws that allow guns to be removed from people who are deemed to be a threat to themselves and others. And there's also money for school safety and mental health programs and gun ownership restrictions for people who have been convicted of domestic abuse.

FADEL: Now, gun rights groups like the NRA are opposing this bill. How are Republicans who usually support the NRA responding?

SNELL: You know, there were 15 Republicans who voted for the bill, and they basically all talked about this as legislation that does not infringe on Second Amendment rights. This is how Texas Republican John Cornyn explained it yesterday.

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JOHN CORNYN: Law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights are not a threat to public safety. But there are problems when people who are - have mental challenges or who are criminals get access to them.

SNELL: You know, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also voted for the bill, and he made a very similar argument in his statement when he was supporting the bill.

FADEL: Now, President Biden gave a national address earlier this month calling for Congress to go much further than this bill does - a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks. None of that's in the bill. But Democrats are supporting it. Tell us more about that.

SNELL: Yeah. Every Senate Democrat voted for it, and President Biden encouraged Congress to move swiftly on this package of policies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to bring it to a vote on the floor later today. And most people I have spoken with really do expect it to pass with strong support from Democrats. Chris Murphy was a lead Democrat in the negotiations, and he has repeatedly said that he wanted to get something done that could pass and that could make an impact.

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CHRIS MURPHY: This bill is a compromise. It doesn't do everything I want. But what we are doing will save thousands of lives without violating anyone's Second Amendment rights.

SNELL: Now, prominent gun safety groups also backed the legislation, and they're calling it an important step. So it looks like it is on a path to passage.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks so much.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: While the bipartisan move on gun safety is seen as a significant step forward, a Supreme Court ruling yesterday will impact restrictive gun laws in some states.

INSKEEP: The court struck down a New York state law that's been around since the early 1900s. It let the state restrict who could carry a gun in public places. This was a 6-to-3 decision along ideological lines with a conservative supermajority out-voting the liberal justices. The decision was met with fury from elected officials and celebrated by gun advocates, although even some supporters of the Second Amendment say the ruling could increase gun violence.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann joins us now from upstate New York. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So, Brian, tell us about this New York law that the Supreme Court struck down.

MANN: Well, New York's been one of half-a-dozen states that until now have required people to demonstrate a special need before they could get a permit to carry firearms out in public. And two men who applied for these public carry permits were rejected, so they filed a lawsuit, and their case made its way to the Supreme Court. In his majority ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas said New York's restrictions on carrying guns outside the home do violate the Second Amendment. He concluded New York officials use too much discretion denying these permits to law-abiding citizens.

FADEL: Now, this is a state that just had a racist mass shooting in Buffalo last month. How are New York officials reacting?

MANN: Well, they're furious. As you say, this comes at an emotional moment when police and communities are facing a surge in gun violence. I spoke about this yesterday with Byron Brown, who's mayor of Buffalo, where, as you say, 10 people were killed just last May.

BYRON BROWN: The nation is reeling from mass shootings, so the timing of this Supreme Court decision could not have been worse.

MANN: And now officials here are alarmed that guns could be a lot more common in crowded places, like New York City's subway system, Times Square, Central Park - places like that.

FADEL: So they're furious, but the Supreme Court ruled. Is there anything New York officials can do?

MANN: Well, the governor, Kathy Hochul, said she'll call a special session of the Legislature to look at new laws that might limit the impact of this ruling. That include - could include expanding the list of sensitive places where guns still aren't allowed. But it's unclear how those new regulations will work. This is a very conservative Supreme Court, and so any new regulations will have to pass this very tight muster.

FADEL: Now, guns being carried in public places, that's - it's just not normal in New York. What are you hearing from people there?

MANN: Yeah, this is interesting. Republican lawmakers praise the ruling. They say this restores important gun rights. But I spent time, Leila, talking to business owners yesterday, and they sound really nervous. Benjy White runs a coffee shop in Westport, N.Y.

BENJY WHITE: I'm one of those people who thinks that we're safer when there are fewer guns in the community, and I would not like to see or know that anybody's coming to my shop carrying. And if I saw one, I'd be very uneasy.

MANN: I also spoke with Frank Slycord, a bar owner in Port Henry, N.Y., who describes himself as really conservative, very pro-Second Amendment, but he also voiced concern about the idea of more people turning up in his bar with guns.

FRANK SLYCORD: I can understand the theory about wanting to be protected, protect your family when you're out and about. I'm still a little iffy about the thought that you can take one anywhere you go. If you're carrying a firearm, are you going to be more likely to pull your firearm?

MANN: But this is now something people are going to be faced with, not just here in New York but in a half-dozen states like California and Massachusetts, where carrying guns in public places has been strictly regulated until this ruling. And elected officials in many of those states are also scrambling to react to this Supreme Court ruling.

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann in upstate New York. Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

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FADEL: In a bid to hold on to power, former President Trump tried to manipulate the top law enforcement agency in this country.

INSKEEP: That was the testimony of DOJ officials in the latest January 6 hearing. They say Trump repeatedly called or met with them to press them to back his false claims of a stolen election.

FADEL: Joining us now is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, who followed these hearings closely. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there.

FADEL: So, Domenico, lay out what Justice Department officials said Trump specifically did to try to pressure them.

MONTANARO: Well, these top Justice Department officials testified that Trump was pressuring them nearly every day, bringing them seemingly never-ending conspiracy theories to investigate, and he wasn't satisfied when he was told they just were not true. You know, Trump threatened to replace several DOJ leaders. Former Attorney General Bill Barr left as Trump was trying to pressure him to appoint a special counsel for election fraud. Trump was so desperate that after officials told him they couldn't snap their fingers and change the outcome of the election, he had this piece of advice for them, according to Richard Donoghue, who was acting deputy attorney general at the time.

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RICHARD DONOGHUE: He responded very quickly and said, essentially, that's not what I'm asking you to do; what I'm just asking you to do is just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.

MONTANARO: You know, it's really something to hear. And about those Republican congressmen, by the way, we learned in the hearing that half a dozen of them asked for pardons. They didn't get them.

FADEL: And Trump had a lot of conspiracies he threw out there, didn't he?

MONTANARO: He did, and the people forced to respond to them spanned the government, really. Christopher Miller, the former acting defense secretary, testified that at the request of Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, he called a senior official in the Italian government in Rome to check on a pretty out-there conspiracy.

FADEL: Wow.

MONTANARO: Here's committee member Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, summing up the committee's findings.

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ADAM KINZINGER: Select committee confirmed that a call was actually placed by Secretary Miller to the attache in Italy to investigate the claim that Italian satellites were switching votes from Trump to Biden. This is one of the best examples of the lengths President Trump would go to stay in power.

MONTANARO: I mean, just wow. You know, Donoghue testified that Trump told him, "you guys may not be following the internet the way I do," close quote.

FADEL: Wow.

MONTANARO: You know, everything came to a head in a dramatic Oval Office meeting that they recounted. Trump threatened to replace Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, the man who had replaced Barr, with a junior Justice Department official, Jeffrey Clark, who was more willing to do Trump's bidding. Trump stopped short, but only after the threat of mass resignations.

FADEL: Wow. So we won't hear again from the committee until July because they have new evidence to review. So let's recap what we've seen. You've watched each of these five hearings. What have you learned? And what do you expect to come?

MONTANARO: I think my biggest takeaway is that, really, no one was off-limits. No one was immune from Trump's pressure campaign, whether it was local and state election officials, all the way up to the Justice Department and even his own vice president. You know, really, a pretty clear and vivid picture emerges of a president who didn't care about the truth and whose sole focus was remaining in power, no matter the cost, whether it was to people's personal lives or to American democracy itself, frankly. As for what's coming up, the committee has footage to go through from a British documentary filmmaker who interviewed Trump before and after January 6. The committee may also ask to talk to Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. And it says it's running down lots of new evidence that they say they've been getting in tips since the hearing began.

FADEL: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.