[Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents Volume 36, Number 15 (Monday, April 17, 2000)]
[Pages 788-791]
[Online from the Government Printing Office, www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at a Maryland State Bill Signing Ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland

April 11, 2000

    Thank you very much, Governor and Mrs. Glendening, Lieutenant 
Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Secretary of State Willis, Attorney 
General Curran, Mr. Speaker, President Miller. I also want to 
acknowledge the Members of Congress who are here, who are on the right 
side of this fight, Senator Mikulski, Representative Morella, and 
Representative Wynn. You can be very proud of what all three of them are 
doing on this issue.
    I thank the members of the legislature, the overwhelming numbers of 
Democrats and the brave Republicans who joined you to pass this 
legislation. I thank the students from the Young Kids Against Violence 
and the Students Together Against Guns and from Largo and Potomac 
schools for their work. And I want to say a little more about each of 
you in a moment.
    Let me say, I think it is fitting that we are here today in this 
magnificent old place where our forebears walked the halls more than 200 
years ago. It's a site of firsts. The Speaker mentioned George 
Washington resigning his commission just a few steps from here. The 
State House was also the site of the ratification of the Treaty of 
Paris, which officially put an end to the Revolutionary War and marked 
the birth of our new Nation.
    Today we are trying to end another kind of war, an ongoing struggle 
to reduce the staggering toll of violence on our citizens and especially 
on our children. The Maryland Legislature once again has made history, 
and I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I came up here 
today more than anything else to say thank you.
    I applaud first your Governor. I remember after I first met him--you 
know, he's sort of low-key; you have to keep listening to Parris 
Glendening. [Laughter] But I must say, he wears well. The more I watched 
him--I remember once, a couple years ago, I was talking to people at the 
White House about what was going on in the States about a completely 
different issue. And I said, ``You know, it is astonishing; in almost 
everything I have tried to accomplish as President, Maryland has been 
out there on the forefront of change, ahead of the other States in 
virtually every area.'' And I might say, in the area of gun safety, it's 
worth pointing out for the record that Maryland has already banned 
assault weapons, cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials, 
already limited handgun sales to one per month, and with this new law, 
you are again leading the way.
    Last year California passed legislation to limit handgun sales to 
one a month, to ban

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junk guns, new generations of assault weapons. Last week Massachusetts 
began enforcing consumer product safety rules for guns, to ban junk 
guns, and to adopt devices to prevent children from firing guns.
    Tomorrow I'm going to Colorado to support a citizen ballot 
initiative to close the gun show loophole and require background checks 
on all gun sales.
    We ought to talk for a moment about how this came to be. I was 
looking at Mike Miller up here, and I've had the privilege to know him 
well for many years now. I know what kind of district you represent; 
this can't have been an easy fight for him. I heard the Speaker talking. 
I used to go down to the Eastern Shore when I was a student at 
Georgetown. I've had the privilege of spending a little time at Camp 
David since I've been President, traveling in the neighborhood. I know 
not all of Maryland is Baltimore, and I know what the Speaker was 
saying. I know how hard this vote was for a lot of you.
    And I know something else, too. None of us want to really pay 
tribute to the people who are truly responsible for us all being here 
today. We thanked each other. The truth is, we're all here because too 
many children got killed. And I was so moved by what Kathleen said, and 
I couldn't help thinking how proud her father would be of her today.
    Most of the history of the United States to bring sanity to our gun 
laws has been a sad history, littered with the lost lives of people we 
could ill afford to lose. President Johnson, to his everlasting credit, 
proposed sweeping gun legislation in the aftermath of the deaths of 
Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. He got something passed the 
Congress in 1968, which was better than nothing but woefully weak. I 
will remind you that that law only required gun sellers to ask but not 
to verify whether purchasers had a criminal record or a mental health 
    And then, somehow, we just forgot about it. And a lot of people like 
me who came from places like Arkansas and Maryland, who always knew we 
ought to be doing something, just didn't. I remember in 1982, when I ran 
for Governor, I actually blurted out what I thought. I said I would 
support a waiting period and background checks for gun sales, handgun 
sales, 18 years ago. It sparked a withering firestorm. And when I got 
elected, I saw there was no support for it. So I just walked away and 
went on to other things.
    My life was changed when a friend of mine who ran a hardware store 
in a small mountain town of about a thousand people--a man, I knew him 
and his family very well--was in his store one day, and a guy came in he 
hadn't seen in a long time, and he said, ``Where you been?'' And he 
said, ``Well, I went away to the service, and then I lived in other 
States, and I just got back. I want to buy a gun. I want to do some 
target practice.'' And he kind of joked about the gun control form, 
``Well, have you ever been in prison, ever had a background check, a 
mental health history?'' And the guy said, ``No, no.'' He handed him the 
gun; 18 hours later 5 people were dead. He had broken out of the State 
veterans mental hospital that morning.
    And it nearly destroyed my friend. He lost years of his life trying 
to get over what had happened. He was not responsible. The law, in any 
case, would not have found out what had to be found out. It was totally 
inadequate. But he lived with the nightmares of those people.
    And then the NRA started trying to pass legislation all over the 
country to actually require States to keep cities from having gun 
control laws more stringent than the State did, and I vetoed it a couple 
of times--and had some rather interesting exchanges with them.
    Then, when the Brady bill was vetoed in 1991 or '92, whenever it 
was, I just promised myself if I ever had a chance to start again, I 
would. And unfortunately, our cause has been aided by the deaths of all 
these children in all these schools and in other settings. And I think 
we should pay tribute to them. They are why we're all here today. You 
know it, and I know it. They are what made our constituents in places 
like rural Arkansas and rural Maryland--who now know, because of the 
experience of the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban, we have no 
intention of interfering with hunting season or sport shooting events or 
any other lawful activities--they made those folks willing to say, ``You 
know, this is something we probably ought to do.''

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    And now, in truth, the people are ahead of most of the politicians. 
And what I would hope today is that we could just keep on. We could make 
it clear that we have no intention of undermining the legitimate 
interests of people who hunt and sport shoot. We can also make it clear, 
to go back to what one of the previous speakers said, that we think the 
NRA ought to join us in this. What possible interest could anyone have 
in being against child trigger locks or being for safe gun technology 
that would permit handguns to be fired only by the adults who own them?
    There is a need, as they say, for more training of people, for more 
sensible education to make sure that responsible conduct is the rule for 
people who do lawfully own these guns. And it's time for us to get 
    There's just one other thing I would like to say. The Governor 
talked about the terrible toll of deliberate killing, handgun killing, 
and how the--if my math is right--the death rate is roughly 30 times in 
America what it was in the other countries that he mentioned. I think 
it's worth also mentioning that the accidental death rate of children 
from handguns is over 9 times that of the next 25 biggest industrial 
countries combined. And this is something else that's worth pointing 
out. We are here not just to prevent crimes; we are here to prevent 
accidents that also, tragically, take the lives of these children.
    I hope that the United States Congress is paying attention to this 
event today, because every child in America deserves the protection you 
have given Maryland's children, and only Congress can provide that. 
There are very few people in Congress who represent districts any 
tougher, any more resistant to the argument that will be made against 
such legislation than some of you do who are sitting here, very few.
    There are more than enough people in the Congress who represent 
districts who would support this kind of action by more than 2 to 1, to 
pass this legislation in a landslide, legislation to require child 
safety locks, to ban the importation of large capacity ammunition clips, 
to close the gun show loophole. But for 9 months now, there has been no 
action. Oh, a good bill passed the Senate, as the Governor said, because 
the Vice President broke the tie. And a weaker bill passed the House, 
and we have been in conference. And the Democrats, through Congressman 
Conyers, have even offered a reasonable compromise. But nothing has 
    And I'll say again, every single day Congress waits, we lose 12 
children, nearly 90 people overall, to gun violence. Congress should 
follow Maryland's lead.
    Since the passage of the Brady bill, half a million felons, 
fugitives, and stalkers have been unable to get handguns at gun stores; 
gun crime is down by more than 35 percent. The people who opposed 
closing the gun show loophole 6 years ago said the Brady bill would be 
ineffective because criminals didn't buy guns at gun stores; they only 
bought guns at gun shows and urban flea markets. Now they say, well, 
even if that's true--which it wasn't entirely true--it's just too 
    But it isn't. It isn't. The modest amount of time that would be 
required at rural gun shows in the most isolated area where people drive 
the longest distances are more than worth it to save one child's life. 
Over 70 percent of these background checks can be done in about an hour; 
over 90 percent, in a day. People say, ``Well, why are you holding out 
for the other 8 or 9 percent?'' Because the rejection rate of the 8 or 9 
percent that can't be checked in a day is 20 times higher than the 
rejection rate of the 90 percent that can be checked in a day.
    So I say to you, we have got to do this. Do we need more 
enforcement? Of course, we do. We've increased enforcement, and I've 
asked for 500 new ATF agents and 1,000 new Federal, State, and local gun 
    You mentioned the Smith & Wesson announcement where they agreed to 
change the way guns are manufactured, marketed, and sold. I hope that 
did help you. It was a courageous thing for Smith & Wesson to do. And 
let me just explain the practical issue here again. An enormous number 
of the guns used in crimes that are bought from stores are bought from a 
very small percentage of

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the stores. That's what this is about, primarily. And I only hope that 
other gun manufacturers will follow their lead instead of excoriating 
them. They don't deserve to be condemned; they deserve to be applauded. 
And others ought to step up to the plate and do the same thing.
    Now, Governor, you said the NRA ought to stop attacking me. I'll 
tell you what, if they stop attacking this legislation, I'd be happy for 
them to attack me for the rest of my life. I've kind of gotten used to 
it. What we say about each other doesn't amount to a hill of beans. But 
whether all these kids here live to have their children standing on 
these steps some day fighting for some other issue, that's what matters. 
That's what matters.
    So again, I say a simple thank you. Thank you, once again, for 
leading the Nation to a better tomorrow. And again I say, Washington 
should follow Maryland's lead.
    Thank you very much.

 Note:  The President spoke at 12:04 p.m. in the Maryland State House. 
In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Lt. Gov. 
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Secretary of State John Willis, and Attorney 
General Joseph Curran of Maryland; Governor Glendening's wife, Frances; 
and Maryland State House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, Jr., and Senate 
President Mike Miller. The Maryland law was entitled, ``The Responsible 
Gun Safety Act of 2000.''