MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, rising gas prices, rising insurance costs, and rising payroll taxes - Happy New Year, middle class. We'll talk with NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax in just a few minutes about all the things that are squeezing the middle class right now - as if you hadn't noticed.
But first, we wanted to talk again about efforts to keep Americans safe from gun violence. Earlier this week, President Obama was in Minnesota for a campaign-style event to push his gun safety plans. And he also talked about some of the work that the Senate is doing on the issue.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are working on a bill that would ban anyone from selling a gun to somebody legally prohibited from owning one. That's common sense. There's no reason why we can't get that done. That is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea. It's not a Democratic or Republican idea. That is a smart idea.
MARTIN: Now, the Senate is controlled by the Democrats, which is, of course, the president's party, but now this week came the first sign of bipartisan cooperation in the Republican-controlled House. On Monday, a bipartisan group of House members - two Republicans, two Democrats - introduced a bill of their own that would make it a federal crime to knowingly buy or transfer a firearm to someone who isn't supposed to have one.
Joining us now to talk about this is one of the bill's sponsors. Congressman Elijah Cummings is a Democrat. He represents Maryland's Seventh District. That includes parts of the city of Baltimore. Congressman Cummings, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome back to the program. And I would be remiss if I didn't say congratulations on the Ravens' Super Bowl win.
REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Thank you very much. And Michel, it's good to be with you.
MARTIN: On a much more serious note, I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that it is not already a federal crime to knowingly transfer or buy a gun to somebody who's not supposed to have one, especially a convicted felon or especially with the knowledge that that person intends to use it to commit a crime. Any idea why it isn't already a crime?
CUMMINGS: I don't know. That's a good question. It is a giant problem, a loophole, and it's one that anybody who wants to make sure that the laws are effective and efficient and, you know, we're in a position for those laws to do what they're supposed to do, it seems like they would want the kind of legislation that we're talking about here.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, your district includes parts of the city of Baltimore which certainly has a long experience with violent crime, including violent crime involving guns. How significant a part of that crime problem, in your view, is this phenomenon, as we said, of people transferring guns to people who aren't supposed to have them?
CUMMINGS: Oh, it's a major part. And a perfect example is a case that recently took place in Oakland - of course an urban area. They discovered that they were coming up, Michele, with all these guns at crime scenes that were coming from a rural part of Georgia. Come to find out there was a gentleman who was a convicted felon who had gotten his girlfriend to straw purchase guns for him.
Sixty-four of them in the course of about two and a half months. They then sent those guns from rural Georgia to Oakland and they were being sold and distributed by gang members there. So you know, you take 64 guns and you place them in a city and the police then begin to find those guns at crime scenes, and those kinds of things are happening all over the country.
What we're trying to do is say to that person, say, for example, in this instance, the girlfriend, that instead of perhaps a slap on the wrist and getting probation if she were to do that, based on local laws, we want a federal law saying that she would get 20 years. And we're also beefing up the straw purchaser law, saying that people would also be subject to a 20-year penalty if they were to purchase a gun for a known felon.
MARTIN: Do you have any concern at all, though - this is something that has been articulated a lot in connection with the so-called war on drugs, on efforts to address the problem of illegal drugs, that a lot of people feel, and kind of the burden of law enforcement has really fallen upon the small fish and not the big fish, that a lot of the laws that are intended to catch the big fish really don't have that effect, that they actually wind up falling heaviest and having the heaviest impact on people who are not the so-called traffickers. Do you have any concern that that could be the same thing here?
CUMMINGS: Yeah. Of course I'm very sensitive to that, Michel, having lived in the inner, inner city of Baltimore for the past 32 years. But I think this is a little different. I mean we're talking about somebody who literally goes out and tries to violate the law by purchasing a gun for somebody who's already a convicted felon.
And I don't think that there will be just members of minority communities who will be subject to this. In other words, I think you'll see a wide diversity of people who will come, sadly, under this law and be subjected to this penalty of 20 years.
And you know, the other thing we've got to do - keep in mind is guns. You know, people use guns to kill. As you probably well know, my nephew was slain a year and a half ago. And Michel, I've got to tell you...
MARTIN: We talked about it. Yes, I do remember.
MARTIN: I'm so sorry, again, for your loss.
CUMMINGS: And there's nothing, there's nothing like seeing your blood splattered on a wall and seeing brain matter on that wall and that person was just a 20 year old wonderful kid, honor student at a university. And so when Sandy Hook came up, it just, you know, brought all that back up for me. And a lot of people are saying, well, Cummings, this is just a limited law.
You ought to be doing more. And perhaps we should be doing more, but this is something that we've gotten Republicans and Democrats to agree on. And this is some fresh news just for you, Michel - a lot of people don't know this yet - but we're announcing today three more Republican sponsors to our legislation. And that's very significant.
Michael Grimm of New York, Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Peter King of New York. And this may very well, Michel, be a breakthrough with regard to some of the other gun legislation. And by the way, this is something that police and prosecutors are begging for. They're not asking for this law; they're begging for it. Because they want to be more effective in their jobs.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, Congressman - the story of your nephew is a story that's been repeated all over this country...
MARTIN: ...for too long, as we've discussed.
MARTIN: And people in law enforcement have been asking for quite some time for these kinds of measures. Why do you think it is that you and your colleagues on the other side of the aisle have had such a difficult time understanding each other on this issue or getting to common ground on this issue?
CUMMINGS: You know, I think that the National Rifle Association has spent so much time putting it out on the airwaves that folks are trying to take away the guns of sportsmen and collectors and people who simply want to protect their homes and hunters, that - and they seem to be putting that word out and saying that, you know, anything that has to do with guns and any kind of restrictions, any kind of laws, is going to take away their Second Amendment rights.
And nothing could be further from the truth, particularly with regard to this piece of legislation. And I think just people having a fear - and we hear these arguments all the time, Michel, that people think that at some point maybe government may not be doing all it needs to be doing, and they may have to protect themselves because government may fail to protect them.
And we hear those things. And so at some point, though, there has to be a breakthrough. And Sandy Hook, I think, really caused a lot of people to look at some of these arguments. And going back to your question, looking at - and then begin to look at each other and say, you know, whether you're a Republican, a member of NRA, or a Democrat, saying wait a minute, hold it; these are our children. You've got, you know, 20 children shot, some of them as many - 11 and 12 times at close range and you can't even identify the bodies looking at their faces, some of them. Wait a minute. Where are we going? And so I think maybe - you know, I often say that - and when my nephew died I said the same thing - I said death is a part of life, but sometimes life is a part of death. And what I mean by that is that sometimes it causes us to think and change our ways, and I think this is a critical moment, Michel, where that dialogue finally may come to a point where both groups begin to listen to each other, and that's why this legislation is so significant, in that we sat down with some of our Republican colleagues and we listened to each other.
And you know what, Michel? We did not concentrate on what we disagreed on. We concentrated on what we agree on. And we said, OK, you know, we'd love for you to do some other things, but let's try to make something happen. Because the thing that we feared most, Michel, was that we would concentrate on what we disagreed on and we would end up doing nothing.
MARTIN: Congressman, before we let you go, I did want to ask you one more question about an issue that's on a lot of people's minds today. President Obama has proposed another short term solution to try to avoid these across-the-board spending cuts...
MARTIN: ...that will come to pass if there is not an agreement on deficit reduction. And he seems to be meeting a lot of resistance from House Republicans on this issue. And also Republicans in the Senate. Republicans in general, let's just say. So where does the debate go from here? Do you see any opportunity for common ground on this issue?
CUMMINGS: I think that we, at some point, will move to some type of common ground because I think the Republicans don't want to see our economy shrink, and we've already seen some indication of that from the GDP of the last quarter.
So we've got to - I think the public will dictate, Michel, a lot of what happens from here. I think the president is going out there and laying out the case, laying out a possible solution to the problem. But I tell you, when we start losing jobs at a pretty good clip, I think people are - and when people feel that that situation is threatened - and businesses, by the way - they don't want to see this sequester go through. I think businesses and the public will put enough pressure on the Republicans to at least have them sit down and come up with some kind of a temporary solution to the problem so that we avoid sequester.
MARTIN: Congressman Elijah Cummings is a Democrat who represents Maryland's Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives, and just by way of information, I do want to mention that we did reach out to your Republican cosponsors on this bill and their schedules simply did not permit them to join us today. And he was kind enough - Congressman Cummings was kind enough to join us from the studios on Capitol Hill.
Congressman Cummings, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CUMMINGS: Thank you.
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