[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book II)]
[July 8, 1998]
[Pages 1190-1192]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks on Efforts to Promote Gun Safety and Responsibility
July 8, 1998

    I would like to begin by thanking Suzann Wilson for making the long 
trip up here from Arkansas with her sister to be with us today, so soon 
after that terrible tragedy. Most people

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wouldn't feel like going out of the house, much less coming all the way 
to Washington, and I think it is a real credit to her and to her 
devotion to her daughter that she is here today.
    I want to thank Colonel Mitchell and Lieutenant Governor Kathleen 
Kennedy Townsend and, in his absence, Governor Glendening, for the 
pathbreaking work being done in Maryland on this important issue. I 
thank Secretary Rubin and Mr. Johnson and Mr. Magaw for being here and 
the work the Treasury Department is doing. Thank you, Secretary Riley, 
for the work you've done to have zero tolerance for guns in schools. 
Thank you, Attorney General Reno, for the steady work now we have done 
for 6 years to try to bring this issue to the American people.
    I thank Senator Durbin, Senator Chafee, and Senator Kohl, and a 
special word of thanks to Representative Carolyn McCarthy. And to all 
the advocates out here, I welcome you here, and I thank you, and 
especially to the law enforcement officers.
    I think that this recent series of killings in our schools has 
seared the heart of America about as much as anything I can remember in 
a long, long time. I will always personally remember receiving the news 
from Jonesboro because it's a town I know well. I know the local 
officials; I know the school officials. I've spent large numbers of days 
there. I've been in all the schools and answered the children's 
questions. And once you know a place like that, you can't possibly 
imagine something like this occurring.
    But it's happened all over the country. I was in Springfield, 
Oregon, as you know, in the last couple of weeks, meeting with the 
families there. I think every American has sent out prayers to Suzann 
and the other parents and the other spouses and people who were so 
wounded by this. But in a fundamental way, our entire Nation has been 
wounded by these troubled children with their guns.
    As has already been said, these events have been even more difficult 
for us to understand because they're occurring at a time when we've had 
the lowest crime rate in America in 25 years and for the first time in a 
decade, a steady drop in the juvenile crime rate. So we struggle for 
answers. We say, ``Well, does the popular culture have anything to do 
with this? Does good parenting have anything to do with this?'' And we 
know that probably everything we consider has something to do with this. 
But no matter how you analyze this, it is clear that the combination of 
children and firearms is deadly. As parents, public officials, citizens, 
we simply cannot allow easy access to weapons that kill.
    For 5 years now, our administration has worked to protect our 
children, and we are making progress, as has been said. A great deal of 
the credit goes to farsighted leaders at the city level and at the State 
level, people like Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and 
Superintendent Mitchell and Governor Glendening.
    We're well on our way toward putting 100,000 police on the street. 
About a quarter of a million people have not been able to buy guns in 
the first place because of the Brady law, because of their criminal 
background or their mental health history. We have banned several types 
of assault weapons and have struggled to preserve the integrity of that 
law against a commercial assault from importers.
    School security is tighter; antigang prevention is better; penalties 
are stronger. We promoted discipline in schools with antitruancy and 
curfew and school uniform policies, and in various ways, they have 
worked marvelously in many communities. And we have a national policy 
now, in all our schools, of zero tolerance for guns in schools. Over 
6,000 students with guns were disarmed and sent home last year, 
doubtless preventing even more terrible acts of violence.
    But it is not enough if children have access to guns. In 
Springfield, Oregon, the young man in custody was sent home the day 
before because he had a gun in the school.
    So, yes, our laws must be strong, our enforcement resolute. At home, 
parents must teach their children the difference between right and wrong 
and lead them away from violence. But recent events remind us that even 
if all this is done, it is still too easy for deadly weapons to wind up 
in the hands of children, by intent or by accident, and then to lead to 
tragedy, by intent or by accident.
    We can't shrug our shoulders and say, ``Well, accidents will 
happen,'' or ``Some kids are just beyond hope.'' That is a copout. 
Instead, every one of us must step up to our responsibility. That 
certainly includes gun owners, gun purchasers, and gun dealers. Today we 
say to them, protecting children is your responsibility too, and there 
are penalties for the failure to fulfill it.

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    In response to the directive I issued to Secretary Rubin in June of 
last year, all Federal gun dealers will now be required to issue written 
warnings and post signs like that one over there. The sign makes it 
plain for all to see, in simple, direct language, that it's illegal to 
sell, deliver, or transfer a handgun to a minor, period. From now on, no 
customer or employee can avoid personal responsibility by pleading 
ignorance of the law.
    Responsibility at gun shops, of course, must be matched by 
responsibility at home. Suzann talked movingly about that. Guns are kept 
in the home for many purposes, from hunting to self-defense. That is 
every family's right, and as she said more eloquently than I, that is 
not in question. The real question is every parent's responsibility, 
every adult's responsibility to make sure that unsupervised children 
cannot get a hold of the guns. When guns are stored carelessly, children 
can find them, pick them up, court danger. Most will put them back where 
they found them. Others, as we know now from hard experience, will touch 
the trigger by accident. A troubled few will take guns to school with 
violence in mind.
    Too many guns wielded in rage by troubled adolescents can be traced 
back to an irresponsible adult. As has been previously said, in Maryland 
now, and now in 14 other States, parents have a legal responsibility to 
keep guns locked and out of reach of young hands. That should be the law 
in all 50 States. There are 35 more that ought to follow Maryland's 
lead. It should be the practice in every home.
    There is also a proper Federal role in preventing children's access 
to firearms, and Congress should pass a tough, targeted child access 
prevention law with new penalties to punish the most egregious 
    I applaud Senators Chafee and Durbin for their legislation starting 
us down the road toward making this the law of the land. I thank Senator 
Kohl and Representative McCarthy for their strong support. They are 
doing the right thing. And during the last days of this legislative 
session, this is how we should move forward, again I say, with progress, 
not partisanship.
    There is much we must do in public life to fulfill our obligation to 
our children. More than a year ago, we directed all Federal law 
enforcement agencies to issue child safety locks to Federal officers so 
that their guns could not be misused. A majority of our gun 
manufacturers have joined us voluntarily in this effort, and that has 
been successful. I hope all other gun manufacturers will follow suit.
    The real work, of course, must still be done in our homes, beyond 
law and policy, to the most basic values of respect, right and wrong, 
conscience and community, and violence rejected in favor of nonviolence 
and communication. Only parents can remedy what ails children in their 
heart of hearts. But the rest of us must do our part to help and must do 
our part to contain the potential for destructive violence when things 
fail at home.
    So I say again, this is an issue that has wounded every American in 
one way or the other. Of the four women standing to my right, three have 
lost members of their immediate family because of gun violence. All of 
us have grieved with them. We can do better. This is one big first step.
    Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 12:03 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive 
Office Building. In his remarks, he referred to Suzann Wilson, whose 
daughter Britthney Varner was killed in the Westside Middle School 
shooting in Jonesboro, AR; Maryland Superintendent of Police Col. David 
B. Mitchell; Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Gov. Parris N. 
Glendening of Maryland; and Kipland P. Kinkel, who was charged with the 
May 21 shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, OR, in which 2 
students were killed and 22 wounded.