Sen. Chuck Schumer on the Push for Gun Legislation: 'Our Greatest Enemy Is Apathy'

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U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer speaks during a news briefing after a weekly policy luncheon July 6, 2016 at the Capitol in Washington, DC.

Veteran New York Sen. Chuck Schumer knows a thing or two about guns. The chair of the Democratic Policy Committee and potential next Senate Minority Leader co-authored the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the latter of which he told Billboard he considers "one of the most important things I've done in my career as a legislator." 

That helps explains why Schumer, along with his Democratic colleagues in the House, refuses to stop pushing efforts to pass new common sense gun measures in the wake of a string of mass shootings, including the most recent in Orlando and Dallas. Among those provisions are expanded background checks covering online and gun show sales and the so-called "no fly, no buy" provision, which would block suspected terrorists on the no-fly list from buying weapons.

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"I think the inability to do the slightest and most rational things about guns, which have the support of up to 90 percent of all Americans is an affront to the American people," Schumer says of the thwarted efforts to pass new gun restrictions in Congress over the past three weeks. "The proliferation of guns with people who shouldn't have them: felons, people who have mental illness, spousal abusers is just incredible. But I do think there's a sea change occurring."

Schumer is more hopeful than he has been in years about the possibility of new gun laws, and in a conversation with Billboard, he explained why and gave some tips on what you can do to help. 

What do your constituents tell you about what they want to see happen with new gun laws?

Just this past Sunday I went up to street fairs in upstate New York, I go every year. One in Utica, one in Rochester, one in Buffalo and I see thousands of people. In the past, the number of people who would comment to me on the gun issue was small and it would be mostly pro-gun people. I'd get 5-6 comments at each of the street fairs: "Don't take away my guns." "I've heard from the NRA and I don't like what you're doing."

This time [for the] first time, I got 50 comments saying "pass some rational laws on gun control… do something about guns." And no one was on the anti-gun control side. I think the accumulation, starting with Sandy Hook, almost the weekly news reports of people having guns and killing people and culminating in San Bernardino, Orlando and the horror in Dallas, people have said "enough already!" And lots of the voters who came up to me were Republicans.

I think we're at a sea change and this is the moment if there ever was for people to hold their representatives responsible. There are a good number of vulnerable senators, mainly Republican, who are up for re-election this year who have voted against rational laws on guns. All you have to do is go to websites and see how your legislator voted and call them and protest. It will have an effect this year in a way that it hasn't had effect in previous years.

You hear that a lot: call or email your legislator and let them know how you feel. Some voters have expressed frustration, though, because they call and email and yet the same things happen again and again. How do you break that cycle?

First, the number of people who call on the side of pro-gun control has always been smaller than NRA activists, even though the number of NRA activists is small, they've been more active. So in a state like New York many weeks my calls are more pro-gun than pro-gun control. Second, we've started this campaign, Buck the NRA, and Republicans are feeling the heat for the first time. They used to march lock, stock and barrel, now they don't. And in Ohio, the NRA is doing commercials for the Republican candidate who voted against the rational measures we had (no fly, no buy and universal background checks) and those commercials are backfiring. It's a different world. A call today will mean much more than a call last year, but you've got many more people aroused than you did last time.

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When you talk to families of gun violence victims, how do you explain to them why you can't get anything done in Congress?

I say "you've got to keep trying." We're making slow progress. I was the author of the Brady Law and I carried the assault weapons ban in the House… [the Brady Law] is one of the most important things I've done in my career as a legislator. We've had good periods and bad periods and we're in a good period again. It shows you how scared the NRA is [that] they're paying for ads for Trump that don't mention guns. They know the tide has turned against them. In the past all their ads have mentioned the gun issue.

You talked about 90 percent of Americans agreeing on expanding background checks and barring people on terror watch lists from buying guns. Isn't that the definition of the people's will? And yet you can't pass those two bills.

The reason is very simple, the 90 percent, until this time, none of them let their legislators know. So the legislators said, "even though I know they disagree with me they're not going to vote against me on this issues." Now, the 90 percent are still there, but it's moved up in the hierarchy. "I'm going to base my vote on how my senator votes on guns." Whereas in previous years they'd look at many other issues first.

Mass shootings have become, sadly, almost a fact of life in this country. They happen, we grieve, efforts are made and then we move on until the next headline. What can voters do to keep the issue of gun violence front and center every day?

Talk about it to their friends, get their friends to call, get their relatives to call. Sometimes the concentration of people is in states like New York or California, where both senators are voting the right way in terms of supporting these two measures. Call friends and relatives in other states. Any state that has a Republican Senator is susceptible to this. If you come from Kansas and you moved to California, or you come from Tennessee and you moved to New York, call your relatives and friends there. A New Yorker calling someone from Tennessee won't matter. But the New Yorker's first cousin who lives in Tennessee calling his or her senator matters a great deal.

Can citizens break this allegedly iron grip the NRA has on so many members of Congress to get some gun legislation passed?

Our greatest enemy is apathy. When people say "we can't do anything. I give up," that's when we lose. The world is changing. Sandy Hook was so horrible I think everyone thought we could move things on that. But I think the average citizen is more scared by terrorism because it's random and can happen almost anywhere and it's a worldwide force. So the combination of terrorists being able to buy guns has given this issue a new drama.

The No Fly, No Buy proposal put forth by Sen. Feinstein last month seemed like a no brainer. How are we even debating that given the amped up fears of terrorism in this country?

It's amazing that we are. But then Sen. Cornyn comes in with a bill drafted by the NRA and they say, "this is our solution." So they try to fog things up. If you read blogs and things like the Huffington Post that tell the story straightforward you'll know that there are bills that are positive and bills that are just smokescreens. People should go to Everytown.org or Bradycampaign.org and see how their legislator voted and just log in an email. It'll matter. It's a new world. I am for the first time optimistic in a while that we can really pass some good legislation.

As horrific as it might be for the families and for us, do you think showing people the pictures of the 20 murdered children from Sandy Hook might have some real value to get the needle moving?

Whatever moves people is what I'm for. I keep pictures of the families of six Sandy Hook victims on my desk. I look at them every day.

A lot of celebrities have come out in support of new gun legislation, including, obviously, your famous cousin Amy Schumer…

She's truly committed on this issue, she's great. I wish more celebrities would put the energy and effort in that she has.

Do you think they have a chance to move the needle?

Yes because celebrities… the average senator's number of followers on Twitter or Facebook is in the hundred thousands, but the average number of followers for these celebrities in in the millions or tens of millions. So they're reaching people we don't reach and it's a very important voice. I'd encourage anyone reading this interview who cares about this issue to get involved. It's doesn't take much effort and it will have a huge effect.