MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Guns and how to stop gun violence in the U.S. were front and center in last night's Democratic debate, with former Congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas endorsing mandatory buybacks of assault-style weapons and delivering one of the more memorable lines of the night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BETO O'ROURKE: Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We're not going to allow it...
KELLY: Other candidates talked about expanded background checks, about an assault weapons ban, about closing loopholes in existing gun laws, all of which have been before Congress, all of which have stalled in a Congress where the gun industry holds great sway. Well, we're going to hear now from one member of Congress who says he has bipartisan support for his gun legislation - Florida Republican Marco Rubio. He's just reintroduced a bill that would nudge states towards adopting red flag laws. And Senator Rubio is on the line from Florida.
MARCO RUBIO: Well, thank you for having me.
KELLY: So I said you reintroduced this because you first introduced this proposal more than a year ago, right after the Parkland shooting. It didn't go anywhere. What has changed that makes you believe it may get traction now?
RUBIO: Unfortunately, we've had more of these tragedies and that as we look at them - all of these tragedies are different in the sense that the motivations behind it might be different, what led them to that point. But the one thing a large percentage of all these mass shootings have in common is that the killer who carried them out - the people around them knew they were dangerous. But there's nothing you can do about it. In essence, until they commit a crime, there's no way they can be arrested and adjudicated. That doesn't show up in the background check system. So these are people that would have passed a background check, but some - a lot of people around them knew that they were a problem. But they had no tools to stop them.
KELLY: So the tool you're proposing, red flag laws - just to briefly explain - would allow police to confiscate your weapon if a judge has ruled you might pose a danger to yourself or to others.
RUBIO: Yeah. Well, Florida already has one, I think 15 states now do. And what it would allow someone to do in the case of the ones that are floating around - some of - go to law enforcement and say, look, this is a person I'm very close to, I live with, a member of our family. I think they're going to hurt themselves. I think they're going to hurt other people. You would then be able to take that before a judge who could issue a preliminary injunction to prevent you from buying and to remove any weapons you have.
KELLY: And what is the standard of proof? Saying I think, you know, my partner or my friend's going to hurt someone is awfully squishy. What behavior should warrant a red flag?
RUBIO: Yeah, to get the permanent injunction, it has to be clear and convincing. That's a high standard because you're taking away a constitutional right.
KELLY: Sure. This has been the big criticism though, as you know, of red flag laws, that - the due process question, that I could just decide I don't like my boss, I don't like my neighbor, I can make up some accusation that they're acting crazy and suddenly their weapon gets seized.
RUBIO: Yeah. And so we make it a crime to do that, to falsely accuse people of these things. And that's why it has to go through court. The standard has to be high. And there has to be penalties for falsely using it as a weapon against somebody. But until you commit a crime, you don't really have this tool available to you to stop someone.
KELLY: I have been wanting to interview you, senator, since Parkland and specifically since that CNN forum that was a few days after Parkland where a lot of parents who had lost their children were there, including a man named Fred Guttenberg whose 14-year-old daughter Jamie had died. I want to play a little bit of that and then ask you about it. He was asking you about an assault weapons ban.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RUBIO: If I believed that that law would have prevented this from happening, I would support it. But I want to explain to you why it would not.
FRED GUTTENBERG: Senator Rubio, my daughter, running down the hallway at Marjory Stoneman Douglas...
RUBIO: Yes, sir.
GUTTENBERG: ...Was shot in the back with an assault weapon, the weapon of choice.
RUBIO: Yes, sir.
GUTTENBERG: OK. It is too easy to get. It is a weapon of war. The fact that you can't stand with everybody in this building and say that - I'm sorry.
RUBIO: Sir, I do believe what you're saying is true.
KELLY: Senator, what was that moment like for you?
RUBIO: Well, you're dealing with a father who's lost his child. And so clearly it's not - I'm not going to engage in a political debate or a semantic debate. I've actually talked to Mr. Guttenberg numerous times and met with him in person over the last two years, a year and a half since that's happened. Obviously, his views remain the same about the issue. But, you know, it was obviously a moment in which we were just - I think it was just maybe even a week or just a few days, it was still very fresh.
KELLY: It was the following week, yeah.
KELLY: Yeah. You said his views - Mr. Guttenberg's views remain the same. Do yours? You were also booed at that forum for saying you would continue to accept money from the NRA. And I wonder on any of this where your shift - where you're thinking has shifted maybe since then.
RUBIO: Well, like anybody else, I'm against violence. And I'm against gun violence. I think it's terrible. I don't believe that an assault weapons ban would prevent it. I can tell you now there are states that have assault weapons bans, and the way they're defined allows weapons of equal lethality to still be legal. They're just cosmetic. Basically, it comes down to cosmetic features of the gun by which you define it.
KELLY: I guess my question is, is what you are proposing, Senator, enough? A nudge toward state-by-state red flag laws, is that enough of an answer to Mr. Guttenberg from his senator a year and a half after Parkland?
RUBIO: Well, it's certainly more effective than some of the other things that are being pushed because virtually every single one, almost without exception, of these mass shootings were committed by someone that either would have passed a background check or did.
KELLY: You've said you would support widened background checks, though.
RUBIO: Well, background checks can tell you what someone has done. They cannot tell you what someone is going to do. In almost all these cases, it is the first time that any of these people do something that's criminal but obviously to high lethality. And it's a terrible tragedy. So background checks, frankly, would not have prevented any of these shootings. So I don't understand why people believe that that's the answer to this problem. We already have background checks - virtually every other gun sale in America.
KELLY: You're referencing the point that there is no single piece of legislation that would have prevented all of these tragedies in recent years in our country. But to the question of what Congress can do to answer these calls, the do-something call that's become a hashtag and a rallying cry - in the Senate, where you serve, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he can't act until he is sure the president's on board.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MITCH MCCONNELL: We're waiting for something we know, if it passed, would actually become law. And until the White House gives us some indication of what the president's willing to sign, we're waiting to see what it looks like.
KELLY: Senator Rubio, do you agree - you have to wait, the Senate can't do anything?
RUBIO: It has nothing to do with getting the president's permission. It's a pragmatic point of view. For us to spend what will be a substantial amount of time on the floor debating a law, we should also know that it's going to become law, that the president will sign it.
KELLY: But you must know how unsatisfying that is to Americans who want something to be done to prevent mass shootings to say we're a coequal branch of government but we can't do anything till the president tips his hand.
RUBIO: Yeah, but ultimately - we're coequal branch of government we have a Constitution that says that if he vetoes it, you'd need a supermajority number of votes to override it. That's not just reality, that is in the Constitution. So passing a law out of the Senate that the president's not going to sign is not doing something because eventually it doesn't become law. To do something, you have to pass a law, and you have to pass a law that would actually make a difference, that would have an impact.
KELLY: That is Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Senator, thank you very much for your time.
RUBIO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.