Los Angeles Times Interview : Charles Schumer : Vanquishing the NRA With His Assault-Weapons Ban

<i> Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer based in the Washington bureau of The Times</i>

Charles E. Schumer, the Brooklyn Democrat who led the surprisingly successful fight in the House of Representatives to ban 19 military-style assault weapons, is not exactly a stranger to guns or the National Rifle Assn. He won an NRA marksmanship badge and certificate for target shooting when he was a kid attending summer camp. The only target practice the tenacious Schumer takes these days is dead aim at the powerful gun lobby.

To snatch his latest victory from the supposedly certain jaws of defeat, Schumer got plenty of help from President Bill Clinton, who worked the phones. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a Texan and a hunter, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and other members of the Administration mounted a full-court press. More help came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Though senators rarely deign to work the House floor, Feinstein took that step to help Schumer buttonhole elusive votes. She had a lot at stake. Feinstein was the lead sponsor of the Senate’s semi-automatic assault-weapons ban, which was approved along with the rest of the comprehensive anti-crime package. That legislation must now be reconciled with the House version.

This isn’t the first time the pragmatic Schumer has beaten back the politically potent gun lobby. Thanks to his political acumen and America’s growing frustration with violent crime, he also prevailed last November, when he engineered an upset victory for the Brady Bill, which had languished for years in Congress. It requires a waiting period of five days between the purchase and delivery of a handgun.

Schumer maintains his crime watch from his post as chair of the Crime and Criminal Justice Subcommittee, part of the House Judiciary Committee. All crime bills must past him. But getting guns and crooks off the streets are not his only passions.


Admittedly ambitious, Schumer has his eye on a gubernatorial race in New York when Mario M. Cuomo is no longer in the picture. At 43, Schumer may seem a bit young for the state’s top political job but he’s always been precocious. He finished Harvard at 20 and Harvard Law School at 23. The year he got his law degree he was elected to the New York State Assembly. At 29, he was elected to Congress.

A family man, Schumer divides his time between Washington and his home base in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and two daughters--"the rock of my life.”

Question: You won. How did you beat the odds?

Answer: There were a lot of things. A lot of sweat and hard work, some good strategizing. Also, faith, a little faith in the system that sometimes it can work.


Q: Did White House muscle help?

A: The President was invaluable. When the President starts talking about something, it makes a difference. I went to him two weeks ago and said, “The only way we can win this is if you get involved.” I told him we might not win but he decided to get involved because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Q: Is the ban on assault weapons primarily symbolic?

A: It’s in between symbolism and a panacea, a cure-all. It will do some good. They (assault weapons) are only 1% of the weapons out there, but according to an ATF (Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) survey, they are used in 8% of the murders. They are relatively new on the scene. So the ban actually is going to save lives.


There is also some symbolic value. The symbolism is that the NRA (National Rifle Assn.) can be beaten. That members can stand up to the NRA.

Q: Have Americans reached a critical junction on crime?

A: . . . Americans are crying out to government at all levels: Do something! It’s interesting. I’ve felt this all along. But (Friday’s) Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows this. (“By 50% to 30%, Americans think the country is on the wrong track . . . and it comes right to drugs and crime.”)

. . . People are angry and dispirited about government because of a failure to do something about crime . . . . This is government’s primary function--to keep us safe--and when large percentages in the country don’t feel safe, they start asking: What am I paying my taxes for? What is government all about?


Q: Does this victory weaken the political grip of the NRA?

A: It speaks not so much that the NRA is weakening but the opposing forces are stronger. A member of Congress has and still does pay a price for voting against the NRA.

But now a member pays a price for voting with the NRA, too. In many districts, the price is higher when a member votes with the NRA than against the NRA. The public is outraged . . . .

Members knew when they went back to their districts their opponents would use this (a vote with the NRA), saying the members were more interested in special interests than in the general interest.


Q: Is it harder now for politicians who are against gun control to make that argument?

A: It’s all gradual, and every little step helps. It wasn’t that the NRA was a monster yesterday and now they are laying on the ground. But their relative importance declined.

Q: The NRA almost won. Won’t they ratchet up their firepower for the omnibus crime bill?

A: I do not think they will. If they’re smart, they won’t, because both houses have spoken, and the American people have really spoken. If the NRA is smart, they’ll stop advocating extremist positions, come to the table and negotiate.


Q: Will that battle be as tough?

A: I don’t think so. I think assault weapons will be in the bill, and the Senate will not filibuster. The American people faced them down.

Q: Will the police corps remain in the package?

A: The police corps is iffy. I’m for it. I don’t think it’s a big thing. It’s OK. I think the cop-on-the-beat program is far more important and more extensive.


. . . I’ve put in a little program that I think is far more important. It allows community groups and church-based groups to recruit police officers. That would be more effective than the police corps in terms of getting minorities into the police department.

Q: Are Democrats getting tougher on crime?

A: Yes. A number of things have happened. The approach that we’ve crafted in the crime bill--which is tough on punishment and smart on prevention--is the right message on substance and politically. The Democratic Party was always there on crime, but in the past we let the ideologues on the left dominate. The Republicans may still let the ideologues on the right dominate.

Q: How will you persuade members of the Black Caucus to approve the expansion of the death penalty?


A: More than half the Black Caucus voted for the crime bill. My argument is: a) we are going to try to make it fair with the racial-justice provision (allows Death Row inmates to challenge an alleged pattern of bias in the application of capital punishment); and b) I will argue the majority of black people, polls show, are for the death penalty . . . .

What African American people are most upset about is a bill aimed just at punishment. They want punishment but they also want hope . . . so that another generation of young African Americans won’t spend the rest of their lives in jail . . . . This is a centrist argument--one that has an appeal in the richest of suburbs and the poorest of inner cities . . . . Crime can be a unifying argument--not an argument that people use as a code for us vs. them.

Q: Do you support “three strikes, you’re in for life”?

A: Yes. There, I think, the left makes a mistake. If you look particularly at the state levels, violent repeat criminals are not punished enough. The average murderer is sentenced to 17 1/2 years but serves six. The average rapist is sentenced to 10 years but serves about three and a half. The average mugger is sentenced to five years and serves little more than one.


I, on the other hand, don’t think we should be putting first-time drug offenders in jail for five years. It’s a waste of resources . . . . In the crime bill, we put in an escape valve for first-time drug offenders. If they do drug treatment and stay clean, they can avoid a prison sentence. This is rationing resources, balancing.

The laws have been passed willy-nilly. There was a war-on-drugs . . . mandatory sentences for drug use. I support the death penalty for the kingpin, the guy at the top, but I don’t think you should throw a drug offender in jail for five years, and let a mugger out after a year.

Q: How will preventive steps like the midnight basketball league proposed in the House crime bill stop drive-by shootings or robberies or other violent crime?

A: Because kids have a place to go. I spent my evenings playing basketball at a school that was open.


Q: But you wouldn’t have been out on the streets committing crimes.

A: I don’t know what I would have been doing, but the point is to have something to do.

Q: Is crime a burning issue only in urban areas like your Brooklyn district and Los Angeles?

A: I was up in a wealthy suburb of Syracuse, and they were talking about crime. It’s everywhere. Some places, it’s worse than others, but it’s everywhere.


Q: Are Americans a little safer today?

A: They will be considerably safer when the whole crime bill becomes law.

Q: Have you ever been a victim of crime?

A: Many times. I was mugged and fought back and got 12 switches in my eye.


Q: Did the guy have a gun?

A: No. It was a bunch of kids in a nice neighborhood back in the ‘70s. They probably had too much to drink. I was with my girlfriend. She was my fiancee. She’s now my wife. They tried to grab her purse. I fought back.

My father was held up at gunpoint right by our house in Brooklyn. That was the most frightening to me. That happened seven or eight years ago.

The most recent experience was, my car was broken into four times before it was stolen. That can drive you nuts--the repetition. I’d wake up every morning and put on my jeans over my pajamas to run down and see if my car was still on the street. That’s not a pleasant way to live. It was stolen a year and a half ago.


I passed an auto-theft bill.

Q: To increase the penalties?

A: The most important part of the law is that parts of all cars have to be marked . . . . When you go to a repair shop, the mechanic can either get the part from Detroit or a used part . . . . Most cars are stolen for parts not for joy-riding. This requires the repair shop to call a toll-free number (to make sure the part isn’t stolen) or risk losing their license. I had to fight to get that passed, too. I had to fight John Dingell (Democratic congressman from Detroit).

Q: You’re a fighter?


A: Let me tell you a little story about the first job I had. I was running a mimeo(graph-duplicating) machine. It was summer. I was 13 or 14, and I’d get in there at 9. I had this job. A lot of my friends were out at the beach or having fun. I’d look at my watch at 9:10. I’d look at my watch at 9:15. I’d look at my watch at 9:30. I swore I wanted a job that wasn’t boring. This isn’t boring.*