Bob Casey’s Profound About-Face on Gun Control

Casey was once an advocate for lax gun control. Now, he's the opposite. In a wide-ranging interview with Philadelphia magazine, he talks about his reversal, the future of gun control legislation, and the tragedy that changed his view forever.

In 2009, during his first term in the U.S. Senate, Bob Casey voted to allow guns on Amtrak trains. He was not a believer in gun control, and his votes showed it.

A little more than three years later, 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. In a matter of days, Casey flipped positions. The Democrat has since become a gun control advocate. He was the first to introduce gun control legislation after the massacre in Orlando.

Sen. Casey sat down with Philadelphia magazine on Friday for an interview about his reversal, his bill that would prohibit those convicted of hate crimes from buying guns, and the future of gun control measures in the Senate. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to change your stance on gun control?
In some ways, it happened over a three- or four-day period — from Friday to Tuesday. That tragedy in Newtown changed my view forever.

It wasn’t just “How will you handle this issue going forward,” but: “How will you vote?” At that point and time, I had been in the Senate six years, we never really had significant gun votes. We maybe had 1 or 2, but they weren’t three major up-or-down votes like we had with the military-style weapons, the clips/magazines and the background checks — they were the major three, in the spring of ’13.

It was the nature of that massacre. We had been in Pittsburgh, and I got a ride to Scranton. I was hearing bits and pieces about it on the radio and online and getting some sense of the enormity of it, without television. But then I watched television a lot on Saturday, a lot on Sunday. Between thinking of the enormity of it, what happened to those children, which was indescribably horrific, and then having my wife and daughter say to me, “You’re going to vote on this at some point. How are you going to vote?”

So I had to ask myself that question, because normally I would stay in my lane. There’s only two lanes on this. It’s the NRA lane, or the voting for commonsense gun measures lane. So I decided whether I was going to stay in the old lane, in which I had traveled a long time but really had never been challenged or had to cast a real big vote. I was thinking about the enormity of it, and being challenged about it, and thinking about voting and then confronting a larger question which is, “What can we do about this problem?”

Not that this decision is made in a moment in time, but one moment that had a substantial impact on my thinking was Sunday night, on NBC News. Pete Williams was doing a report. What I remember about it, watching it on television, was he had some kind of a basic drawing or sketch of where the [Newtown] killer went: What happened at the front door, the confrontation he had there with security and school personnel; what happened in the classroom, which I don’t even want to talk about.

It was the first time that I realized that he didn’t stop at that classroom. He was moving to the next classroom. I thought to myself, this is so horrific already: 20 kids and six adults. If he had more time — I think the evidence is clear — he would have killed hundreds of children. If this killer in Newtown had more time he would have killed hundreds of children. I remember looking at the television and thinking, “My God. He really could have killed hundreds of kids.”

You begin to have a conversation with yourself. You say, “Okay, you’re going to vote on this. And by your votes, if you stay in the lane you’re in, you’re telling the country that there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop the murder of 20 children, or hundreds of children, not to mention the tens of thousands killed every year.” Because that’s basically that lane. That lane, if you want to take that position, is basically: “There’s nothing we can do, except maybe this terrorism gap issue that we’re working on now. But other than something very simple like that, there’s nothing we can do except rigorously, aggressively enforce existing law.” And I began to say to myself, “Is that really going to be your answer? That’s really where you’re going to stay for the rest of your career? And you’re going to vote against a measure to ban military-style weapons, vote against the clips and the magazine legislation, vote against background checks?”

The NRA is completely against background checks. They were even against yesterday’s vote. They worked very hard yesterday to prevent Republican senators from voting for a measure that said if you’re on the no-fly list and the selectee list — two lists which combined have about 2,700 Americans — the NRA position was, “Vote against that.” I asked myself that question over and over again, and I said to myself, “I can’t have that be my answer.” I have to say, clearly, that I’m going to vote for those three measures, and thereby cross over into a new lane. And that’s what I decided to do, it was Monday or Tuesday when I made that announcement, and months later cast the actual vote.

What have you thought about the issue since the shooting in Orlando?

Since Orlando, I thought about it in another way as well, which reinforced the decision that I made. It’s not just: Are we going to stay in this position which we’ve been in as a country which says basically, you can’t do anything about this problem except enforce existing laws.

But the other way I thought about it, more recently, is: This is America. We said, after 9/11, we were not going to allow a terrorist to get on a plane and fly a plane into a building, to kill thousands of people, and in addition, terrify the whole country. We said that no matter what it takes, no matter how much inconvenience at airports, no matter how much money we have to spend on homeland security — and we’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars since 9/11 — and frankly, it’s paid off. We have stopped that kind of terror. We haven’t stopped terrorism, we haven’t stopped the fear, we haven’t stopped all that. But we have said, “No, we’re going to stop planes from going into buildings.” People had to have an invasion, to a certain extent, of their privacy. But we said we are not going to allow this to happen any longer.

The point I’m making is: We need the same sense of urgency and determination on this. And we don’t have that yet, but I do think it is building. And I think the last two weeks, you can see it rising incrementally but in a measurable way.

Why do you think we don’t have that yet, and why do you think it’s building?

There are multiple reasons. One is, before 9/11, I don’t think anyone could have contemplated that those events could have happened. Maybe a counter-terrorism expert could have contemplated it, but I don’t think most Americans could have contemplated that terrorists could take over four airplanes. And the enormity of that shook people so significantly that they were willing to finally say, “We have to do something about this.”

Congress came together in a very bipartisan way. There wasn’t really a political force like the NRA against it that had built up strength and impact over time. And I think people have gotten used to these kinds of tragedies over time. And when something happens that’s so horrific like Orlando or Newtown or Tuscon or Aurora — look, I should have been moved by those earlier tragedies. I wasn’t like I was after Newtown. I can’t explain why but I just didn’t have the same reaction. So there are probably a lot of reasons why we’re in this predicament that we’re in right now.

But I do think that the ground has shifted very slightly. In a strange way, [Thursday] was frustrating as it was that the Republican leader basically said to his own Republicans that were on this bill, “The best you’re going to get today is a tabling vote. We’re not even going to vote on your measure up or down. I know you worked on it all week, I know you’re going against the NRA, I know you’re trying to do something on terrorism. But you know what: We’re going to have a tabling vote.”

Which was an insult to them and to the Democrats who voted our way and to the country. And the only tiny, tiny sliver of good news is the votes against tabling — which was our position, we wanted this measure to go forward — was 52. I’m not an expert in this, but I’m not sure there’s ever been a vote where the anti-NRA side got to 52.

It’s a tiny little measure of progress, but I hope we can figure out ways to move it forward. A number of people are trying to think of creative ways to keep this in front of the consciousness in the country.

What can you tell us about the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the bill you unveiled that would ban those convicted of hate crimes from owning a gun?

A part of this [gun violence] problem has its origins in hate and hate crimes. Orlando, we know, is both a terrorist attack as well as a hate crime. We also know, the New York Times had a story, that the number one group of Americans against whom hate crimes are committed are LGBT folks as of 2015. Those numbers have gotten a lot worse for LGBT folks.

I think it has application in that context, but also in the context of spousal abuse. Because we know that when spousal abusers, in almost every instance a man, go through a process. It sometimes starts as psychological abuse — maybe limited physical abuse. But it begins to escalate, and it can escalate horrifically if you have a firearm.

So what we’re saying is, if you commit a misdemeanor hate crime that involves the use of force or attempted use of force, you’ll be denied a firearm. It keeps firearms out of the hands of people that have a substantial propensity to commit acts of violence and it might — and I can’t prove this — but it might have the impact once people know upon passage and implementation and enforcement of it, to make them think: “If I’m engaged in that kind of conduct, I might think twice if I really want to hang on to a gun.”

What are your thoughts on the failure of four gun control bills in the Senate?

It’s a little complicated because there’s basically two subjects. Background checks was one subject, two votes [one Democratic bill and one Republican bill]. And the other was the so-called terrorism gap: making sure that terrorists can’t get on airplanes with a weapon, that kind of a thing. So, on the background checks, I think if you set them side-by-side — Chris Murphy, Corey Booker, Chuck Schumer [Democratic] bill versus Chuck Grassley [Republican] bill — ours was just much stronger for the simple reason that it plugged the gun show loophole.

I think Republicans wanted to have a background check bill that they could vote for, which is kind of code for “the NRA says it’s okay.” If the NRA says it’s okay, it’s probably not as strong as it can be — a wild guess I just made. So voting for Murphy/Booker/Schumer over Grassley was pretty easy.

Then the other vote was on the terrorism on airplanes — it’s broader than just airplanes, but saying that if you’re on the so-called terrorism watch list, which is the biggest database we have, you could be denied a firearm and you could contest that after the denial by taking action against that government agency. That was [Democrat] Diane Feinstein’s bill. I voted for that because it was much stronger than [Republican] John Cornyn‘s bill. Again, John Cornyn, his bill was not as strong, and also the NRA said it was okay.

What happened after that, so those two didn’t get enough votes, meaning not getting 60, which is frustrating that in a legislative body 51 should be enough, but just the nature of the rules of the Senate because a long time ago the Founders said, “We should empower the minority instead of having the majority just trample on it,” so we pay the price for having the minority empowered in the Senate. But it’s a unique legislative body in that regard. I’m not sure any place in the world has that empowerment of the minority. It helped a lot in other contexts, not necessarily in this.

So then, a third bill [which was voted on later in the week, and was tabled] came from Susan Collins and a group of Democrats and Republicans. The watch list database is big and people have doubts about how accurate it is. John Lewis, the Congressman who led the House sit-in the other day, apparently was on it. Ted Kennedy was on it. So there are some concerns about the database. I don’t know the scope of inaccuracies. I don’t know if its one percent or half a percent or 10 percent, but there are some concerns.

The idea was, okay, why don’t we focus on the ones we’re most concerned about: The no-fly list and the selectee list. The selectee list is a group of Americans who aren’t on the no-fly list, but require additional screening. So, when you combine the two, it’s roughly 2,700 Americans. So that’s the pool of people we’re talking about. That’s a hell of a lot of people, though — imagine if just a handful of them acquired high-powered weapons or explosives.

Then it became a debate: How are their rights protected if they’re denied the right to have a gun unjustly, how do you remedy that? The action of the petitioning would start at the District Court. So they made some minor changes like that, and got 52 votes. It was an indication that, at least on this one issue, there’s a good consensus.

What gun control measures do you support?

The ones we just voted on: background, no fly/no-buy — it’s the shorthand for it — which is now the Collins bill. So that’s two. Banning “military style” weapons is three — and this is not in any order. Four would be limitations on clips and magazines. Five would be my hate crimes bill.

Six would be Dick Blumenthal’s bill, which they call the Charleston loophole. Where those nine people were killed at church. In a number of states, the clock starts on the background checks, and then for some reason there are glitches in doing it. In some states, you have to wrap it up in three days. You don’t get extra time if you’re doing the background checks. That’s ridiculous. If we’re going to do background checks, no matter how long it takes, we should allow that background check to be completed before you get a weapon.

My point is that we should try to move on all of those, try to get votes on all of those, and try to pass them. And even if we pass every one of them, it’s still going to take a while to make it work. One thing I’ve learned in Washington, the day the President signs the bill, you’re a long way from making it work and implementing it. You have to communicate to people why it’s important to have these laws in place. So we would need a lot of work, and what was so frustrating about the last two weeks is we’re talking about only passing two measures — no-fly/no-buy and background — you’re just beginning to attack the problem of thousands of people being killed by gun violence in the greatest country in the world.

There’s an idea we can’t do anything about that, which some people believe. They’re dead wrong. And that we can’t even begin to do something about it is just unacceptable. I think it’s — I shouldn’t use the word, but I’ll use it — it’s un-American. The country that was way behind in 1941, taking on the Axis party, taking on the greatest force in the world, the Germans, we were in no way prepared to do that, but we did it, and we beat them, beat the other parts of the Axis; the country that had the worst Civil War maybe in human history, and we survived it, and got through that; the country that’s curing diseases all over the world and expanding life expectancy in ways that we couldn’t even imagine 25, 50 years ago. I mean, this is a great country. We figure stuff out. We know how to do this, but the unwillingness to even start. Just to begin to chip away at a huge problem is terribly frustrating.

Obviously, mass shootings get headlines but most gun violence happens at a much smaller scale on a daily basis. Do you think these laws you mentioned will have an impact at that level?

I think all those measures I mentioned will have an impact on both the mass shootings as well as the daily violence. But I think one of the mistakes people on my side of the issue have made is we ramp up in terms of actions and demanding votes and focus in the aftermath of a tragedy. And then the business of government grinds on, it gets pushed to the back of the priority list. And in between, a lot of kids, and a lot of innocent people in inner cities get killed. We have to figure out a way to sustain this, so that we’re talking about it on a much more regular basis. I mean a constant debate or engagement on this.

I mean, by one estimate, post-Orlando and last Thursday basically, a four day period in the country or a five day period, or basically four days, another 50 to 60 people were killed and a 150 were wounded. The person who really shook up, at least, our caucus — I wish the other caucus could’ve heard him — was Cory Booker. The main reason we had this filibuster was was that Chris Murphy and Cory Booker stood up and said, “We have to do something this week.” And Cory Booker’s message was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Hey Democrats, it’s not good enough just to react to Orlando and Newtown. What about kids in my neighborhood?” He described it horrifically — what happened to people on his streets, recently and over the years. He’s been there when people are bleeding to death, when they’ve been shot. So, he challenged us: Don’t think you’re doing enough on this if you’re just reacting to mass shootings. You have to do a lot more if you really believe this. And he chastised us aggressively, and I think appropriately, and kind of shook a lot of people out of their usual way of doing business.

Are you concerned gun laws will lead to more mass incarceration, like we’ve seen with the drug war, with a disproportionate effect on minorities and the poor?

Yeah, and there’s certainly a risk of that, but we’ve got to confront this. We have to figure out a way. Look, even if you just passed everything I just talked about, there might not be 300 million guns in America, but there’ll be pretty damn close to that. I mean, you can’t have the government going into people’s houses and taking guns out of their house unless they’re a terrorist threat or a threat to security. But, we’ve got to begin to reduce the numbers here. We can’t continue to live in a country where a lot of really dangerous people have access to these kinds of weapons.

In the 1930s, they banned the machine gun because it was a weapon of war. I know it’s semi-automatic, not automatic, but I think these AR-15-type weapons — I think you could make an argument are more dangerous than a machine gun in the 1930s. The bullets are more powerful, the velocity is much more significant. This could result in having an adverse impact on some aspects of our criminal justice system, we have to figure out a way to deal with both problems.

The irony is a lot of Republicans wanted to support the effort that was made on mass incarceration and the far right stopped the conservatives from doing that so far, but I think we’ll get that done. At the same time we’re doing all this, we have to do a lot to prevent people from falling into this way of life, of engaging in criminal conduct — or, going beyond that — even becoming a domestic terrorist. That’s why I preach a lot about early learning and good healthcare for kids and getting kids to read at a younger age. They’re a lot less likely to get into that kind of life that way.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.