STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
After a summer of appalling mass shootings, Congress is considering gun legislation. The White House is now involved, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says any legislation doesn't matter much unless he learns that President Trump is willing to sign it.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: Until that happens, all of this is theatrics.
INSKEEP: Some Democrats have been talking with the White House, including our next guest, Senator Chris Coons. Senator, welcome back to the program on this September 11.
CHRIS COONS: Thank you, Steve. And as we talk on September 11, it's important to remember the sacrifice of thousands of Americans. We've lost 2,300 in Afghanistan and 4,400 in Iraq and have spent nearly $6 trillion in combating terrorism. Later today, we have a hearing on a bipartisan bill to improve our strategy. But today, let's focus on guns.
INSKEEP: Yeah, absolutely, because we've had these domestic acts of violence again and again. Do you feel, after your talks with the White House, that you know what the president wants?
COONS: No (laughter). Exactly one of the challenges of legislating with our president is that he can make a public commitment on Tuesday and then reverse himself and reject exactly the same bipartisan compromise on Thursday.
I am optimistic, after several conversations, that a bill that Senator Pat Toomey and I have written and introduced - the NICS Denial Notification Act, which requires that when a felon lies and tries to buy a gun in a gun store, lies on the background check form, there will be prompt notification to state police. It is a modest, reasonable initiative that would bring law enforcement in and give communities notification when someone who really shouldn't have a gun is trying to get one.
INSKEEP: Who do you talk to when you're a Democratic senator and you head over to the White House to talk about gun control?
COONS: (Laughter) Well, my policy folks have talked to the head of legislative (ph) affairs, Eric Ueland. I've actually heard from Ivanka. We've texted and spoken several times. And I've mostly spoken with Senators Toomey and Graham on the Republican caucus and then Senators Murphy and Manchin and Blumenthal in my caucus. Over the last month, we've continually communicated to try and keep some forward movement on a whole package of ideas that we think are enactable. We should take up and vote on the bipartisan background check bill that the House sent us six months ago, but there are other things in addition to that that we could also do that I would support.
INSKEEP: Do the practical possibilities here seem awfully small, awfully narrow, to you compared to the way you see the problem?
COONS: Yes. I think there is a lot we could and should do in background checks, in taking weapons of war off the streets of the United States, in dealing with mental health and in improving the tools that communities and families have to deal with dangerous situations. But I'm concerned we will take very small steps, relative to the very large problem we have as a country with gun-related violence.
INSKEEP: You did allude just now to mental health, which is something that Republicans have been forceful in raising - or more forceful than some other possible measures. I presume you don't think mental health focus is sufficient here.
COONS: It's not, Steve. We don't do enough to provide support to individuals and families in crisis. It's also not a direct link. I think by overemphasizing mental health, we're further stigmatizing the 20% of adult Americans who have some mental health diagnosis. We need more research, and we need more resources to make sure we're caring for those who have mental health-related crises. But frankly, the wide availability of guns and, in particular, the ways in which we fail to enforce our existing laws and should strengthen our laws, such as background checks, to make it harder for those whom we all agree shouldn't have guns, like convicted felons, to get access to them.
INSKEEP: A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows, again, broad public support for some gun control measures. But, of course, it's different for Republicans. Do you feel that Republicans have been able to make the political case for some kind of gun measure?
COONS: I think the politics of this are clear and that, in the upcoming election, the consequences in the country for the Republican Party if there's literally no movement, if there's nothing enacted, are significant. But what should drive us is wanting to improve the safety of our schools, our communities and our families.
INSKEEP: Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware, thanks so much.
COONS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.