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A Word from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE)

September 9, 2016

Dear Mr. Gardner,

Thank you for contacting me about federal gun legislation. It is good to hear from you and I appreciate the opportunity to respond.
             As you know, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirms that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Our Founders rightly understood that government is not the source or author of rights, but that God gives us rights by nature. In order to secure those rights, “we the people” institute government. As a father and a husband, I have a natural right to defend my family and my property that pre-dates government, and I am a robust defender of our Second Amendment because it is a mechanism that the people use to retain and defend their God-given rights. When I was sworn in as a U.S. Senator, I took an oath that I would faithfully uphold all of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment.

On June 12, 2016, a terrorist named Omar Mateen, who was influenced by the ideology of militant Islam and who affirmed the principles of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), killed 49 and wounded 53 in Orlando, Florida. We mourn the deaths of these innocent victims, all made in the image of God. 

This attack reminds us that we are at war with militant Islam. We are not at war with all Muslims, but we are at war with individuals like Omar Mateen, who believe in killing in the name of religion. This religious ideology is bent on turning American cities into war zones. Militant Islam, whether it is the card-carrying members of ISIS or al-Qa’ida or its crowd-sourced attackers, must be defeated. To do this, we must develop an effective long-term military strategy that actually defines our enemy and is not afraid to speak the truth about who they are. 

Unfortunately, the events in Orlando and elsewhere have been framed as a debate over federal gun laws. Instead, it should be a call to face the serious evolving terrorist threat for which history provides no template. This involves providing our armed forces and intelligence officials with the appropriate tools and overall strategy to combat terrorism and defeat our enemies. The horrific attack in Orlando is not the fault of responsible gun owners. Additional federal gun controls will not deter criminals or even terrorists determined to break the law, but they will hinder law-abiding citizens from defending their families and property. We should robustly enforce current gun laws and look for ways to ensure that criminals are not able to circumvent our laws. 

Despite the fact that the Orlando shooting was an act of terrorism, the Senate held a series of votes to advance legislation related to federal gun laws. There were two proposals offered by Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Senator Grassley’s legislation sought to expand data used in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for background checks and put in place positive mental health reforms that would prevent individuals from obtaining a firearm who have been adjudicated as mentally incompetent or committed to a psychiatric hospital. Senator Cornyn’s legislation gave the Attorney General the authority to delay a firearm sale to a suspected terrorist for three days while a court adjudicated the issue. I supported both the Cornyn and Grassley proposals. Unfortunately, both of these measures failed to achieve the 60 votes to advance.

The Senate also held two votes to advance legislation offered by Senators Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Diane Feinstein of California. Senator Murphy’s legislation would have required a background check for every gun sale and it would make private gun sales between individuals illegal. It would have mandated also that states expand the data available for the NICS and would have withheld certain federal grants to states which are used to hire additional personnel, equipment, and training for law enforcement, if the states do not comply to the federal government’s satisfaction. Senator Feinstein’s legislation would have given vast authority to the Attorney General to deny an individual’s request to purchase a gun if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is engaging in terrorist activities. While citizens can appeal this decision after the fact, the Attorney General is also afforded the power to withhold any information that is deemed necessary for national security. I voted against both of these measures, which failed to achieve the required 60 votes to advance.

The Senate then considered legislation offered by Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Her legislation gave wide authority to the Attorney General to unilaterally deny gun purchases to individuals on certain lists maintained by the federal government. The legislation allowed these individuals to dispute the denial of their constitutional right only after the federal government had already made the determination to strip them of their right. I voted against this legislation, which also failed to achieve the 60 votes necessary to advance. 

Many have framed the policy debate as keeping weapons from terrorists. This is false. The debate was not about keeping terrorists from possessing weapons. Nobody disagrees that terrorists should be denied weapons. The debate was actually about who decides who the suspected terrorists are and how individuals are placed on lists. I believe that the Executive Branch, specifically the intelligence community, should use such lists to prioritize its work and keep us safe, but this does not mean that we should use any list to take away the constitutional rights of an individual without a judicial ruling in a court prior to denying the right. This is the due process required by the 5th and 14th amendments in the Constitution. It is fundamentally American - not a partisan issue - to oppose consolidating the power to strip an individual’s constitutional rights in any one official and protecting the Constitutional rights of Americans. Where would the consolidation of this vast power end? If we allow a single government official to deny the second amendment rights of an American, is there any reason why we could not consolidate this power in an official to deny other rights such as those protected by the First Amendment? 

The federal government's primary duty is to defend the United States from enemies foreign and domestic. As Congress continues to debate federal gun policy, I will continue to be a strong advocate for the Second Amendment. However, I remain committed to having blunt discussions that center on our national security and the real threats that come from our enemies. The votes in the Senate should never have centered on gun policy, but rather on the fight against militant Islam and the lone wolf terrorists who are inspired by their ruthless ideology. Make no mistake: this fight will be decades long. We will win. We will win because we are a people who believe in freedom and we are a people who are willing to fight and even to die to preserve our free society for all Americans.

             Thank you for contacting me about this important issue. I am honored to serve the people of Nebraska. Please do not hesitate to contact me again should you have any further questions or concerns.

Sincerely,

                        Ben Sasse
                        United States Senator

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