HH: I’m joined now by Captain Mark Kelly. Captain Kelly, good morning, thank you for being with me.
MK: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.
HH: Let me embarrass you a little bit and just tell folks who I’m talking with. Mark Kelly is an American astronaut, retired United States Navy Captain, number one New York Times bestselling author, experienced Naval aviator, test pilot, flew combat missions during the Gulf War. He was an astronaut from 1996 forward. His first of four shuttle missions was in 2001. He also flew Space Shuttle Endeavor on its final flight in May of 2001. He commanded Space Shuttle Discovery as well. He’s one of only two individuals who have visited the International Space Station on four different occasions. He has 6,000 flight hours in more than 50 different aircraft. That’s just amazing. But already a celebrated American hero, he became the center of international attention after the assassination attempt on his wonderful wife, Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in January of 2001. Since that time, Captain Kelly has become, I think, one of the most effective spokespeople for common sense and the Constitution. And I come at the gun issue, Captain Kelly, from the perspective of common sense and Constitutional rights. At the March on Washington, were you there, by the way, Captain?
MK: Yes, I was. Yeah, Gabby was, too.
HH: And so I was, too. I went to show support for the kids, and then I covered it as a journalist. But often, they ask for change, and they left it at that. What is the change that you as a very smart guy and as a victim of gun violence, and your wife a victim of gun violence, what change do you want?
MK: Well, these kids had some specific things they were asking for. Gabby and I, and our organization, you know, I’m a gun owner. I’m a strong support of the 2nd Amendment. I own a number of firearms. So does Gabby. I served in the military. She’s from Arizona. You know, we get this. I’m a gun person. But at the same time, we have been dumb about this issue for so many years. We make it so easy for people who are criminals and dangerously mentally ill individuals, and even suspected terrorists to buy firearms with little to no questions asked. So things like background checks, we know that works. Laws that would protect communities from gun trafficking, these things called extreme risk protection orders, which allows law enforcement to more easily remove a gun from a person who is, you know, violently mentally ill, I mean, these things, you know, we know they work. So these are the things that our organization is trying to pass in the states, and hopefully, one day, with federal legislation.
HH: Now what’s the name of the organization, Captain?
MK: Well, it’s now called Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence, and the Giffords Law Center. And so you know, we’ve been at this for, oh, since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. And as you know, we have 35-36,000 people die every year, and another 80,000 or so are shot and injured. And we’re not like any other country, and the sad thing is there are solutions to this problem.
HH: Now I am, I believe that this is a purple issue. I talked about this on Meet the Press yesterday. Any parent worries about this. Any grandparent worries about this. And there are fixes out there. Coons, Chris Coons is a friend of mine. And he and Pat Toomey have introduced Coons-Toomey, which would oblige federal authorities upon rejecting an application based upon felon status or a mental issue or domestic violence to notify local law enforcement that it had been rejected. I was unaware that that did not exist. I find it, I’m frankly flabbergasted that that doesn’t exist.
HH: So what’s the, if you line up an agenda, what would you want first by both, let’s have, you know, just any old state, and then by the federal government.
MK: Well, I mean, it’s universal background checks, you know, at the top of the list, you know, for us, and I think so many others involved in this. You know, the federal government does a pretty good job doing background checks on gun sales that are made at federally licensed firearms dealers. And very often, we reject people from buying a gun because of something in their background – drug use, you know, convicted felons, domestic abusers. There’s a list of things. Why do we allow these people to just go home, get on their computer and buy that gun that they were just rejected for over the internet, or go to a gun show? You know, that’s happening out there thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of times. You know, that is the thing that is at the top of our list.
HH: So talk to me about the specifics of universal background checks, because I honestly don’t know anyone who opposes this except on the inter-family level. For example, I’ve got a brother-in-law who’s like you, career military. He’s got 30-plus weapons. He wants to give them to his nephews and teach them how to use them. That’s not me, I don’t own a weapon. But I don’t think that should require a background check. But do you agree with me on that?
MK: Well, yes, I do. You know, the Manchin-Toomey background check bill excepted those inter-family transfers. At the same time, we had most Republicans in the United States Senate vote against it, and we had five Democrats, four you can really count on, I mean, Harry Reid as the majority leader at the time voted no so you know, he could bring it back for debate if he wanted to. So it’s like kind of a technicality, so four Democrats voted against it as well. That had that provision in there that protected not only, you know, transfers between close family members, but I believe also like if you were a neighbor and you knew the person really well, that wouldn’t be subject to a background check, either. It was also opposed by the National Rifle Association. So it had pretty wide opposition despite being something that was supported in polling by 90% of Americans.
HH: Now Captain, why when President Obama had a supermajority in the House and the Senate in 2009-10 did the AR ban not come back?
MK: That’s a good question. I mean, you know, you look at the ban on the AR-15, also probably, you know, you look at what happened in 2000 in Florida, you know, the 2000 election, I mean, if that would have turned out differently with a different president, you know, maybe that would have extended beyond the ten year period. President Obama had a lot going on, as we all know. The economy was unraveling, auto industry was collapsing, AIG, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but you’re right. There was the political math probably would have worked in his favor to do something really positive. I also don’t think he personally experienced one of these mass shootings for, I mean, I’d have to go back and look. But I think the first one that he dealt with in a very personal way was what happened with Gabby in Tucson. That was in January, second week of January in 2011. Do you know what happened in the first week of January, 2011?
MK: John Boehner became Speaker of the House.
MK: So the majority flipped. So it just suddenly became a lot harder to do any common sense, you know, gun law reform.
HH: Now Captain, I must say, I’ve got to ask your opinion, I don’t know the answer to this, I think it is politically bad judgment on the part of the youth to demonize the NRA, which does a lot of good work on handgun safety, suicide prevention, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation. What’s your opinion on how to approach the blood on the hands rhetoric? I just, I don’t believe it, and I think it’s wrong, and it’s not the way to persuade. And if you have to persuade, you have to do it the way you did it with me in the green room once.
MK: Right. Right. Well, you know, these kids went through something we, you know, hope and pray you know, children don’t have to go through. They were literally in a firefight. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been shot at.
MK: I served in the military. I’ve been shot at over 30-something times, always in an airplane, which is different, but it’s also not what people expect, to some extent. You know, these kids have gone through a really traumatic experience. You know, they’re angry that they were put in this situation, and I think they have a right to be angry at us as adults. You know, we failed to protect them from this horrific thing happening to them, their friends dying, teachers dying in their classrooms. So I think we should give them a little bit of a pass, you know, in their angry rhetoric for a while. You’re right. The NRA does some good things with gun safety and marksmanship. And at the same time, I think, at least I think, and I think others would probably agree, they have become, I mean, just more uncompromising, you know, on this issue, on things, I mean, like you said. You know, background checks, I think people should agree with that. They don’t agree with it. So…
HH: I think the reason is, and tell me if you think I’m wrong about this, is that a lot of gun owners, like my friend, Kurt Schlichter, believe in the slippery slope completely, that, and they like the AR-15. You know, I’m neutral on this. I don’t understand the AR-15, but a lot of people like it. And it’s Constitution to ban it. I just think politically, it’s not going to happen. I think background checks, but they’re afraid of the slippery slope. What do you say to them that…
MK: Well, yeah, you know, I hear that over and over again, and you know, I heard it as I testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee a number of years ago, the slippery slope, right? So I mean, Washington has a hard time doing anything. We can’t pass a budget. Why would you think there’s a slippery slope? I mean, if anything, the slope is made of tar or Velcro, you know, coming from my background as an astronaut. I mean, it is really impossible for Washington, D.C. to almost do anything. So I think it’s…
HH: Oh, that’s a common sense response. That’s the perfect response, because I often argue that in the environmental world in which I live, which is what are you afraid of? There’s not much that gets done out here. Let me ask you about this one, then. When you come up against Republicans who have got gun constituencies, or Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat in North Dakota with a gun constituency, what do you tell them to tell their people? They’ll lose if they are perceived as being weak on the 2nd Amendment.
MK: Well, so Heidi, you know, she voted against Manchin-Toomey. You know, that was in 2013. She’s up for reelection now. So she had, she had a good, solid five years, five and a half years to explain that vote and why she thought that was the right thing to do. And I’ll tell you what. If you lose, I mean, is there some promise out there that we made to these members of Congress that they have a lifetime position?
HH: Good point. Good point. Good point.
MK: I mean, you know, if it’s the right thing to do, they should do it.
HH: Okay, last question, and I hope you come back.
MK: And then maybe the consequences are they do lose.
HH: All right, good, good answer, which is it’s the answer that calls for courage, which you’ve demonstrated again and again. When I also bring this up, people say how are we avoiding accountability for the Broward County Sheriff’s Department? I’m easier on the FBI, because I think the hotline tips are often jumbled and mumbled. But there was a breakdown here, right, at every level.
HH: Social services, police, and so a lot of critics of the march say why aren’t we putting accountability where it deserves to be placed, Captain Kelly? What do you say?
MK: Well, I think, and I don’t think the investigation is completely done, but obviously in the case of what happened in Parkland, I mean, there was, you know, some significant breakdown in, you know, how they dealt with this, this kid, and even how the school resource officer dealt with the actual shooting. I mean, a lot of things went wrong, and people should be held accountable for that. All these situations, every one of these things is going to be, going to be different. Some are going to turn out better than others. Certainly, what happened in Great Mills was an example of that compared to what happened in Parkland, different set of circumstances. But you know, and I hope the folks, you know, that are, if there was some responsibility there, that they, that that is dealt with and there’s some follow up.
HH: And Captain Kelly, there’s a proposal advancing in the California legislature to put an armed policeman on every high school campus, every school campus, actually. Do you agree with that?
MK: Well, I mean, it’s sad we’ve gotten to a point in this country that we need something like that. I am certainly not against it. You know, the problem is, is, and if you talk to anybody who was a Navy SEAL, who’s gone into buildings, who spent a lot of time in firefights, it’s a very difficult situation that they’re in. So you know, these, you know, armed security, hopefully if we do this, we find people that have the right background, and they get training, and then they stay current on the training.
MK: You know, that’s the key. Just putting a retired cop in there and going up against some guy with an AR-15…
HH: No, I agree.
MK: …with his handgun, is probably not going to be incredibly effective. So yeah, I mean…
HH: Yeah, lots of solutions out there. I hope you’ll keep coming back, Captain. I appreciate it. Common sense, Constitutional view, and thank you for your service, our best to Congresswoman Giffords as well.
MK: Thanks for having me on, Hugh.
End of interview.