MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After the deadly mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton last weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he will resume talks about legislation to address gun violence when the Senate reconvenes in September. But for many mayors across the country, that's not soon enough. More than 240 mayors have signed a letter to Senator McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asking the leadership to, quote, "immediately call the Senate back to Washington to take action on bipartisan gun safety legislation," unquote.
The letter came under the auspices of the United States Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan group that represents some 14,000 cities across the country. We asked three of the mayors who signed the letter to join us so we could hear more about what's on their minds. Joining us today are Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, Ill. - they're both Democrats. Mayor Bryan Barnett of Rochester Hills, Mich., is a Republican, and he is currently serving as the president of the Conference of Mayors.
And I want to thank you all so much for being here with us.
NAN WHALEY: Thanks, Michel.
BRYAN BARNETT: Thank you.
LORI LIGHTFOOT: Pleasure.
MARTIN: And, Mayor Whaley and Mayor Lightfoot, I just wanted to start by offering both of you our deepest condolences on what your constituents have experienced. I know that everybody knows about what happened in Dayton. But what everybody may not know is that the same weekend, there were two different shootings in Chicago where 11 people were injured and one person died. And I simply want to say to both of you that we recognize how painful this has been for all of you, and we are very sorry.
WHALEY: Thank you.
LIGHTFOOT: Thank you. I appreciate that.
MARTIN: So I just want to start by asking Mayor Whaley whether the legislation that the mayor's group is pushing for - the core of it is requiring broader background checks and prohibiting unlicensed transfers through unregulated secondary sales. Would that have made a difference in what happened in your city, in your opinion?
WHALEY: You know, it's really - we're unsure now as we're - as the investigation continues on with the shooter. But, you know, I think the key point for Daytonians as they chanted to the governor on Sunday night is they want something to move. And so people recognize that, you know, we're the 250th mass shooting of the year. Like, there needs to be some action. And as - you know, if it's background checks, if it's assault weapons, if it's these red flag laws, like, some movement in that direction, I think, is what Daytonians really want to see.
MARTIN: And one of the proposals that was put forth by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine - or, at least, that he seemed to warm to - was introducing so-called red flag laws in Ohio, which would allow courts to issue orders to confiscate the guns of individuals who are deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. Mayor Lightfoot, I understand that these laws already exist in Illinois. Do you think that you've seen the benefit of them?
LIGHTFOOT: Well, I don't think that we've seen the benefit of a circumstance where we have a patchwork of different background check laws across the state. Yes, we have some protections here in Illinois, but what we need is a nationwide system of support to make sure that only people who pass a background check are actually able to possess and own firearms. That shouldn't be so difficult for the Congress to accomplish. It sounds like we have this moment. The president is finally weighing in. Let's get the job done.
MARTIN: And, Mayor, the Chicago Tribune reported that at least 1,600 people have been shot in Chicago this year. So as a person who has unfortunately more experience with this than you probably wish you had, what do you think are the major factors here? And it's one of the reasons it's important that you were able to join us is that there's the shootings that get a lot of people's attention, and then there are these sort of ongoing bouts of violence with - community-based violence is what some people call it. What do you think is the most significant factor here?
LIGHTFOOT: Well, look - what we're experiencing in this city is really a public health crisis. And why I think it's important to frame the epidemic of violence that we are experiencing in that way is it forces us to look at the root causes of violence. We have neighborhoods in our city where the unemployment rate is off the charts, substantial number of people living in poverty. And all of the things that we take for granted as making up a stable, healthy neighborhood don't exist.
So what we've been working on is a much more comprehensive approach to violence that recognizes the racism and segregation and disinvestment - also recognizes that many of our young people are suffering a level of trauma akin to veterans who have done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
MARTIN: So, Mayor Barnett, let me go to you now. As president of the Conference of Mayors, a cosigner of the letter, and you're also a Republican, and your city is a little different. I mean, do you agree, first of all, with the - your other mayors that there is an epidemic here, that there is a public health crisis here?
BARNETT: Yeah, I do. And although, you know, it doesn't raise itself in my city the same way it does in Mayor Whaley and Mayor Lightfoot's city - I mean, I think there is a definite kinship among mayors. You know, but for the grace of God, it could happen in any community. We've seen it happen in urban areas, suburban areas, rural areas, houses of worship, bars. It knows no boundaries, political or otherwise.
And so I think it makes sense for all of us to come together. And the words that Mayor Whaley's residents were shouting echo in my mind - of do something. And I think that's what the conference is trying to do, and these 200 and almost 50 mayors are saying, yeah, there's a long road here, but it starts with at least a step.
MARTIN: So, Mayor Barnett, I wanted to stick with you for a minute here because, I mean, I think one of the frustrations for a lot of people has been that if you look at the polling, you know, a majority of Americans for years have favored a different sort of regulatory framework around guns. But it has been sort of a - kind of an article of faith that specific groups have a very specific point of view on this, particularly people who have a very strong view about expansive gun rights and have been able to thwart that majority desire through various means. And so I want to ask you, why do you think this moment might be different?
BARNETT: Well, I think, you know, it's - certainly, you know, this is a passionate opinion and a passionate topic with a diverse set of personal beliefs held by people across the political spectrum. And even as we gathered these signatures, I had some Republican mayors call me and tell me this is really hard for them. They come in from parts of the country where, you know, this is a really difficult topic for them. They understand what we're trying to do.
And that's why I think the attitude here is to start, right, is not to vilify those folks that can't but to grab the folks that can. And this bipartisan letter that we sign has mayors Republican and Democrat, dozens and dozens of Republicans from big cities and small. And I think, you know, there's just such a tiring of these stories. But I think there is an understanding that there are some really commonsense things here. Polls across the country say 70% to 90% of people support this. This should be able to get done.
MARTIN: I want to ask you of you briefly why you feel that this is the right move for right now. Is this substantive enough? And why this particular move right now? Mayor Whaley, do you want to start?
WHALEY: Right. Well, I mean, I think that the background checks - you know, in the state of Ohio, for example, 90% of Ohioans agree. So anytime you're trying to make movement on legislation, you start where you can get the greatest consensus. And so I'd rather see us get something done than see us get nothing done. And so this background check move from D.C. would be amazing. It's already come through the House. The Senate just needs to hear it and pass it. I think, you know, frankly, they should come next week and get it done. And then we can move forward and continue to work on this issue.
MARTIN: Mayor Lightfoot, what about you?
LIGHTFOOT: Well, I think Mayor Whaley really said it best. Well, I think in an ideal world, we would like a lot more to be done. But we are in a situation where something must be done. And if we need to start with universal background checks and hopefully build more momentum onto that, then so be it. But what I'm most concerned about is after Sandy Hook, Parkland and now more recently Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton and what unfortunately happens in my city of Chicago on a regular basis, we need help now. And we need the Congress to stand up and do its job.
MARTIN: Mayor Barnett, what about you? And I think I'd be particularly interested in what you would say to your fellow Republican leaders who say that this is just too difficult a vote for them and that their constituents just don't support it.
BARNETT: Well, I'd challenge them to go to Dayton and to El Paso and to Orlando and to Las Vegas and some of the other places that Mayor Lightfoot mentioned. You know, before we were talking about this issue, we were focused on another national issue, and that was - you know, is immigration. And it's another example where Congress is in action waiting to find the perfect scenario that, you know, answers every question and checks every box has developed into this untenable situation at the border.
And the folks that are feeling that most are the mayors. And and so it's similar to this where I think mayors have a slightly different perspective than members of Congress and then, you know, members of our statehouses and so forth because we actually have to deal with the problem. You know, we can't, you know, postpone it to a later meeting or come back after recess. These problems, whether they be immigration or gun violence, you know, have to be handled.
And so, you know, I would tell them to get in contact with some of the folks that I've been in contact with. I'll tell you, this is - these are real things. These are real issues that are - you know, that are damaging quality of life and just impacting every aspect of our communities. And, you know, that's why as a Republican, I'm not afraid to talk about these in terms of, listen, I don't know how far down the road we'll get, but if we keep doing what we're doing, we're not even stepping on the street. This at least gets the conversation started. It helps move the process.
And the American public will ultimately decide with their voices and their votes, you know, what they want to see happen with both - you know, both these big issues. But at least we have to get something started.
MARTIN: That's Mayor Bryan Barnett of Rochester Hills, Mich. He's currently serving as the president of the United States Conference of Mayors. We were also joined by Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, Ill.
Mayors, I thank you all so much for speaking with us, and I do hope we'll speak again under happier circumstances.
WHALEY: Me too, Michel.
BARNETT: Thank you so much.
LIGHTFOOT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.