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Sen. Doug Jones calls on Congress to tackle gun violence in maiden Senate speech

Doug Jones delivered his first speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, calling on lawmakers to enhance background checks and close purchasing loopholes

In his first speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Alabama’s Democratic Sen. Doug Jones called on the U.S. Congress to take action to stem the tide of gun violence.

“It is time, Mr. President, that we have a serious, pragmatic and practical discussion – not a debate, not a negotiation – but a discussion, on the steps that we can take to reduce the harm caused by gun violence in this country,” Jones said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Jones called on legislators to approach the topic from a bipartisan standpoint, referencing former Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin, the last Democrat from Alabama to serve in the Senate, and his outspoken support of compromise.

“I want to speak about an issue that has evaded the broad bipartisan discussions and moderation that Senator Heflin spoke of,” Jones said. “Instead, it is an issue where folks quickly take sides and criticize anyone who disagrees. “

Jones was elected in a hotly contested special election in December, upsetting former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the Republican nominee. Since then, Jones has said he would work across the aisle.

The Alabama Democrat said the Second Amendment and commonsense gun reforms are not mutually exclusive, calling on Senators from both parties to support universal background checks, provisions to raise the purchasing age for semi-automatic guns to 21 and the elimination of purchasing loopholes that allow guns to fall into the wrong hands.

“We can create certain exceptions for concealed carry permit holders and others, but no one should be allowed to take possession of a firearm until they have cleared a background check,” Jones said.

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One specific loophole Jones suggest closing is the “Charleston loophole,” one that allows purchasers to buy a firearm after three days regardless of whether their background check was completed. That loophole allowed Dyland Roof to kill nine parishioners and clergy at the Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston in 2015.

Jones pointed to instances of gun violence in Alabama in recent weeks — events that have also prompted the Alabama Legislature to consider some gun bills, albeit those bills died Wednesday. From the death of Mobile police officer Justin Billa to a shooting that took the life of Birmingham high school student and another that took the life of a longtime nurse at UAB Highlands hospital, Jones said tragedies like those cannot be allowed to continue.

“These stories didn’t grab national headlines, but they are examples of the gun violence that has become commonplace in our communities,” Jones said.

In Alabama alone, 1,046 people died by guns in 2016 — the second-highest rate of gun death in the U.S., a country where more than 38,000 people died of gunfire in that same year.

While calling on Congress to take a tougher stand on gun safety reform, Jones spoke of his own past as a gun-owning hunter, didn’t directly attack the NRA and offered support of the Second Amendment.

“For those who want more gun restrictions, instead of focusing your energy on banning certain weapons — which, as a practical matter will not pass Congress — focus instead on efforts to keep those weapons and others out of the hands of those who would do us harm,” Jones said. “You cannot simply demonize the NRA and other pro-gun groups.”

Jones said the NRA has some extreme views but represents “millions of law-abiding gun owners who are concerned that their right to bear arms is at risk.”

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Instead, Jones, who has attempted to walk the tightrope as a Democratic senator from an overwhelmingly Republican state, said Congress should try to find common ground that could be a balance between hardline liberal and conservative positions.

“Let us find what we can agree on, act on it, and begin to make our country a safer place,” Jones said. “We can be reasonable here because we all want the same thing:  a safer country, a safer world.  At its core, the Second Amendment was an effort to protect Americans.  Let us do the same.”

The U.S. Congress has largely failed to pass any gun reform in recent years, from banning bump stocks to strengthening the background check system, despite two shocking school shootings — one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2013, and the other at Stoneman Douglas. President Donald Trump initially seemed supportive of increased gun control measures but has since backed off of those comments.

“So I ask all of us to consider this question – what is our collective legacy as representatives of the American people and as the members of this hallowed institution?” Jones asked. “I believe it is to leave this body and our country better than we found it.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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